Almost exactly 10 years after my first visit, I have finally made it back to Japan. Call me a basic bitch, but like so many other people, it’s one of my favourite places in the world. And whilst 18 days there wasn’t nearly enough, I did use this time to get some serious eating done. Some of it is Michelin-recommended (though none of them are Michelin-starred – I prefer to spend my time abroad exploring local cuisine that I can’t get back home), some of it is internet-famous, and a lot of it is just tasty-looking things I happened to run across. And with Japan being what it is, almost all of it is delicious. And don’t even get me started on the konbini (convenience store) food – iykyk, and I could start a whole other blog reviewing its many delights.
1 Chome-6-8, Dontonbori
Chuo Ward, Osaka 542-0071
Kushikatsu is an Osaka specialty that I’ve not heard of until relatively recently, and as it turns out, it’s deep-fried stuff on sticks, like a cross between tempura and yakitori. Sign me the bork up. And if you’re talking Kushikatsu in Osaka, then Kushikatsu Daruma will almost inevitably come up. Not only does it have about a dozen branches, it also boasts an enormous mascot front and centre in Dontonbori. You can’t miss it, even if you’re not looking for it. But is it the best kushikatsu in Osaka? Even without having eaten at any others, I can say that it is not. Mind you, I still really enjoyed the meal, but the quality inevitably suffers when the restaurant is designed for pumping through as many tourists as possible. The food is still very good; it just lacks the heart you find at smaller establishments. If you’ve only got a day in Osaka though, and you don’t have a specific recommendation for kushikatsu, then here is as good of a place as any to try this Osakan specialty.
Rating: 13/20 – good start.
Best dishes: garlic chicken, rice cake, sausage (but not the fish sausage filled with cheese, don’t get that).
The Dontonbori Set (1760 yen) is an easy place to start if you’re not sure what you want. With 9 of the most popular pieces – classic beef kushikatsu, all-natural shrimp, rice cake, asparagus, quail egg, tonkatsu, chicken meatball, sausage, fish sausage with cheese – as well as a bowl of Doteyaki (more on that later), it’s a good way to sample what’s on offer.
Between the two of us, we got the Dontonbori Set, as well as a couple of extra skewers at 143 yen each – namely the Squid, Lotus Root, Yam, and the Garlic Chicken Fillet, as well as an extra Rice Cake and Classic Beef Kushikatsu.
The highlights of the bunch included the aromatic garlic chicken, the enormous yet delicate prawn, the sausage, which was surprisingly rich and flavoursome, as well as the rice cake, which really showcased the crunch of the batter against its chewy centre.
Just as worth trying is the Doteyaki – a mellow yet rich miso stew with chunks of beef, sticky tendon, and chewy konjac.
The Salmon Ochazuke (440 yen) on the other hand I ordered as a filler, and it has little to recommend itself beyond that. I mean, the plastic spoon says it all.
1 Chome-5-5, Dontonbori
Chuo Ward, Osaka 542-0071
Okonomiyaki is one of the other big Osakan specialities, and whilst they are dime-a-dozen, especially in the tourist area of Dontonbori, Okonomiyaki Chibo appears to be one of the more popular and well-regarded ones. Showing up right on opening pretty much gets you a seat straight away, and even if you’re not downstairs at the chef’s counter, you will still get a little grill plate on your table for cooking your food, which is pretty cool. Speaking of food though, I have to admit I’m pretty underwhelmed. The food was on the pricy side but quite ordinary, leaving me in no doubt that I should’ve gone elsewhere. But hey, it was one of the only duds of the trip, so I don’t feel too put out.
Rating: 11/20 – overpriced and under-flavoured
In order to preserve some of the theatrics, if you’re sitting away from the main kitchen, they will bring a pre-made okonomiyaki to your table, then top it with the sauces as it keeps warm on your hotplate. The Dontonbori Okonomiyaki (1950 yen) is their best-seller, and it’s filled with a boggling array of ingredients, including pork, prawn, squid, cheese, and stewed beef.
But despite all the ingredients and sauces, the actual eating experience was less than the sum of its parts. I couldn’t really discern any of the individual ingredients, and even with the generous amount of mayo, the whole thing was still on the dry side.
Similarly underwhelming were the Crispy Gyoza (650 yen, 4pcs). I enjoyed the novelty of having the flat, crispy dumplings, but it was much too salty, and also very pricy by Japan standards.
3 Chome-2-28 Nanba
Chuo Ward, Osaka 542-0076
My family have not stopped raving about Rikuro’s Cheesecake (990 yen) for the last 5 years, so I guess there’s nothing for it but to brave the 20 minute queue for the famous jiggly cheesecake. That’s 20 minutes just to buy one y’all; you can’t eat in unless you pre-book at the café. Instead, we found an out-of-the-way place to awkwardly dig into our entire cake, because there was no way I was going to let it get cold.
Ok, now here’s the thing: my preference for Japanese cheesecake runs towards the light yet indulgently smooth and cheesy variety, best represented by the geniuses at 15cenchi Cheesecake. Unfortunately, this is the other type that most people would known from Uncle Tetsu – a super airy, almost souffle-like version. If this is the kind of cheesecake you’re into, then Rikuro’s is as good as it gets. As for me? I might just have to wait for the day 15cenchi expands to Melbourne.
Other Osaka Bits and Bobs
If you’re in Osaka for food, then instead of just sticking with Dontonbori, wander another 10 minutes way to Kuromon Market. This is like a less crowded version of famous Nishiki Market in Kyoto, filled with local produce and ready to eat food.
Every other stall in Osaka sells takoyaki, and whilst some are more famous than others, I feel that any with a rapid turnover is as good as the next. And that’s how I ended up at Takoyaki Wanaka, which I found out later on happens to be one of the more well-known ones. And their Takoyaki (600 yen, 8pcs) is everything it should be – fresh off the griddle with a volcanically hot, gooey centre of fragrant batter of chewy octopus pieces, and absolutely drowned in a combination of mayo and takoyaki sauce.
I was also taken by a serve of Matcha Warabi Mochi (250 yen) from Mitoya, ever since discovering its delights in Arashiyama. Unlike regular mochi, which is made from glutinous rice and is super chewy, this version is made from bracken starch (warabiko), which gives it a much lighter texture, almost reminiscent of jelly. Tossed in just enough matcha powder to counteract its natural sweetness, this is mochi you can down a whole box of without feeling weighed down.
One thing I’ve been dreaming about since my first visit to Japan in 2013 is the freshly roasted dango I had outside of Nishiki Market. This Dango (300 yen) I grabbed in Dontonbori wasn’t quite up to the same level, and didn’t have the intoxicating smokiness I remember, but it does come with a very delicious sweet soy sauce.