Nov 27, 2019
Photographed by Shinsuke Matsukawa.
WE WERE SITTING IN A SMALL AND VERY BRIGHT TEMPURA JOINT, THE AIR HOT AND STICKY FROM THE OILY FUMES OF THE FRYER, THAT ENTICING SMELL OF GOLDEN CRISPNESS CLINGING TO EVERYTHING.
Our four-hour flight from Manila to Osaka had been rendered nearly double by painful delays, and when we had finally landed and were out on the town, all we wanted was good food and cold sake. But when we asked, our guide Kuni abruptly said, “No. Try hot sake… with blow fish.”
Blow fish? The famously toxic fugu? Wouldn’t that kill me?
My husband, Jonathan, and I had been planning this trip with another couple, Arrun and Shanaz, for quite some time. We didn’t have much of an itinerary—just an appointment with this highly recommended man about town, Kuni, food guide extraordinaire. Everyone from Manila who has been to Osaka knows Kuni, to the point that he was my friend on Facebook for two years before I even met him. Everyone who had told me he was hilarious and so fun, but when we made his acquaintance, he was almost… gruff.
But we were starving and certainly did not want to question the man who would determine the fate of our hunger. What arrived was a hot cup of sake boiled with a grilled fugu tail, set alight then covered. When the flames died down, I was instructed to sip slowly. The vapors hit my nose like an alcoholic punch; the following sip warmed my entire body. The sharpness of the heated rice wine was made earthy and smoky by the roasted fish tail. It was a strange combination that was surprisingly very pleasant, almost calming, definitely not deadly.
Everything in Tempura Tarojiro was divine, not greasy, but light and airy with a perfect crunch. A simple kakiage of julienned vegetables was truly next level. By the time a suspicious plate of white balls came to our table, I was all in. Kuni didn’t have to tell me what it was—I knew. And that sperm sac was pretty damn good. OK, Kuni. You have my trust.
Under the bright lights and waving mechanical crab legs of eating strip Dotonbori, we let him guide us through the night, and straight into its depths. Turned out Kuni had just had a tiff with a sushi chef—as you do—but he was in fact as fun as advertised. Following him, his recommendations and our own internal compasses, we went on a decadent food and alcohol journey, spanning Osaka’s eating and drinking spectrum, from a temple to the most deliriously melt-in-your-mouth beef I’ve ever had, to a proper izakaya with killer tori karaage and the town’s famous takoyaki squid balls, to a tiny watering hole from a Tarantino movie in which Gloria Estefan got everyone on their feet.
It’s not a secret that strange things can happen in crazy, urban Japan. Tokyo alone offers innumerable opportunities for going through parallel universes—and the only way to experience it is to let the city own you and engulf you.
Osaka, however, is completely different. The strangest, most unusual situations come up at you from nowhere, and you embrace it. And perhaps more importantly, it embraces you back, warmly and joyously. The city’s nickname is “Japan’s Kitchen,” a good hint that food here comes with a lot of heart. Unlike in Tokyo, with twice as many Michelin stars and therefore restaurants booked out months in advance, in Osaka I felt at home, not like an outsider looking in, but an integral part of the dynamic energy the city possesses. I set out to explore the city guided by its very own motto, “kuiadore”—eat until you drop.
As the evening wore on, Kuni warmed up. Maybe it was our company, or maybe it was the beef. In a little black room, the light only shone on the griddle and the meat. The altar was set for its glorious sacrifice. The process of getting this precious Matsusaka beef from Mie prefecture so marbled that it’s pink not red is a closely guarded secret. But I’d say the cattle’s royal treatment must extend beyond the beer-feeding and massage-giving to produce such incredible flesh. We followed Kuni’s orders, lightly searing the meat on the flames. No adornment needed. The sauces and the salts were unnecessary. We ate with reverence and drank with merriment.
Kuni then took us to his favorite bar, a 10-seater named Crystal run by a Romanian named George. He joined us for countless shots of cold Jaeger and a precarious game of drunken Jenga. We asked if we could put on our own music and George said yes. We took over the bar, we made it our own and everyone knew all our names in quick order.
