|Having a cold one at the Aoyama
Street dining has
gone upscale. Matt Wilce samples some of the city's best yatai fare.
Once the preserve of sozzled salarymen looking for a quick slurp of ramen, yatai
(street stalls) have gone through a gourmet renaissance of late. While noodles, oden and
yakitori are still the mainstay of many street vendors in the business districts, in
upscale neighborhoods such as Daikanyama and Aoyama a new breed of yatai are woking and
rolling through the streets. In addition to the old favorites, yatai now offer everything
from duck and steak to espresso and pearl tea.
A la cart
Yatai - literally meaning cart with roof - trace their origins back to the Edo period,
when vendors first started to wheel their wares through the street. In the past they were
often associated with the seedy side of Japanese life, with many stalls being controlled
by the yakuza. While today's upscale roving establishments are gangster free, some of the
basic stands are still run by those indebted to yakuza or are overseen by an
"organization." Often owners have to make "gratitude" payments to the
local underworld to ensure hassle-free operation, but new van-style vendors are
increasingly likely to neutralize potential problems from the yakuza and police by leasing
space outside a building or obtaining official documentation. Technically, licenses are
required to run a stand and many local authorities have become more lenient with new-style
yatai in recent years, with around 820 licenses issued in 2000 - although that was a
significant decline from the yatai's heyday, when around 4000 were granted.
Dwindling numbers of stalls in the old business districts of Shinbashi, Gotanda and
Nihonbashi attest to the downturn in traditional yatai. Even in Fukuoka, the spiritual
home of Japanese yatai, street-traders have been having a hard time. Back in 1996, a group
of yatai were shut down by the city because they were supposedly blocking the raised lines
blind people use to navigate. In Tokyo, concerns about hygiene at old-style stands and
complaints from shopkeepers are contributing to the decline.
Huddled together in the shadow of the UN University on Aoyama Dori, a handful of new
stands have been serving the locals since late last year at what has become known as
Aoyama Yatai Mura. Kasahara-san started his gourmet stall in December-after leaving a
regular career as a salaryman behind-to now dish up such outre street fare as
duck sashimi and stir-fried asparagus in oyster sauce. Kasahara cooks whatever is fresh
that morning at the market, so his menu often ranges from sazae (turban shell) to
grilled matsutake mushrooms - items more commonly found in full-fledged
restaurants. Sharing facilities with his neighboring stall, Kasahara is able to offer
slightly more traditional fare such as yakitori and icy draft beer - which even comes with
otsumami (small snacks), just like a regular izakaya.
Courtesy of NYHD
pushcarts have trundled through the city for centuries, a different slant on street fare
has been imported from the States. New York Hot Dog aims to bring an authentic taste of
the Big Apple to convert Tokyoites to a new variety of fast food. Owner Shibata-san spent
over a year importing the cart, hot dogs and condiments direct from New York to ensure his
dogs are the real thing. Although there were a few problems getting everything
rubber-stamped initially, Shibata has found owning Japan's first hot dog push cart to be
relatively trouble-free. Try one of Shibata's fresh dogs with sauerkraut, relish, mustard
and onions or sample the chili dog with chili sauce, onions and jalapeņo.
For a sit-down affair, pull up a chair at Big Mom's stand on Meiji Dori. Serving up rice,
ice-cold brews and choice cuts and vegetables on mini hibachi, Big Mom, being a Fukuoka
native, knows the yatai business inside out. Complaining that Tokyo stands are boring
compared to the variety found down in Kyushu's yatai capital, Big Mom aims to add
something a little different to city's street menu.
While traditional yatai are pushcarts with seats arranged outside under an awning, the new
breed of motorized stalls tends to offer their wares to go. Mostly serving Western
favorites such as kebabs, burritos and wraps, these imported food stands are offering
roadside diners new fast food options to compete with your regular ramen and ordinary
After 27 years in New York feeding Manhattanites, the owner of Wrap 'n Roll has brought
tortilla-style wraps to the streets of Daikanyama. Located on Yamate Dori, the van is easy
to spot on weekends due to the snaking line of hungry customers. Farther up the road, near
the Tokyo Baptist Church, is parked Kiki. Specializing in authentic Chinese dishes such as
deep fried meat buns and rich soups, Kiki's customers can take their treats to the nearby
Saigoyama Park for an alfresco feast.
More Asian flavors appear at Traveler's Cafe Saku, which regularly roves the business
district dishing up Vietnamese curries, pearl tea and other favorites that the owners
sampled on their preparatory six-month sojourn around Asia. To track down their van, log
on to www.sakuTcafe.com (Japanese
only), which is updated daily with their location and menu. If you're after Korean
delicacies, head to Okubo and try Hotok's hotcakes.
Roppongi regulars, such as our favorite blond early bird, are known to sing the praises of
the "Chicken Man," who's known for his rotisserie, roast potatoes, cheese bread
and herb rice. Brainchild of chef Yves Ephoevi-ga - from Togo via France and Belgium - the
bright purple van serves up the same sumptuous rotisserie previously found in his
Takadanobaba restaurant Le Carnassier (unfortunately now closed). Two Roti France vans now
prowl the Marunouchi area dishing up their spinning chickens.
While Seattle's multinational coffee continues to dominate the market, alternative sources
of gourmet java can be found right on the street. Motoya Express' fleet of vans have
permanent homes in some of the city's swankiest neighborhoods, where they've up an
exclusive blend of Arabica beans since their first cuppa was brewed in Daikanyama five
years ago. Regular espresso, cappuccino and lattes are supplemented by Hawaiian ice
coffee, their original milk and bean drink, Juban, and delicious pastries from The
Meridian Grand Pacific's bakery, making Motoya Express the perfect place for breakfast on
the move. One regular at the Azabu branch who turned out to be the top dog at Benetton was
so taken with the coffee that he offered Motoya Express a free space outside his new
building on Omotesando. Following in their wake, a number of other cafe-style yatai have
popped up - checkout Towering Feel Cafe's refreshments, also in Daikanyama.