“Hamburger shops are a dime a dozen in Tokyo these days, but there are very few places doing barbecue,” said Lauren Shannon, owner of Bulldog Barbeque (www.bulldogbbq.jp).
By barbecue, Shannon doesn’t mean any old thing thrown on a grill, but rather the tradition of the American South of slow-cooked, smoked meats. If you don’t know it, you’re missing out on some seriously good, authentically American food. If you do know it, you’ve probably lamented that it is so hard to come by in Tokyo.
“It’s the exact opposite of fast food. It takes days of salt rubs, hours of smoking. It takes a lot of love,” Shannon said, as a way of explaining why barbecue is having a moment in the United States right now.
And she hopes it will have a moment in Japan, too: Since last June, Shannon, who also owns Kimono Wine and Grill, has been running Bulldog out of an adorable vintage truck that she and her husband custom-designed. Most days, you can find the truck parked in front of National Azabu supermarket in Hiroo. The menu includes Carolina pulled pork (Shannon’s favorite, served with a sweet-and-sour vinegar sauce), Texas-style beef brisket and smoked chicken, all served on fresh-baked bread with a side of handmade sweet-potato chips.
While Bulldog is scrappy, Tokyo’s preeminent barbecue joint, White Smoke (03-6434-0098; 3-11-2 Moto-Azabu, Minato-ku, Tokyo; www.thebettertable.com), is splashy. Here, the meat, all wood-smoked using no gas or electricity, is paired with California wines and moody lighting. But there’s a DIY element, too: Owner, Texan Craig White, designed the giant smoker, which takes up a good portion of the open kitchen, himself (he used to design car engines). The showpiece dish is the “Dinosaur Rib” (beef short rib; it’s enormous), but the beef brisket — that Texas barbecue staple — is heavenly, too. White Smoke also serves a bunch of rare-in-Japan delicacies such as corn bread, pecan pie and breakfast burritos.
Oddly enough, the place with the distinction of having Tokyo’s first pit barbecue, Hatos Bar (03-6452-4505; Prince Co-op 106, 1-3-5 Nakameguro, Meguro-ku, Tokyo; www.hatosbar.com), is run by a Japanese team. The taste doesn’t give that away (though the portions might): The pork belly and pulled-pork sliders here are delicious. Hatos also has a breezy terrace — perfect for summer evenings — and a vibe that is hip but not at all painfully so.
I’ve also heard good things from a few different people about the barbecue at Baird Brewery’s Bashamichi Taproom (045-264-4961; 5-63-1 Sumiyoshi-cho, Yokohama-shi, Kanagawa-ken; www.bairdbeer.com) — ribs and the like naturally being an excellent match for beer — but haven’t made it down there yet myself.
For pulled pork in the comfort of your own home (or backyard, if you should be so lucky), new expat enterprise Magical Animal (www.magicalanimal.jp) is your answer. American Jeremy Wilgus — an English-teacher in Chiba with a smoker and a dream — can ship his home-smoked meat to anywhere in Japan. And if doing nothing from the comfort of your own home is your thing, Magical Animal also caters parties, bringing its grills and goodies to your event.
Rebecca Milner is a freelance writer in Tokyo and coauthor of Lonely Planet’s travel guides to Tokyo and Japan.