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It’s gyōza’s time. In the past, these tasty little pan-fried (or steamed, or deep-fried) dumplings were relegated to a subsidiary role. They were what you ordered as a snack to accompany your first, thirst-quenching flagon of beer while you decided what you wanted for the rest of your meal.

These days things are different. Whether steamed (sui-gyōza), pan-fried (yaki-gyōza) or deep-fried (age-gyōza), they are now topping the bill, sometimes even morphing into new, hybrid styles far from their roots in Chinese cuisine.

Here are five of Tokyo’s current favorite gyōza spots, some old-school, others newer and pushing the envelope of creativity. What unites them is their quality, flavor and uncompromising celebration of this humble classic.

If it ain't broke: Yasubei began as a street stall 50 years ago, but its dumpling recipe remains the same. | COURTESY OF MFC GROUP
If it ain’t broke: Yasubei began as a street stall 50 years ago, but its dumpling recipe remains the same. | COURTESY OF MFC GROUP

Ebisu no Yasubei

Yasubei doesn’t conceal its roots, it celebrates them. Born exactly 50 years ago as a humble street stall in Shikoku, over the years it has expanded first to a stall inside Kochi’s legendary Hirome Market and then to brick-and-mortar restaurants around the prefecture. But it’s never changed its fun, friendly, no-frills style — or its brilliant dumpling recipe.

Both steamed and pan-fried gyōza can be ordered either with garlic or without. Either way, the seven-piece serving is made to order by hand, and they’re so light and easy to eat you’ll find yourself ordering refills almost immediately.

Yasubei also boasts a small menu (available in English, too) of izakaya tavern foods, such as oden, tofu and shutō (fermented fish innards), with good sake (from Kochi Prefecture, of course) to go with them — all at street-stall prices. What’s not to like? The line: Get there by opening time, or expect to wait up to an hour.

Hagiwara Bldg. 1F, Ebisu 4-9-15, Shibuya-ku 150-0013; 03-3445-3008; www.mfc-group.jp/yasube

From side dish to main menu: A plate of Nihao's yaki-gyōza (pan-fried dumplings) | ALWAYSUDON
From side dish to main menu: A plate of Nihao’s yaki-gyōza (pan-fried dumplings) | ALWAYSUDON

Nihao

Overlooking the quiet, low-rise Nishihara shōtengai (shopping street) to the west of Shinjuku, Nihao’s second-floor dining room is a place of pilgrimage for gyōza enthusiasts and fills up each evening as soon as it opens. That’s the point at which chef Yoshiro Nishino and his assistants start preparing and cooking their dumplings.

Place your first order (one sui-gyōza, one yaki-gyōza) straight away, along with some side dishes to nibble on as you wait. The banbanji (“bang bang” spicy chicken) and hotate to kyūri (scallop and cucumber spicy salad) are especially good. The age-gyōza are also great, but very filling.

Besides beer, shōchū and sake, Nihao also offers a small selection of wine, or BYO for a modest corkage fee. Better yet, it’s entirely nonsmoking. Little wonder the Michelin Guide Tokyo has awarded it a Bib Gourmand for the past five years. Reservations essential.

Matsumoto Bldg. 2F, Nishihara 2-27-4, Shibuya-ku 151-0066; 03-3465-0747; bit.ly/nihaogyoza

No soy sauce here: Minmin's yaki-gyōza are served with a simple vinegar and black pepper sauce. | OSCAR BOYD
No soy sauce here: Minmin’s yaki-gyōza are served with a simple vinegar and black pepper sauce. | OSCAR BOYD

Minmin

This old-school Chinese diner hidden in the residential streets between Aoyama and Akasaka offers an extensive menu of simple Chinese dishes, from stir-fries to noodles. But it’s the yaki-gyōza that are the main attraction here, drawing aficionados from afar.

They’re well worth the wait (up to 10 minutes when the kitchen is busy). Larger than average, they have slightly thicker than usual wraps, all the better for holding in the moist, juicy pork meat. Pan-fried to a perfect, golden-mottled color, they’re as close to being the archetypal classic gyōza as you’ll ever need. Don’t ask for soy sauce, chili or mustard: The only dip provided is vinegar with black pepper. No exceptions made.