For some reason we left for a club. After I found myself dancing on the ledge between two stripper poles, everyone felt it was time to go home. But to the dismay of tired Jonathan and Shanaz, “home” for me, Arrun and Kuni was back to Crystal. As we entered, the whole bar cheered and applauded with joy at our return. As a swansong, we played Bohemian Rhapsody and got everyone singing, crying out for their mamas. It was incredible, we were invincible, or at least I felt so: I wound up in a sparring session outside the bar with an old man who turned out to be a former boxing coach. The night could have kept going. Karaoke perhaps? My husband laughingly shook his head no and basically dragged me home.
Osaka is hangover heaven. From ramen to kushikatsu (panko-fried skewered meat and veggies) to fluffy soufflé pancakes to their other famous griddle cake, the umami-loaded okonomiyaki, there is something for every craving. It seems as though the whole city is enveloped in a perpetual delicious fog from the billows of smoke and steam that rise from the various pots, skillets, cauldrons, ovens, griddles and grills that line the busy streets. Kuromon Ichiba Market is a prime example of this, a place where even the most disciplined and serene foodie will have a serious case of whiplash. I couldn’t help but turn my head in excitement every two seconds. From swimmingly fresh seafood in aquariums to hand-pulled noodles to obscenely large strawberries, it was quite literally a feast for the senses.
I could not resist the allure of grilled snow crab. Two-fingers wide and as long as my forearm, the crustacean legs are fired over a coal hibachi and served as is. Again, there was no need for sauce or seasoning: it was like a salty, briny, fluffy cloud of Neptunian goodness. Then I had fresh sea urchin, served directly in the shell with just a smidgen of tamari and grated wasabi—it was so plump and sweet I could only close my eyes, blush and let out a soulful sigh.
I don’t usually have a sweet tooth but in our quest for coffee we passed by a corner shop that smelled invitingly divine, like a beautiful mix of sugar and dough. Naruto Taiyaki is known for red-bean or yellow sweet-potato paste–filled cakes shaped like fish and, that February morning, I couldn’t resist their fresh, piping hot confections. I gingerly took a nibble. The golden, crisp outside yields to a silky smooth sweet paste. It took expert precision to not get burnt: bite, blow and chew, bite, blow and chew.
Another not-to-be-missed experience is the cheese toast at Marufuku Coffee Shop. The 80-year-old institution serves an excellent, strong siphon-brewed coffee but also, more surprisingly, a cheese toast that’s somewhat like a Croque monsieur but not quite. Made with what was probably the most pillowy white bread I’ve ever encountered, topped with a mixture of egg yolks, butter and cheese, then gratineed, it felt like a truly indulgent and comforting childhood snack.
As if we hadn’t eaten enough, we made our way to Gyoza-Oh! for dinner. I’m a sucker for dumplings. I love how one small package can hold the perfect little serving of meat, vegetables and juices, and my favorite incarnation is the gyoza. Crisp and browned on one side, steamed and paper thin on the other, the heady touch of sesame, and the bright tang of ponzu. It’s all kinds of hangover heaven in a single bite. The restaurant surprised us with a beautiful Japanese wine, Kawachi Osaka white made from a local grape—it was light and citrusy and perfect with the yuzu-tinged gyoza.
We wanted a last drink on our final night. A Google search brought us to Top Rank, a jazz bar whose sign outside read in bold letters: WE ARE EXPENSIVE. It was a dusty place, filled from top to floor with records and old-fashioned high-quality glass-tubed Hi-Fi systems. The owner stared at us like we weren’t welcome because we didn’t seem serious enough about the music so we politely eased our way out. It turned out that the building housed a bunch of other highly specialized music bars, so we figured, why not explore?
What happened next was pretty much like a Scooby-Doo cartoon, where you’re in one door and out another into different worlds and parallel universes. One entryway opened to a dark space with men in berets and cigarette smoke filling the air, beatnik jazz in the background. Another revealed an even darker space covered in Rolling Stones paraphernalia and a jack-o’-lantern suspended in the air. Two ladies with way-too-long hair and band shirts smiled at us, like good witches from the kingdom of rock-and-roll. It felt like if we entered, we would get stuck in this dark, odd blip in the time-space continuum.
