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FEATURE
A moveable feast



Having a cold one at the Aoyama Yatai Mura
Kielly Ramos

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.

NYHD
Courtesy of NYHD

While traditional 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.

Culinary vanguard 
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 oden.

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.

Motoya Express
Stuart Braun

Bean there
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.


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ISSUES 349-
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Also check MINI FEATURES
Yatai address book

Locations and operating details may change without notice. Stalls closed in inclement weather.

Aoyama Yatai Mura (yakitori, steak, seafood, ramen), UN University Plaza, Aoyama Dori. Open 6:30-late, closed Sun. Nearest stn: Omotesando

Big Mom’s (hibachi grill), Meiji dori near Miyashita Park. Open: [ASK SALLY] Nearest stn: Shibuya

Kiki (Chinese), in front of Saigoyama Park, Daikanyama. Open 11:30am-2:30pm. Nearest stn: Daikanyama

Le Chien de Berger (crepes), in front of Saigoyama Park, Daikanyama, tel: 090-8802-4405. Open noon-6pm. Nearest stn: Daikanyama

Motoya Express (coffee), tel: 03-5704-0755. Locations include Omotesando (next to Benetton and Foxey Aoyama), Hiroo (outside National Azabu supermarket) and Odaiba (outside Le Meridian Grand Pacific). Open: 9am-8pm Tue-Sun (Omotesando branch)

New York Hot Dog, tel: 090-1618-0357, outside National Azabu supermarket, Hiroo. Open 10am-7pm Fri, Sat, Sun until Aug 15, then daily. Nearest stn: Hiroo

Roti France (rotisserie), various locations (Sat, Sun, outside National Azabu supermarket, Hiroo)

21Seiki Hotok (Korean), near Don Quixote Shinjuku, tel: 03-3232-6680. Open: noon-4am. Nearest stn: subway Higashi-Shinjuku or JR Okubo

Towering Feel Cafe (coffee) outside Daikanyama Sports Plaza. Nearest stn: Daikanayama

Traveler’s Cafe Saku (Asian/curry), Nihonbashi/Otemachi/Daikanyama, tel: 070-5088-0837. Open 11:45am-1pm (lunch), 1-6pm (snack menu). www.sakuTcafe.com 

Wrap ‘n Roll (tortilla), Yamate Dori, Daikanyama, tel: 070-6555-4699. Open noon-8pm, closed Wed. Nearest stn: Daikanayama

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