Village Vanguard Diner (Burgers), Shimokitazawa

There is in Shimokitazawa a true "institution" that anyone ought to visit when in the area. "Village Vanguard", which started 25 years in Nagoya as a "bookstore where you can have fun" has now over 350 stores in Japan and continues to rapidly expand its business. The stuff they sell may slightly vary depending on the location, but the one in Shimokitazawa is a labyrinthine bazaar that will satisfy anyone interested in pop culture, mangas, gadgets, candies, records, books, name it you'll find it. It is very difficult to get out of the store without buying anything, so may the force be with you should you be on a prison cell tight budget. Even if you're not into consumerism nor pop culture, go catch a glimpse at what the store has to offer, as the place is an explosion of sound and color and it's full of Kodak moments. (Click here for a MAP)

I love "Village Vanguard" and burgers as much, so it was a no-brainer for me when they opened a burger joint 5mn away few years ago. Though I find the food and most of the all the beers expensive, I recommend this place to anyone craving for a burger. Don't forget "Frisco", which offers a more authentic delicious charcoal grilled version.

Village Vanguard Diner

If you visit the texmex looking restaurant, you will probably be amazed at the service the kids working there offer you. It is the BEST service I know in Japan among any kind of casual western-style eateries. They are so attentive to details and so eager to make you enjoy your fare, sometimes it might even feel like it's too much. But too much is better than too less, so no complains on that side, and my hats-off to the director of personnel.

They also have a very decent list of popular to less know American local beers (by the bottle) that should make for a nice break if you've got a little tired of the Japanese beers. Only problem: the bottles all cost around ¥800, so it's not like you can order one after an other.

Avocado laver burger

Now, the food: they have a menu essentially comprised of Taco Rice or Nachos-like texmex fares but the stars of the joint are definitely the ten or so burgers they offer, ranging from the "Mushroom and garlic cheeseburger" to the "Avocado laver burger (with Nori dry seaweed)" or the "Pepper∧ cheddar melt (with a fat piece of bacon!) "ones. All come with french fries on the side, which you will want to ask them not to salt if you're low on that condiment. I think they tend to over-salt them, so don't hesitate to let them know in advance if you want to keep it eatable.

Authentic Burger with Cheddar cheese

You can obviously order the "regular" burgers, but I usually go for what they call the "Authentic Burger", which simply consists of a 200g beef pate, cheddar cheese, fresh tomato, grilled onion, all sandwiched with two big loaves of Graham bread.

The salt and peppered meat is unbelievably juicy. Good stuff. There is 200g of it on your plate so you should be happy if you're a meat eater.
As you can see from the picture, they're quite generous on the cheese and manage to melt it just the way you want it. The perfect definition and example of "guilty pleasure".
There are big slices of tender grilled onion hidden under the meat, which provide a timely sweetness to the otherwise salty dish. Same goes for the slightly sweet bread, which I think goes very well with the beef pate and the vegetables, though I wish it could be a hint more toasted.
An overall very satisfying and filling dish, but at a cost: ¥1,580. Given the size of the beast, you can't be too demanding, but if you order a beer the bill adds up to over ¥2,300 so I still think it could and should be cheaper.

Village Vanguard Diner is open everyday from 11:30am to midnight
Setagaya-ku, Daita 6-3-1 B1
click here for a MAP

Kitchen West (Yoshoku), Shimokitazawa

After eating at "Roxanne", we got in the mood for some more authentic Yoshoku (shortened from Seiyoshoku, literally Western cuisine) and therefore decided to visit the next day the Yoshokuya (Yoshoku restaurant) "Kitchen West" in business since 1962, that is a little bit before the Tokyo Olympics. It is located next to the wonderful Ramen joint "Ichiryu", so in case you'd still be a little hungry after your lunch or dinner there, you know where to go...

A quick recap for anyone not familiar with Yoshoku. This Japanese remix of so-called western cuisine is said to have appeared during the Meiji Period, when Japan opened to and started to embrace the European civilization as a mean to develop the country. Though most of the dishes are European recipes adapted to the Japanese palate and available local ingredients, some dishes like Omu-Raisu (ketchup flavored rice stuffed omelette) or Chicken Rice (not to mix up with the Hainanese Chicken Rice or the Arroz Con Pollo in Latin America) are somehow "originals".

I have been a big fan of Yoshoku since I was a kid, and everytime I think about that cuisine, I can not but help thinking with amusement about the fake plastic food samples in the displays, most notably the gravity-defying"fork and spaghetti".

The relativelay small "Kitchen West" doesn't have any of those amazing displays but on the otherhand, its dyed-blond chef and the old lady serving customers have a pretty nice menu to sample from. I actually recommend their ¥700 A Set which comprises a Soseiji, a Kisu Furai and a Hanbaagu (sausage, deep-fried sillago and Japanese-style hamburger steak) or the ¥850 B set with its Hanbaagu, Pooku Katsuletsu and Ebi Furai (hamburger, deep-fried pork cutlet and deep-fried prawn) as those combos allow you to try several of the most popular Yoshoku items in one go. Both set come with a plate of rice.

