Friday, March 9, 2012

Variety Friday: Yokohama Chinatown Food and Snacks

Click any picture to see a larger version. This is one of several gates to enter the Chinatown area.

Since deciding to leave Japan, my husband and I have been revisiting and visiting various places with the knowledge that this will be our last chance to do so, at least for quite some time. One of the places we went to a very long time ago was Yokohama's Chinatown and neither of us remembered what it was like. When we got there, we learned that it certainly wasn't what we expected.

The main draw of this particular Chinatown is supposed to be the food. The area is rather small and populated with ostentatiously decorated restaurant facades, snack and sweets stores, and stands and shops selling very tacky items. It's like a Chinese tourist trap conveniently set up in Japan so that Japanese tourists don't have to go all the way to China to get their dose of unrealistic Chinese cuisine and souvenirs. None of this really bothered me at all. I'm all for the occasional immersion in kitsch and I don't take life that seriously. It's important to take things at the level they are offered for what they are instead of what you think they might be or should be.

Chestnuts and shrimp chips, a winning combination. The shrimp chips looked very much like pork rinds. 

That being said, I did have one expectation of Chinatown in Yokohama and that was that the food would be different and "better" than Chinese restaurants in Tokyo. The main idea is that it's supposed to be a bit more authentic than Japanized versions in my neck of the woods. What I found was well beneath expectations. The main disappointment was that there was so much repetition of the same food and even the same vendors. Every street had several people pushing samples of roasted chestnuts on people quite aggressively and even the sample-crazy Japanese (usually, they descend on them like starving wolves) were turning them down right and left. Steamed buns filled with pork and meat filling were also on every corner. The only difference between them and those in Tokyo was that they were enormous and more expensive. In terms of the restaurants, it wasn't that every place tended to offer the same range of dishes, though that was very much the case, but that the same chain of restaurants were repeated throughout the limited Chinatown area. It was literally the same food in many places, not just a varied presentation on mabo-dofu or cashew chicken. 

Garlic ribs and shumai.

My husband and I ran across no fewer than 4 and quite possibly more "tabehodai" ("all you can eat") restaurants with the same pricing structure and signage. People stood on the streets trying to press fliers for such establishments into our hands and touted that you could stuff yourself silly for 1980 yen (a little under $25). These weren't buffets (or what is called "viking" in Japan), but places at which you paid your money and then ordered what you wanted. I had limited experience with this sort of thing at a buffet in Shinjuku which was part buffet and part "ask us for the stuff you want". It was a huge pain in the ass trying to track down and ask for things which were not in the buffet as waiters and waitresses in such places aren't exactly making themselves as available as possible to customers. I've also heard (after our trip) that the food quality at such places is not particularly good, so it's probably best that we passed.

Fried rice, cashew chicken and unidentified soup.

We walked along the side streets and lesser trafficked areas searching for places off the main drag which might offer less common food options. In the main areas, there were mainly the same dishes we see everywhere in Tokyo. We settled for a place which had a rib dish my husband hadn't seen at every other Chinese joint between Shinjuku and Yokohama. I bought the "safe" option, a cashew chicken set off of the lunch menu for 1480 yen ($18.20), and he got the adventurous ones, garlic ribs from the a la carte menu for 1800 yen ($22.13). The set came with fried rice (cha-han), a soup I'd never had before which seemed to be beef-broth based and was full of little stringy things (not egg, trust me) and mushrooms, one lone shumai (dumpling), and annin dofu (almond pudding). His ribs came with nothing, but usually there is too much food for both of us when we order a set.

The cashew chicken was fine, but fairly par for the course. The fried rice was better than average, but the portion was amazingly tiny. Usually, we're given enough rice that it exceeds what both of us need. This time, I'm pretty sure a Japanese child would have found the scant amount lacking. I'm not a big eater of carbohydrates with a meal and it takes a very stingy portion to disappoint me, but this place managed. The soup was tasty enough, but too fatty and a bit viscous, so it had a strange texture. I didn't have the shumai, but my husband said it was perfectly average and the annin dofu was bitter and unpleasant. The whole meal was less than impressive except for the garlic ribs, which were deep fried and freshly made. It didn't help that the service was quite poor. They served one dish at a time, including the cashew chicken sans rice, with long gaps between subsequent dishes and ignored our water glasses. I've been told by Japanese folks that bad service is par for the course in Chinatown, but I can only say that my experience would lend credence to that assertion but is insufficient to prove it. One of the things I'm pretty sure of is that in all but the most expensive places, most of the food at the Chinese places in Chinatown are not fresh or handmade. I'm pretty sure all of my set food was reheated. All in all, the whole restaurant scene disappointed us.

Coconut and egg tarts. They tasted like disappointment.

We weren't in it only for the restaurant meal though. I also wanted to try Chinese sweets. Once again, there was a huge amount of repetition with the same types and flavors of mooncakes, fried dough, steam cakes, and cookies on offer. There was a lot of coconut-based food and we found a place selling a coconut tart paired with a custard one and bought it. They were supposedly freshly made, but the shells were obviously factory made and filled. Though this wasn't something we saw for sale everywhere and was sold at a shop that didn't sell mass-made food, the tarts were very disappointing. The filling was lackluster and too sweet in the pudding one and the shells were tough. The coconut filling was dry and flat in taste.

Peanut Cake (more like a cookie) and Peanut Cake Slice (a peanut brittle). 

