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Cheap or fancy Chinatown feasts

by Steve Trautlein

Dining doesn’t get more democratic than in Yokohama’s Chinatown, where visitors can spend big bucks on a single meal or fill up on steamed buns for a single coin. Here’s a personal guide to some notable dishes; in the spirit of the neighborhood, there’s a selection to suit all tastes and budgets.

Hand-cut noodles at Kyokaro

The most entertaining spot in Chinatown may be outside the picture window at Sichuan restaurant Kyokaroko. There, you can watch cooks use broad, flat blades to shave thin strips from large blocks of dough, letting them fall straight into cauldrons of boiling water. This style of hand-cut noodle — known in Japanese as tōshō-men and in Chinese as dao xiao mian — is the starring element in one of the neighborhood’s most celebrated dishes: Kyokaro’s sweat-inducing spicy dan dan mian (tantan men in Japanese), which sells for just ¥900.

Peking duck at Tenfujou

Chinatown’s better restaurants serve Peking duck as a fine-dining extravaganza, preparing the dish tableside in an elaborate ritual. The cooks at the Minato-Mirai branch of well-regarded eatery Tenfujou will have none of that. Instead, they hack the bird to pieces and plump the meat on a plate alongside slivered cucumbers and scallions, hoisin sauce and thin pancakes for diners to assemble themselves. Just the way we like it. From ¥2,000 for a quarter bird.

Fried rice at Hisuirou

No one goes to Chinese restaurants for health food, but the “jade” fried rice at Hisuirou offers a modicum of guilt-free dining. The dish — a soupy concoction in a striking shade of green — gets its color from the unusual-for-Chinatown addition of spinach. It also includes fresh shellfish and other all-natural ingredients. Try the dish a la carte at lunch or in a set menu at dinner (sets from around ¥2,500).

Chow mein at Jogenrou

With its sophisticated décor and well-dressed staff, Jogenrou, located smack in the middle of the main Chinatown drag, offers a genteel dining experience. But, as we discovered when we showed up for an impromptu dinner with a rambunctious 3-year-old, the restaurant graciously welcomes all comers. The waitress barely flinched at our measly order of shūmai dumplings and seafood chow mein, and the noodles were among the best we’ve had in the neighborhood — silky strands, topped with a starchy sauce of vegetables, pork, scallops, shrimp and squid (¥1,600).

Mapo doufu at Chen Mapo Doufu

Go figure — Yokohama’s most popular mapo doufu (spicy tofu with ground beef) restaurant isn’t even in Chinatown. That distinction belongs to Chen Mapo Doufu, located a few kilometers away in the Queen’s Square shopping mall. The cooks here refuse to pander to local tastes by toning down the Sichuan peppers in their signature dish, which is particularly in demand among workers from nearby offices. Be prepared for long lines at lunch.

Dim sum at Saikoh

Saikoh is one of Chinatown’s most highly regarded restaurants, but its pleasures don’t come cheap: The least expensive course meal at dinner rings in at a cool ¥6,000. That’s why the ¥3,000 yumcha (dim sum snack) course seems like such a steal. It comes with Saikoh’s renowned shrimp crepes; simmered spareribs; steamed dumplings with shrimp and crab; sweet-and-sour pork; and what may be the best fried rice in all of Chinatown.

Crunchy chow mein at Bairan

Call it The Little Noodle Dish that Could: the crunchy chow mein (known in Japanese as kata-yakisoba) at Bairan has ignited a passion that’s spread far beyond Chinatown. The dish, which features a topping of crispy noodles over meat, fish and vegetables, can now be enjoyed at more than a dozen branches of the restaurant throughout the Kanto region. If you’d like to try it at the original shop, you’d do well to bring a map and show up early: The eatery is located on a little-used side street, but it never fails to draw a healthy crowd. From ¥900.

Dumplings at Shofukumon

There’s just one thing we don’t like about the dim-sum floor at the multi-level Shofukumon complex: they don’t take reservations. That makes visiting the popular eatery a risky proposition, as lines often stretch down the block. But once inside the bustling space, diners can enjoy an all-you-can-eat selection of dozens of dumplings — just about every preparation imaginable — for a reasonable ¥2,625. We’re partial to the offbeat steamed shrimp potstickers made with spinach in the pastry.

Steve Trautlein is a freelance journalist eating his way through Japan.