B Set

The flavorful demi-glace glaze covered hamburger steak is super tender and makes you want to order a refill for your plate of rice. God, those two combine marvelously.
The pork cutlet is a fat-free piece of fillet that is thinly breaded and goes very well with the Worcestershire-style sauce they add on top. Another killer with the rice.
The prawn is good, but not as memorable as the hamburger or the pork. I just wished the breadcrumbs were crunchier and that they did not taste so much like oil. It's actually probably better to eat the shrimp first while it's still freshly fried as it prevents it from feeling a little "tired" and humid from its own heat.

Close-Up of A Set (Salligo and Sausage)

The salligo is not fishy at all, perfectly deep-fried, allowing you to enjoy the nicely cooked batter and the tender and fresh savory white meat. A Yoshoku classic that you shouldn't miss. Add some sauce on top for an added taste kick.
The sausage actually tastes like what a pork sausage should taste like, which is a good thing, as you will often be served some weird fish or mixed meat sausages that after so many years in Japan I still haven't got accustomed to.

It would be a sin if I did not hit the spotlight on the supporting role played by the spaghetti on the side, so let me allocate one or two sentences about them. They are probably boiled and then quickly sauteed with curry powder, and though it may taste and seem a little strange at first, they somehow get more and more addictive as you work on them. One other thing I like about them, and I know it's not how pastas should be, but spaghetti at Yoshokuya are often doughy and lukewarm and that's great: the perfect supporting role. Too bad they're only second-bananas in "Kitchen West" as I could actually devour a whole plate of them.

The great curry flavored spaghetti

One other usual favorite is the Kani Kuriimu Korokke (Japanese-style crab flavored savory croquettes), a real calorie bomb. We ordered this one to complete our dinner though frankly you can get pretty full with the set only. Alike the deep-fried prawn, be sure to attack it while it's still burning hot as it will allow you to fully enjoy the "umami" of the savory bechamel sauce, and the brown glaze on top won't have enough time to soften up the crumbs. The crab flavor is delicate and probably less strong than the average. Beware though: it's really hot.

Kani Kuriimu Korokke

I recommend this place to anyone interested in Yoshoku. It's tiny and you might get out of the joint smelling like food from a mile away, but the food is cheap and good, and the service satisfactory.

Kitchen West is closed on Fridays, and open the rest of the week from noon to 21:30pm.
Setagaya-ku, Kitazawa 2-13-11
Click here for a MAP

Roxanne (Yoshoku), Shimokitazawa

Though we unfortunately see less and less of them, Japan used to be filled with Yoshokuya, those restaurants serving Western-style food with a strong Japanese touch and interpretation. Those older and older joints specialized in Omuraisu (omelette stuffed with chicken rice), Kare Raise (curry rice), Napolitan (ketchup based sauce pasta) or Korokke (Japanese savory croquettes) among a myriad of other great recipes, have slowly but surely given way to the now way more popular, classier and obviously more authentic Italians, French or Indian.

Same goes for the good-old smoky Kissaten (Japanese-style cafe) with their drip brew, Piza Tosuto (pizza style toast) or Morning Service (breakfast with butter/margarine/strawberry jam toast, eggs, ham/bacon, salad and tea/coffee) and their charmingly demode decor and feel. They have gradually lost the battle against the big and cheap coffee shop chain like "Doutor" or more recently "Starbucks", and are now on the way to sadly becoming an extincting species.

It looks "old" even in color...

What's great about "Roxanne" is that you can enjoy both what make the qualities of Yoshokuyas and Kissatens in one establishment, basically the (slightly "upscale") b-list menu from the former and the out-of-fashion look from the latter.
By the way, the name of the restaurant, which owners are neither Cyrano de Bergerac nor The Police fan, comes from the first name of the manager's now defunct father Rokusaburo, whose family and friends used to fondly call Roku-san.

From among the Napolitan, Bongole (spaghetti alle vongole, with clams in white sauce) or Lasagna in the Pasta department, the different salads, the Gyu-Tan Shichu (beef tongue stew), the Guratan (gratin) or the Piza etc, we opted for the first and last one. I went for the very popular Pizza while my wife chose the Napolitan Spaghetti.

When ordering a pizza, you need to choose between Medium (23cm and ¥750) or Large (way bigger at ¥1,300), to which you can add from about twenty toppings each at ¥80 (salami, green pepper, anchovy, corn, tuna, sausage, meatball, onion, shrimp, squid, clam, oil sardine etc...).
I went for the most uncreative Salami and Green Pepper. It was good, but nothing to really scream out loud for. It has obviously nothing to do with the Neapolitan pizza they serve you in all those classy pizzerias with wood-fired brick ovens, and is way closer to what you eat in the US. The crust is bread-like in taste and firmness, and the yellowish and little bit greasy cheese is quite salty and flavorful. It's well baked and satisfying. The brings-back-memories kind of pizza I used to eat when I was a kid.
Just remember, it is no gourmet cuisine.

As I said earlier, my wife went for the Napolitan, which contrary to our belief of what that dish looks (red-orange ish) and tastes like (ketchup based with sauteed sausages and onion), was rather soupy, lightly-tomato flavored, pale in color and oregano-spiced. Once again, nothing extraordinary. An OK dish.

