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Korean treats that predate the Wave

by Rebecca Milner

Forget Shin-Okubo’s Koreatown. When I asked Korean friends and acquaintances where to go to find authentic Korean food in Tokyo, several pointed me in the opposite direction, to Akasaka. Specifically, I was told to try the soup at Akasaka Ichiryu Bekkan (2-13-17 Akasaka, Minato-ku, Tokyo; 03-3582-7008).

There’s really only one thing on the menu at Ichiryu Bekkan: seolleongtang, a beef-bone soup largely associated with Seoul. The bones are cooked all day so that the marrow leaches out into the broth, giving the soup a milky white color and a rich, nearly creamy texture. At Ichiryu it is served with a few chunks of tender beef and a generous handful of scallions. You salt it yourself, to taste, at the table.

The menu may be limited, but that’s not taking into account the banchan, the side dishes of kimchi, marinated vegetables and so on that are a big part of any Korean meal. At Ichiryu Bekkan, I counted 11 dishes.

It’s an unassuming place, open 24 hours, with a handful of celebrity autographs on the otherwise bare walls and a rack of newspapers in Korean. Upstairs, on the fifth floor, Ichiryu Honten (03-3583-5278) offers more variety, including suyuk (boiled beef cheeks) and ugeojitang (cabbage boiled in seolleongtang broth).

There are a lot of Korean restaurants in Akasaka, but 50-year-old Ichiryu claims to have been the first. According to the proprietress, like followed like and there are now about 200 Korean restaurants in the neighborhood — easily rivaling Shin-Okubo. In fact, a good number of these predate the Korean Wave that propelled Shin-Okubo to stardom (which is why you won’t see as many idol posters in the windows here).

Another Akasaka joint that came recommended was gogi gui (barbecue) restaurant Supul (4-1-2 Akasaka 2F, Minato-ku, Tokyo; 03-3505-4129). In a district where the options are endless and the competition is fierce, Supul is solid place: not fancy, not grungy, with semi-private rooms fashioned out of plaster and wood and none of those odd metal hoods to suck away the aroma of meat grilling over charcoal. The beef is good quality wagyū and the lunch special is great value.

I did get one enthusiastic recommendation for a place in Shin-Okubo: Shin-chan (1-2-9 Hyakunincho, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo; 03-3200-7388). A Korean classmate of mine noted that Korean food in Japan tends to be sweeter than she’s used to, and not as spicy. Enter Shin-chan, which specializes in spicy fried chicken. “Korea-spicy,” she told me. You can get the chicken, fried or barbecued, spiced to your liking — there are five different levels from which to choose. Incidentally, if you’re craving barbecue hot wings, these should do the trick.

Shin-chan also serves what my classmate called “the best tteokbokki in Tokyo.” Tteokbokki is classic Korean street food, with doughy macaroni and fish cakes in a fiery red sauce. With K-Pop videos on the television and handsome young Korean waiters, Shin-chan is definitely one of those newer joints riding the Korean Wave, but it also looks like someplace that might be fashionable in Seoul.

Korean food is well represented in Tokyo, and if you want to explore some of the other options (and know that you’re getting a reasonably authentic meal), check out the free Korean Restaurant Guide — Tokyo iOS app from the Korean Food Foundation.

Rebecca Milner is a freelance writer in Tokyo and coauthor of Lonely Planet’s travel guides to Tokyo and Japan.