Thanks to Japan’s comprehensive network of bullet trains and regional airports, it’s easy for the culinary adventurer to sample local specialties at their point of origin. The rest of us can just head to the following chain restaurants, which bring local flavors to our doorstep.
Considering how addictive Nagoya’s tebasaki chicken wings are, the folks at Sekai no Yamachan can be seen as providing a much-needed public service. The Aichi Prefecture-based chain, with 75 shops from Kyushu to Hokkaido, serves up a spicy platter of five deep-fried wings for just ¥400. Like Buffalo wings in the U.S., tebasaki are the quintessential party food, and Yamachan’s izakaya-inspired menu complements the dish with a boatload of other local specialties: dote-ni miso stew; kishimen udon; and yakitori skewers made from premium Nagoya Cochin chicken.
Nagoya Cochin (Nagoya)
Speaking of Nagoya Cochin, the celebrated breed can be enjoyed at dozens of shops nationwide run by Tori Sanwa, an old-school chicken-processing company whose history dates to the early Showa Era (1926-89). Renowned for their flavor and juiciness, Nagoya Cochin chickens also take a long time to reach maturity, which helps explains their relatively high cost. But the cooks at Tori Sanwa specialize in off-price dishes such as oyako-don (chicken-and-egg rice bowls), deep-fried kara-age nuggets and yakitori. Most of the shops and takeout stalls can be found in food courts of shopping centers and department stores.
The anything-goes noodle concoction known as chanpon has migrated far from its hometown of Nagasaki in the prefecture of the same name to become a dish enjoyed around the country. It’s easy to see why. Each bowl brims with vegetables, meat and seafood, all swimming in a mild soup of pork or chicken. Ringer Hut, with around 500 outlets across Japan, serves several varieties of the dish (including bowls with miso-based and super-spicy broths), and extra noodles can be added for free. Harking back to chanpon’s putative origins in the Fujian Province of China, the menu of side dishes includes potstickers and fried rice.
Soup curry (Sapporo)
My first experience with soup curry wasn’t eating it, or even seeing it on a menu. It was being hit by a wall of the dish’s piquant aroma from a restaurant whose kitchen fans blew out onto the street. Anyone who has tried soup curry is familiar with the enchanting scent; all others should head to Spice Magic, which hails from the dish’s birthplace of Sapporo in Hokkaido but which has since branched out to Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya. Among the variants are curries made with chicken, pork and seafood, starting at around ¥1,000.
Sanuki udon (Kagawa Pref.)
The B-kyū gourmet craze — a celebration of regional cooking with an emphasis on low-cost, authentic dishes — has elevated the humble noodle from cheap stomach-filler to main-course starring attraction. A case in point is sanuki udon, which hails from sleepy Kagawa Prefecture. At Hanamaru with hundreds of branches throughout Japan, a basic order of sanuki goes for just ¥294. That low price belies the quality of what’s in the bowl — the cooks at each location make all their dough fresh from unbleached flour, and the house-made dashi is heavy on dried iriko sardines. Hanamaru’s menu includes about a dozen add-ins, from salted pork to wakame (seaweed), and there’s a full slate of tempura for heartier appetites.
Miso katsu (Mie Pref.)
As if the breaded, deep-fried pork cutlets known as tonkatsu weren’t enough of a meal, the culinary geniuses in Mie Prefecture made the dish even more savory by slathering it with their renowned red miso. And what did they get for their efforts? Credit for the innovation going to cooks in Nagoya, who now claim the dish as their own. No matter what its background, miso katsu can be enjoyed at a dozen branches of the Yabaton chain, with locations in Kansai, Fukuoka and Tokyo. A basic teishoku set menu goes for ¥1,785, and the cutlets can also be ordered in rice bowls, on skewers and even with curry.
Got room for dessert? Then head to the food floor of your local department store, find the Fukusaya shop, and pick up some of the spongy yellow cake known as castella. The dish’s backstory is well known — it came to Japan via contacts between Portuguese traders and Nagasaki residents in the 16th century — and its enduring popularity attests to the universal pleasure to be had from the combination of flour, eggs and sugar (in this case, syrup made from rice starch). Fukusaya, established all the way back in 1624, now has a presence in depachika throughout the country. Its castella are available in various sizes from ¥1,050.
Steve Trautlein is a freelance journalist eating his way through Japan.