We also found a dingy little store that was selling what appeared to be an unusual range of snacks and picked up some "peanut cake" packaged snacks. One was a sort of brittle and the other was more like a flaky cookie. The brittle was fine except that it had an odd taste to it, as if some strange spice were in the mix (reminiscent of Chinese Five Spice). While not bad, that aftertaste diminished the experience. I think it also could have used more salt. The other  "peanut cake" was a block divided into three segments that tasted like as super rich peanut butter cookie mixed with peanut butter fudge. It was a true winner and well worth the 170 yen ($2.09) we paid for it. 

Obviously, I couldn't leave without buying a mooncake since it is such a well-known Chinese snack food and there were so many varieties around. I also had about a dozen shops from which to buy them and settled on a pumpkin one from a relatively nice-looking shop. A very small cake, about half the size of my palm, was 200 yen ($2.46). Note that I could not locate any shops which sold actual fresh mooncakes. They all seemed to be selling ones that were wrapped in plastic and had an oxygen absorber packet in them. This was a disappointment, but I have had plenty of preserved Japanese bean cakes which were awesomely delicious. 

Unfortunately, my mooncake experience was not to be so positive. I took it home and photographed it for review. The smell was a bit light on the pumpkin, though the center was very orange. The pumpkin flavor was there, though it was lightly sweet such that the flavor wasn't enhanced much and diluted enough with fat and other ingredients that it wasn't carrying through any pure pumpkin taste. The main issue was that it had a weird taste that I associate with canned food (like Vienna sausages) and a smell that I associate with opening up a can of dog food. I can only guess that this was due to the outer cake or some preservative. 

Going to Yokohma's Chinatown is an interesting experience from the viewpoint of seeing an area with a unique dynamic. However, I wouldn't recommend going there for the food and am surprised at positive reviews of it. Most Japanese people who I've spoken with about it (before relating my experience) have answered the question of "is the food good" with what I call the "mouth says yes and the eyes say no" answer. When pressed, they say it is decidedly so-so. I think that's pretty reasonable assessment of the food experience, but the whole area has a lot to offer for it's over-the-top look and sales pitches, proximity to other sightseeing attractions (like the waterfront and foreigner cemetery), and relative walkability. 


Me said...

We spent a day in Yokohama the first time I visited Japan, and I thought it was kind of interesting that Chinatown in Tokyo is pretty much the same as any random Chinatown in the US. I agree, the food was nothing special!

Radeonic said...

As a Hong Kong born Chinese Canadian now living in Vancouver, I basically skip all the "Chinese" food available in Japan every time I go there. I have to say the Chinese food in Japan is even worse than the time I had Panda Express in Portland.

b.patel said...

That's sad that you didn't have a good time there!
I was able to visit Yokohama Chinatown once a couple of years ago and had a great time.
I was taken to this buffet style restaurant that was actually on the 2nd or 3rd floor of non-"Chinese" looking building, and there was just so much variety that I was surprised (and delighted). They offered a lot of unique (for me then) take on shu mai and dumplings by having unusual fillings.

The vendor drinks were all very similar, but had slight different twists-- of course, it might have been different then, especially since the whole Chinatown was celebrating that Panda movie everywhere.

Orchid64 said...

Maybe there is some worldwide conglomerate setting up cookie-cutter Chinatowns worldwide with so-so food as a way of compelling people to actually visit China. ;-)

Thanks for commenting!

Paul said...

I love the soup filled dumplings in Chinatown and the general atmosphere :)

The lunch my bf and I got was also pretty good, but I think he knew where he wanted to eat so we weren't window shopping all the restaurants.

Alicia Subirana Bruach said...

Can anyone take me to Japan?! D:
Jajajaja, ok, I have to stop, be patient, someday I'll go to Tokyo and taste these fantastic food :)
Pd: Love your blog!

Moochiecat said...

There's that cat plate again. I love that darn thing. Is this from a set or a 'one of'? You probably got it in Japan so this is as close as this Canadian gal is going to get to one, right? It's so cute.

Dennis said...

I can only judge from my own limited experience, but I had an awesome meal in Yokohama's Chinatown. My family and I went to a conveyer-belt Chinese restaurant, and not only was all the food outstanding, but it was an unforgettable experience.

Orchid64 said...

Moochiecat: I was given the plate as a gift a very long time ago (about 20 years ago). I'm sure it was bought in Japan. As I mentioned before, if you'd like to pay shipping costs, I might be able to help you out. E-mail me if you are really that interested.

Dennis: I have been told it used to be better than it is now. However, different tastes do factor into how every experience is perceived. For me, the issue wasn't that the food was "bad", but just no better than average in Tokyo. It could just be that the Tokyo average is pretty good and I can take that for granted at this time. I just expected Chinatown to be better than a neighborhood joint or a chain shop outside of an area that specialized in Chinese food.

Moochiecat said...

Thanks but I imagine shipping would be very pricey. I'll just admire it from afar. When you move back to the States I'll come down from Victoria and visit it :-)

OriginalZ said...

I've always been disappointed in the Japanese Chinatowns. I'm from NYC, where you can walk through dirty streets of people selling random bootleg shit while finding some of the best food in the city. You can eat like a king for $10 there. I couldn't believe what I saw in Yokohama, everything is way too clean and well-kept, nothing but omiyage stores selling the same junk, all of the food is generic and very expensive. It's just a tourist attractions so people can feel like they're doing something exotic.

The ones in Kobe and Nagasaki are more or less the same, although I kind of like the Nagasaki one for some reason despite being really small. It felt the most like a Chinatown back home, I suppose.