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Tokyo: An Unknowable Feast

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Peter Meehan wrote restaurant reviews and the “$25 and Under” column in the Dining Section of The New York Times for four years, but I feel like I’ve gotten to know him better through his more recent articles in Lucky Peach.

Here’s what he wrote after spotting an image of himself on film during a trip to Tokyo with Peach co-creator and chef David Chang. Meehan was wearing his hair in a ponytail at the time. 

I beat myself up for a while, then resolved to get my hair cut off when I got back to the States, and tried to remind myself that I was in the middle of the JR subway station at the center of Tokyo and had just eaten the best bowl of ramen I’d probably ever consume. Then my Catholic upbringing kicked in and I started to feel bad again for being upset at how stupid I looked.

This is Meehan unbound, writing last year in the premiere issue of Lucky Peach. I asked him what his biggest takeaway was from his trip to Tokyo.

“I thought Tokyo was a knowable city, and we’d find all the good spots in 10 days there,” he told me while visiting the WNYC studios for our conversation about the much-maligned ingredient, monosodium glutamate. “It took two hours on the ground to realize that I could spend five years there and not know five blocks," he said. "It's an amazing immense city with so much going on.”

Here’s how he wrote about it: 

The area was full of alleyways that snaked for blocks under a train trestle, all packed with promising-looking restaurants that seemed to be closing the moment we passed them.

I witnessed some of this myself many years ago. I spent the summer of 1979 in Japan as a foreign exchange student. My host father took me to a nondescript sushi place after picking me up at the airport. I remember having to duck under a little cotton curtain that was hung along the top of the entryway. It was cool and dark inside, and cramped. We sat at the bar where the sushi chefs worked. My host father ordered for me. I’m pretty sure he ordered ebi (shrimp) and tamago (egg), two very non-threatening options for an American teenager.

I remember wondering how my host father even knew this place existed. There was no huge lighted sign or logo, like at McDonald’s or Beef Corral. Just that little curtain, with white Japanese kanji printed on it.

Meehan visited many places like this on his and Chang’s ramen quest. He ate a bowl of “solid” abura ramen at a shop they happened upon because, “It was the last place open in the 'hood.” He had “a great rendition of a piña colada” at a bar “on the fourth floor of an absolutely nondescript office building.” He was blown away by ramen at Rokurinsha, in the food court of a subway station.

“The depth and breadth of the culinary culture and what there is to experience in Tokyo alone is mind-boggling,” he told me, and I believe him.

Meehan thinks Tokyo is an unknowable city, too dense and packed with amazing food craft to ever discover it all. He doesn’t feel that way about New York. He believes it’s possible to know all our best eating establishments. Certainly, there are enough food blogs like Yelp, Chowhound and Serious Eats to help a foodie in this task.

I haven’t eaten at a tenth of the places Meehan has, but from reading his Tokyo travelogue, my gut tells me he’s right. That’s because, in Japan, tradition is revered and attention to detail is prized. It matters how low you bow when you are addressing your boss, or your cleaning lady’s husband. It matters how a clerk wraps up your purchase. It matters how you’re greeted when you duck under that curtain to enter your neighborhood sushi joint.

It's no wonder, then, that Meehan encountered so many little shops with great food. In Japan, many cooks -- not just five-star top chefs, but ones with restaurants in train station food courts -- dedicate themselves to perfecting a single dish.

“It’s a cultural difference,” Meehan told me. “If you're a yakitori chef, you're a yakitori chef and that's what you cook. You say, ‘I’m going to dedicate my life to making ramen,’ and that’s what you do. You work every day, every week, every year, to make your ramen better, and to find small tweaks to make it distinctive or make it your own.”

Can you imagine the guy sweating over the grill of your corner deli having that singleness of purpose about your bacon, egg and cheese on a roll? Tokyo sounds like it is full of those guys.