During lunch, you can get a middle-sized pizza with two free toppings, a green salad and a cup of tea/coffee for ¥900. Not bad.
For your information, the "Mentaiko Supageti" ( pasta seasoned with butter, fresh cream and marinated pollock (not the painter...) roe) the two old ladies next to us were devouring looked pretty good!

Roxanne is in this quite little street, just 20 meters away from the bustling main shopping street. The trees in front of the restaurant gives an intimate hide-away quality to the place and add a nostalgic atmosphere to the whole.You might not want to try this place if you're looking to jaw-dropping delicious fares, but you will probably enjoy it if you want to experience a little bit of history...

"Roxanne" is closed on Wednesday, and opened the rest of the week from 11:30am to 16:00pm and 17:30pm to 23:00pm
Click here for a MAP

Warakugoson (Yakitori), Shimokitazawa

If you're into Yakitori (grilled skewered chicken), the Hakata style "Warakugoson" is a place that you should definitely visit, as it's just very simply good and you'll witness there a jovial and typical Shimokitazawa atmosphere.

Warakugoson, which is now located across the popular and labyrinthine bookstore/bazaar "Village Vanguard", used to be in this microscopic place behind the big Ozeki grocery store. Patronized by actors and musicians living or working in Shimokitazawa, they upgraded 20 years ago to the bigger joint that it is now.

The very humble and smily couple serves you a Yakitori recipe typical to Hakata, the bustling heart of southern island Kyushu's main town Fukuoka. The big characteristics of the said style are:
1) ingredients are grilled with salt (no Tare bbq sauce)
2) the meat is skewered with bits of onion (and not long green onion Naga-Negi)
3) you are being served a free plate of fresh chopped Chinese cabbage seasoned with vinegar, on which they put the grilled skewers
4) though it is a Yakitori-Ya, they also offer fish, pork and all sorts of vegetables.

I don't think it has anything to do with Hakata, but the Warakugoson staff in the kitchen hit a Taiko drum twice when customers come in and leave. You can check that fun custom out for yourself or click that video:

The first skewers we ordered were the Reba (chicken liver), the Shoniku (chicken white meat) and Nasu (eggplant).

Shoniku (left), Reba (upper left), Nasa (right)

The Reba is always slightly red inside, letting you enjoy the harder and pastier cooked outside and the creamier almost raw inside. Go for it if you like liver.
The Shoniku is regular Yakitori with nice chunks of firm white meat and bits of onion for added flavor and freshness. A must.
The Nasu is two big grilled pieces of eggplant rolled with sliced bacons. The juicy and tender eggplant and the almost crunchy thin bacon are a perfect match.

One thing you need to remember here is that the master is very generous with his salt. You see the perfectly mount Fuji shaped white thing on the left of the grill? That's all salt, and he erodes that mountain in about a week to ten days... So, if you're into a low-salt diet, you've been warned.

We then went for what is (I think) the only skewer that is not salt based here, the excellent and uncommon on a stick "Gyu-Suji" (simmered beef tendon). The Gyu-Suji, usually served in its Shoyu and Mirin base broth with other simmered ingredients such as Daikon (Japanese radish) is VERY rarely on a skewer, but Warakugoson makes wonders with this unusual recipe. The beforehand simmered meat is grilled until it gets almost crispy and is served on a sweet Tare sauce. The flavorful meat is firm and little fibrous, with bits of gelatinous and soft but chewy tendon here and there. Strongly recommended dish for its taste, texture and rarity.


Warakugoson has enough vegetables on its menu to please anyone Vegi (eggplant, Enoki mushroom, garlic, okura, Shiitake mushroom, potatoes and so on) and all are pretty good. We always order the delicious and pretty looking "Tomato", wrapped in tiny slices of bacon. The baby tomatoes are juice bombs and work perfectly with the dry bits of grilled bacon. Beware when you eat that Kushi (skewer) though, as the tomatoes are often super hot and you can easily burn your palate when popping them in your mouth.

Getting quite full by then, we finished our orders with the firm and dense "Kashira" (the muscly region between the pork's cheek and temple), always satisfying "Jagaimo" (grilled potato topped with butter) and the excellent Yaki-Onigiri (grilled rice ball).

The rice ball, which is served with a little plate of excellent pickled eggplants, is grilled with a shoyu sauce that gives the dish a strong Senbei (rice cookie) flavor and an appetizing brown color. The ball has the texture of a Rice Crispy Treats outside (with grains of rice getting stuck in your teeth!) but is nicely glutinous and steamy inside. This is a very typical Japanese recipe, so you should definitely order it as for some reason, it seems like you come less and less across it in restaurants.

If you like sake to accompany your meal, you should order their dry "Warakugoson" which suits their salty cuisine.

A very decent meal with a beer and a sake will cost you around ¥3,000 per head. Worth it!

Warakugoson is closed on Sundays, and open the rest of the week from 17:00pm to 24:00pm
Setagaya-ku, Daizawa 2-9-1 2F
Click here for a MAP