Dotonbori Food Street Guide – Osaka, Japan
Nestled deep in the Kansai region of Japan is a city called Osaka often under appreciated about its foodie culture. Sometimes known as Japan’s Kitchen, restaurants and food stands in Osaka can serve up some of the freshest seafood because the city is by the coast as well as some of the finest cuts of beef due to the proximity of the region. One of the main food attractions as well as one of the top tourist sites is called Dotonbori Street, which can sometimes be called The Bright Heart of Osaka. A straight canal cuts through the brightly lit billboards and advertisements at night which create a wonderful mashup of loud, flashing lights which illuminates the street vendors and store fronts of all the amazing restaurants filled with people chowing down on some of the best foods in Japan. If you were to pick up Times Square in New York City and replace the English advertisements with Japanese writing and drop it in the middle of Osaka, you have Dotonbori Street. Enough with describing the setting, let’s talk about what is good to eat here.
Ichiran Ramen is nestled in one of the side streets of the Dotonbori where all the restaurants are smaller ramen shops. The piping hot Tonkotsu broth which can be flavored to your liking (light to ultra rich) combined with a customized noodles texture (extra soft to extra firm) is served right through a “magic ramen window”. Seating is bar style with high walls on each side of you, cubby style, which brings back memories of sealing your social life and cramming in countless hours of studying at the library during hell week in college.
You first line up to order your meal at a vending machine where you will select what kind of extras, such as the premium pork, you want in your ramen (they only serve one kind of ramen). Insert your Japanese Yen and then out comes an order ticket. The workers will then hand you a meal ticket where you can circle your ramen preferences while you continue standing in line, waiting for an open seat. This is definitely an experience as most other ramen shops don’t allow you to customize your meal to this extent. You can choose your Flavor Strength, Richness, Garlic Levels, Amount of Green Onions, Yes or No Sliced Pork (who picks no?), the spicy level (up to 20x) and the noodle’s texture (whether you like them al dente or on the softer side). By the time you finish deciding back and forth between ultra rich and a medium broth flavor, its seating time. Red and green lights on a wall turn on corresponding to which bar seat is open, similar to those smart parking garages that have green indicators above empty parking spots. When you sit down, you are flanked by some paper towels, a water tap and a discreet button which you will press to hand the completed meal ticket over. The curtain rises and a hand pops in to grab the ticket and the fun wait begins. Right before your perfectly prepared bowl of ramen is ready to be served, you will hear a pleasant sounding chime, similar to the arrival tone that plays on the Shinkansen. The curtain draws up once more, and this time the mysterious individual who you never see their face presents the bowl of piping hot soup in front of you along with an uncracked soft boiled egg and leaves, allowing you to slurp in peace.
Matsuzakagyu Yakiniku M Dotonbori
My brother’s birthday just happened to be during the same week we were in Osaka so knowing that he lives and breathes for a good piece of steak, especially Wagyu (Japanese cattle), we booked a teppanyaki place in the Dotonbori. This place was top rated on TripAdvisor so we had to check it out. Considering we got lucky and booked a last minute reservation for 9 people, we saved our stomachs that morning at Kuromon Market and darted over for lunch at Matsuzakagyu Yakiniku M Dotonbori.
Kobe beef is known in America because it is a heavily marketed cattle breed. It is one of the few breeds that can be exported out of Japan, however due to Japan’s strict export rules, other great Wagyu brands such as Matsusaka or Ohmi never make it overseas, meaning you have to go to Japan to get the best cuts.
At Matsuzakagyu Yakiniku M Dotonbori, we opted for a set menu for 6 people which promised 6 different cuts of the finest Matsusaka beef including sirloin steak, rib eye, ohtoro karubi, kyukyoku, short rib and a leaner cut. As it was my first time having any meat with this supreme marbling, I allowed my brother, who was a veteran at eating Wagyu to cook the meats for me. I asked for my cut to be medium rare, per usual standard American steak, however he said it wouldn’t taste good that rare. Because the beef is so fatty with its perfect shiny marbling, eating a rare piece of Matsusaka beef will be chewy. Instead, he along with the waiters insisted that we cook the meat a bit more well so that allows the fat to render and burn a little bit.
The first bite into my inaugural Wagyu cut was heaven. The meat was extremely crispy on the outside, thanks to the layer of fat and tender like a slice of salmon sashimi. The unique properties of Wagyu allows for this when cooked at a environment which included our hot gas grill. The next 5 cuts of meat disappeared as quickly as the 1.5 hours that we spent eating as we savored each and every bite.
Which cut of meat was my favorite? Ohtoro karubi by far. Worth a detour and a visit to have some of the rarest cuts of meat out there.
Melonpan Bun Ice Cream Truck
After a savory bowl of spicy ramen at Ichiran (see above), we wanted to cool our tongues and our bodies (it was a warm, humid night) with some ice cream. We had walked past the green food truck earlier in the day however decided against it because there was no one in line, however the warm, buttery smell of the bread drew me back in later that evening. The line was at least 50 people deep but that didn’t stop us from waiting 30 mins to experience what everyone around us were having.
The name of the dessert is a Melonpan Bun, however it is quite misleading since there actually is no melon in the bread, it only resembles one. The bread itself is circular with raised puffy squares that isn’t as sweet as you’d think. The piping hot bun is cut open in half and a paddle of ice cream is shoveled into the center. Unifying hot and cold flavors are one of the most amazing things you can do to a dessert and each square that you bite down on puffs a hot steam of warm buttery goodness while the ice cream melts slowly in your mouth at the same time. The entire ice cream sandwich was devoured in less than 7 minutes. My only regret that day was not having it after lunch as well.
Takoyaki Octopus Ball Stands
These ball shaped Japanese snacks are made with flour, then cooked in a circular pan and cooked to a crispy perfection. Inside these round, savory doughy goodness are little small pieces of octopus (shrimp is available too for the less adventurous). On the outside, it is typically sprinkled with some green onion, tenkasu (tempura scraps), pickled ginger and a good helping of Japanese mayo. Takoyaki can be found all throughout Dotonbori Street and they usually are served in bunches of 6 on top of a bamboo leaf plate. Be careful about this delicious snack, because the dough inside is as hot as the sun and will burn every crevice of your mouth.
Okonomiyaki Savory Pancake
I first had Okonomiyaki fairly recently in the United States at one of the local Japanese restaurants and I thought it was an interesting mash up of flavors. Resembling a Japanese “pizza” or pancake, many ingredients are mixed onto a flat iron grill and cooked to perfect crispness. The batter is made of a similar flour to Takoyaki however the ingredients usually have shredded cabbage, green onion, pork belly, shrimp, squid and egg. All the food is mixed together, grilled and topped with some mayo art whipped across the pancake. Because Okonomiyaki is fairly dense, you wouldn’t want to eat much after chowing down on this. Although I don’t have a specific restaurant recommendation, many places in Dotonbori Street serves a build your own Okonomiyaki pancake along with an awesome chef experience of watching them cook your masterpiece.
Other Notable Foods
Conveyor Belt Sushi (Kaiten-zushi)
King Crab Stand