If you’re still hungry, or sharing between two, the deep-fried gyōza are equally excellent, especially with an order of noodles on the side — or perhaps the house-special “dragon” fried rice, thus named because it’s so loaded with garlic it turns your breath to fire.

Akasaka 8-7-4, Minato-ku 107-0052; 03-3408-4805; bit.ly/minmingyoza

Pan-fried, crisp and golden: Raku's Kobe-style gyōza come in a half-dozen varieties such as shiso (perilla) or Italian herb. | ROBBIE SWINNERTON
Pan-fried, crisp and golden: Raku’s Kobe-style gyōza come in a half-dozen varieties such as shiso (perilla) or Italian herb. | ROBBIE SWINNERTON

Raku

Raku’s gyōza are different. They’re long and skinny, in the Kobe style, and come in half a dozen varieties, such as with shiso (perilla), pakuchī (coriander) or even Italian herbs added to the meat fillings. Each is little more than a single bite, but they’re pan-fried and served in crisp, golden packages of eight at a time with their own recommended dips and seasonings (salt, lemon juice or soy sauce). You’ll also find a small list of salads and side dishes, and a good choice of beverages.

It’s a tiny place, little more than a hole in the wall, hidden away in the warren of back alleys behind Shinbashi Station. So give yourself plenty of time when heading there — first to find it, and then to wait your turn outside. Once inside, there are just two small tables plus a tiny, cramped counter that only seats seven. Be warned: It’s a serious squeeze.

Shinbashi 4-11-5, Minato-ku 105-0004; 03-3433-1633; www.gyoza-raku.com

French flair: Gyoza Bar Comme a Paris' gyōza are served with three flavorful dipping sauces. | CLAIRE WILLIAMSON
French flair: Gyoza Bar Comme a Paris’ gyōza are served with three flavorful dipping sauces. | CLAIRE WILLIAMSON

Gyoza Bar Comme a Paris

No matter how good gyōza taste, it’s hard for these proletarian dumplings to shed their cheap-cheerful, downmarket image. So, how to rectify that? By reinventing them with a Parisian feel, to be nibbled on with insouciance and savoir-faire, preferably with a bottle of vin rouge on hand.

That’s the idea behind Gyoza Bar Comme a Paris, and it’s proved an enduring hit on the affluent Aoyama side of Shibuya. The gyōza are light, flavorful and contain nary a hint of garlic. There’s both vegetable and meat versions, one with pakuchī and even a cheesy onion-gratin gyōza, with dips inspired by French sauces.

There are simple salads and side dishes too, albeit with only a very loose French connection. Most importantly, though, the space is attractive and clean, the wine list is affordable and it’s stylish enough for a date. Gyōza worth dressing up for: Quel bonheur!

Shibuya 2-2-4, Shibuya-ku 150-0002; 03-6427-6116; www.aoyama-gyozabar.com

Honorable mentions

For most people in Japan, gyōza are a quintessential drinking snack, no matter what’s in your glass. Here are five more gyōza places that take their alcohol as seriously as their dumplings.

On the outskirts of Nakameguro, funky Ohka The Bestdays offers a range of good craft beer to go with its excellent homemade gyōza. Meanwhile, in the Asagaya area, Wash1n Tokyo provides a similar mix of microbrewed beer along with its signature dumplings.

From the outside, Gyoza no Keri looks little different from the other modest drinking holes that proliferate in Jinbocho. But it boasts an eclectic drinks menu that pairs perfectly with its creative takes on the genre — blue cheese, foie gras or spicy mutton gyōza, anyone?

Conveniently located by Shinagawa Station, Gyoza Mania serves aged shao-xingjiu rice wine to commuters who drop in on their way home from work.

Moving into more sophisticated territory, the self-styled “Champagne & Gyoza Bar” (official name Stand-Shan-Shoku) now has three locations in Tokyo. The original Shinbashi address is the most intimate; the Akasaka branch is more spacious; and the newest, in Ebisu, is the most polished of the three.

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