Food & Drink

New and old ways to slurp up Japan's original fast food

by Sarah Crago

Special To The Japan Times

Long before Western chain restaurants entered Japan, the nation was nourishing its population with food served fast. Soba noodles — cheap, nutritious, served quickly and slurped just as speedily (while standing) — are one of Japan’s original fast foods and continue to rival burger joints.

Standing soba shops, known as tachigui-soba, tend to concentrate around busy train stations, often inside or even on train platforms. Meals are simple and efficient by design, with orders often taken by a ticket machine outside the shop. After handing your ticket to the service counter your soba will be delivered moments later. Proceed to the standing bar, slurp away and hand your empty tray back upon exiting — it’s all over in minutes. A average bowl of kakesoba (simple soba in a hot broth) is around ¥300 and 304 calories; a Big Mac is ¥380 and 563 calories.

You will be hard pressed to find a really bad bowl of soba in Tokyo, but there are some local superstitions about the best tachigui-soba: Some say the shabbier the decor, the tastier the soba, or that the farther it’s located from a station, the more precise the flavors. Soba Ichi ticks neither of those boxes, but it does serve tasty noodles fast. Located throughout Tokyo, its touch-screen ticket machines greet you before the entrance. The menu starts at a mere ¥300 for your basic kake soba and up to ¥600 for a soba-and-tempura set. Both hot and cold varieties are available, with various toppings including seaweed, fried tofu, mountain vegetables and kakiage (tempura of seasonal vegetables). Though seating is available, standing shoulder to shoulder with fellow commuters to speed-slurp in unison is the preferred option.

Soba Usa is a three-minute walk from Tokyo’s Hanzomon Station and is shaking things up on the standing soba front. The interior and menu are minimal: there are only two choices of soba, Stamina or Basil, served hot or cold. The Stamina comes piled high with nori, thin strips of beef tendon and a very ample serving of chewy buckwheat noodles. The broth is a hearty beef stock with plenty of sliced negi (spring onion).

The Basil is also piled high, topped with lettuce, lightly scrambled egg, thick slices of pork, sesame seeds and a wedge of lemon. The broth is a dark green basil pesto. The fusion of flavors really works and the aromatic basil will help fight any ailment you walked in with.

Shaking things up even more is Minatoya, a soba den with a brooding concrete facade and a dark, black-tiled interior, including a water feature. It looks like fine dining, but the customers are all in and out in minutes. Bowls of soba are presented within seconds of placing an order and standing space is tight at the counter, with barely room for 16 people shoulder to shoulder. The soba comes with a raw egg on the side to crack into the salty shoyu broth. Beneath a mountain of nori are thin strips of pork, sliced negi and a sprinkling of sesame seeds. It’s a large potion to slurp through, but for ¥870 it’s worth it.

Tokyo’s standing soba scene is evolving with many newcomers pushing the traditional style. There is still plenty to like about the shabby counter on a train platform, but there’s space in the soba market for more adventurous slurpers, too. Just remember: ticket admission is standing room only.

Soba Ichi various locations; bit.ly/2f6lH2m; Soba Usa 2-5-2 Kojimachi, Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo; open 11 a.m.-3 p.m. and 5-9 p.m., closed Sun.; Minatoya 3-1-10 Nishi-Shinbashi, Minato Ward, Tokyo; 11.30 a.m.-5 p.m., 5.30-8 p.m., closed weekends and hols.

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