Osaka may not top most bucket lists of cities to visit in the world – or even in Japan, for that matter – but anyone with a deep love of food exploration needs to visit Japan’s third largest city. Known as the “nation’s kitchen,” Osaka is at the center of Japan’s street food culture. But don’t be fooled: Osaka isn’t just about casual dining and izakayas, and has more than its fair share of fine dining establishments – including no fewer than four restaurants boasting three Michelin stars. The great thing about Osaka is that you don’t need to go to these establishments or break the bank to have some of the best food experiences of your life.
While Japan as a whole takes its food incredibly seriously, eating in Osaka goes beyond that. There is even a term used to describe Osaka residents’ love of eating – kuidaore – which roughly translates as “to eat oneself silly”. On a recent trip to the city, my wife and I had the pleasure of experiencing this first-hand.
One of the things that struck me when walking through the streets of Osaka was the sheer number of restaurants on just about every block of every street. I wondered if people ever ate at home because there were hardly any empty seats whenever I’d peek into one of these places. Once I stepped into one, I understood why – in a kuidaore city, every establishment prides itself on the quality of the product put before its customers.
While the kuidaore concept typically refers to the city’s Dotonbori district, an epic bar crawl inspired by Matt Goulding’s book Rice, Noodle, Fish taught us that kuidaore takes place all across the expansive metropolis:
The evening began at five o’clock sharp as all the salarymen were rushing out of their offices and into the nearest izakayas. We headed to Kushikatsu Daruma in the Shinsekai neighborhood where we noshed on various kushikatsu – fried food on a stick – like chicken, sausage, quail egg, lotus root, and more, providing a solid base for the next stop.
After kushikatsu we headed over to Shimada Shoten, a sake shop with a cave-like basement which served as a tasting room. The server presented us with a variety of sake bottles to sample from different regions of the country. Along with the sake, we ordered pickled plums and a fantastic cream cheese that we couldn’t get enough of. Seeing that I was especially enjoying the aged sake, the shop owner asked me to compare the taste of the same sake in a glass cup versus an earthenware cup to show how important the serving vessel is.
By this point the sake had kicked in, and we began looking for our next food spot. We headed over to Toyo Izakaya, an outdoor tachinomi (standing only) bar where the tabletops sit on crates and customers grab their own beers from an ice cooler. Here, we feasted on some deliciously prepared unagi (eel) and fatty tuna sushi rolls which weren’t necessarily elegantly put together, but just melted in your mouth.
Our taxi next took us to Koala Shokudo in the Kita neighborhood to try a famous Osaka comfort food: Okonomoyaki, a pancake or omelette-like dish with egg and cabbage cooked on a teppan (flat-top grill) and topped with pork belly, seafood, onions, and shiso leaves. All delicious and satisfying.
The night was winding down – but we had one spot left. Known for its late night crowds and extremely brief menu, Tenpei was our version of a nightcap. We ordered the entire menu of three items – beer, pickles, and gyoza (Japanese pan-fried dumplings). The minimum order of twenty gyoza per person (served still-sizzling from the teppan) may seem like a lot, but within minutes, you’ll realize you just devoured all of the one-bite dumplings and still want more. Luckily for me, my wife isn’t as fast an eater as I am, and I managed to steal a few of her gyoza – a perfect ending to a truly memorable night of eating.