So, we did an about-face. We had to call it a night. It was Sunday. We were wandering aimlessly. Everything was too stuffy, too serious, had too high of a cover charge, felt just plain strange. We began disappointedly walking home along the large avenue we always took; usually bright with gaudy lights and eateries, it was darkened by Sunday closures. But underneath the overpass on the second floor of a nondescript building was a window with flickering lights. The window was filled to the brim with what was, upon closer inspection, a display of all kinds of canned goods framing a small sign: Bar Linda. We looked at each other and shrugged. A canned-goods themed bar? Let’s do it.
Who knew this would be the highlight of our trip?
We climbed up the stairs, which opened up into a small room with a U-shaped bar. Two gentlemen sat at the corner, one in a well-tailored suit, clean cut with eyeglasses. The other, wearing a French-style mariniere, sat legs-crossed on the counter, languidly smoking a cigarette. The bartender incongruously had a welcoming round faced, and was happily housed in his little personal stadium at the very center of the place. All eyes turned to us. “What were we doing here?” they asked. “We just wanted a drink,” we half-smiled hopefully.
One drink turned into two and then three and pretty soon they were popping open cans of mackerel with flourish, like they were bottles of champagne, shouting, “Happy Birthday!” to Arrun though it wasn’t exactly. With a combination of minimal English and hand gestures, we all became fast friends. One of the men stepped out to buy us chocolates as a present, and the other created an Instagram account just to follow me. The bartender let us take over the music until the man in a suit exclaimed, “Cong-gah!,” exuberantly lifting one arm over his head and tossing the other across his chest in a comical flamenco pose. Just then, the familiar strains of Gloria Estefan’s hit came on the stereo—”Come on shake your body, baby, do the conga”—and our motley crew of seven started wiggling our shoulders and banging our chopsticks on the glasses and bottles. It was all kinds of weird and amazing and was the perfect sendoff from a town that had made us feel right at home.”
“EAT TILL YOU DROP” IN JAPAN’S KITCHEN
STRAP ON THE FEEDBACK AND HEAD TO OSAKA FOR A LONG WEEKEND; THERE ARE DIRECT FLIGHTS FROM ALL THE MAJOR CITIES IN SOUTHEAST ASIA.
Osaka Food Crawl with Kuniyoshi Okamoto
Kuni will plot a dining and drinking tour based on your likes, and if you’re lucky, even bring your to his favorite bar. WhatsApp or Viber: +81 80 41421754; Instagram: @toyonaka_bunny; tours from ¥15,000 per person for three locations in three hours for two people, all food included.
Matsusaka Gyu – Yakiniku M
Dark interiors set the stage for excellent beef. matsusaka-projects.com; Matsusaka tasting platter from ¥3,000 per person, Matsusaka and Wagyu tasting platters for two from ¥13,800.
Ultra-fresh sashimi and über-crisp tempura are the two lures here. tarojirou.com; food and drinks for two ¥3,000.
The paper-thin wrappers crisp nicely on the outside, while keeping the inside succulent. Perfect little gyozas! Vegetarian options available, too. fb.com/gyozaohdotonburi; +81 6 6210 4403; food and drinks for two ¥3,000
A cozy, authentic Japanese-style pub with great karaage and takoyaki. sumiyakiyo.com; food and beer for two ¥1,800.
Marufuku Coffee Shop
Old-fashioned interiors with excellent siphon coffee and the fluffiest cheese toast around. 1-9-1 Sennichimae, Chuo-ku; +81 6 6211 3474; food and coffee for two ¥1,200.
A great little fish-shaped snack that definitely hits the sweet spot. 2-7-2 Sonezaki, Kita-ku; taiyaki.co.jp; red-bean pancakes ¥180 per piece, sweet-potato pancakes ¥200 per piece.
Kuromon Ichiba Market
The best place to satisfy all food cravings. visit anytime between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. to find the most market stalls open. 2 Chome-4-1 Nipponbashi.
Crystal Dive Bar
A small bar with lots of good energy. A great place to mix with both locals and foreigners. fb.com/crystalbarosaka; drinks for two ¥1,200.
Best described as a quirky neighborhood local, perfect for a nightcap and a good chat with the bartender. 1-18-10 Nambanaka, Naniwa-ku | Shibuya Bldg. 2F, Naniwa; +81 6 6647 7050; beers from ¥480.