Japanese fast food is more than just the takeout sushi you see everywhere in Vancouver. It’s hunching over a steaming bowl of beef on rice, grabbing a skewer of yakitori from a roadside stall, and warming yourself with a cup of oden from 7-Eleven. Happily, more diverse, authentic options are increasingly becoming available here.
“Nowadays, the izakaya boom is slowing down. People are thinking about new [kinds of] Japanese food,” says Yusuke Tomita. He’s the chef at Gyudonya (500 Robson Street), a new Japanese quick-serve diner featuring donburi, or rice bowls. Tomita explains that the main inspiration for the restaurant was Yoshinoya, a hugely popular donburi chain in Japan. The similarities are obvious to anybody familiar with Yoshinoya, from the long, narrow bar to the giant photo-based menu on the wall to the bright-orange awning. Just like its counterpart on the other side of the Pacific, Gyudonya is targeted at busy locals, office workers, and those on the go.
Service is blisteringly fast; it seems that no sooner have you adjusted your stool than a steaming bowl of donburi is deposited in front of you. There’s a version for everyone, from grilled chicken to eggplant, yam, and tofu to mild Japanese curry—and all ring in under seven bucks. Tomita says the most popular dish is the short-rib bowl, featuring a sauce that incorporates soy sauce and a secret fruit blend: “People love the garlic and fruity flavour.” The grilled boneless beef is juicy and tender and has a sweet taste, which contrasts nicely with the bed of fresh lettuce and warm rice it sits on. Tomita is sure that rice bowls, which have been appearing in more and more Japanese restaurants lately, are going to be the next big thing in Vancouver.
A few doors down, Kushi Box (520 Robson Street) offers another take on Japanese fast food. An offshoot of the popular Vancouver izakaya chain Zakkushi, Kushi Box gets back to basics with counter service, a couple of sidewalk tables, and a takeout-friendly menu of grilled skewers and other finger food. “We wanted to make another restaurant that was”¦easier to come into,” explains manager Tsubasa Hyodo in an interview outside the outlet. He says that some Japanese restaurants can overwhelm potential diners with too many mysterious dishes. Hyodo wanted a place that wouldn’t be intimidating, where people could just walk in and have a bite or two.
To this end, he devised a menu that is both accessible and authentic. The name Kushi Box refers to kushiyaki, vegetable and meat skewers that take on a distinctive smoky flavour from the charcoal they’re cooked over and are seasoned simply with salt or a sweet soy-based sauce. Classics such as tsukune (ground-chicken meatballs) and unique offerings like Onion P-toro (tender pork cheek with salty onion sauce) can be enjoyed as traditional skewers or on rice as a combo, along with add-ons such as pop and miso soup. Kushi Box also serves oden, a winter dish that consists of ingredients like fish cakes, chunks of daikon, hard-boiled eggs, yam noodles, and tofu-wrapped sticky rice served in a cup of subtly sweet dashi broth. Lastly, seafood lovers should try the takoyaki, deep-fried octopus dumplings slathered in tangy sauce, mayonnaise, and bonito flakes. Kushi Box’s version tastes just like what you would find at a street stall or a festival in Japan.
A bit further afield, in the food court at Richmond’s Aberdeen Centre (4151 Hazelbridge Way), you can find a uniquely Asian take on a ubiquitous western fast-food favourite. Strawberry Cones Pizza & Pasta is a Japanese company that planted roots in Canada two years ago. This is not your average Italian food, and contrary to its name doesn’t involve ice cream cones or any sort of dessert. According to staff member Janet Chan, “It’s similar to”¦regular pizza and pasta, but it has a Japanese style and Japanese flavour. I think it’s a brand-new taste.”
The pizzas at Strawberry Cones have thin crusts, fresh vegetables, and a slightly lower topping-to-cheese ratio than North American versions. The wide variety of combinations includes teriyaki mochi chicken (featuring chewy rice cakes and a sweet teriyaki glaze) and Hokkaido potato tuna (with flaky tuna and potato egg salad instead of sauce). The Japanese franchise doesn’t just settle for Japanese flavours, however, and cheerfully experiments with all sorts of ingredient combinations. Salmon and Camembert pizza is one result, with a mellow blend of tart salmon and creamy cheese. For the curious, Strawberry Cones offers four-flavour pizzas so that you can sample more variety. (Prices run from about $8 for an eight-inch pizza to $20 for a 14-inch pizza.)
“We have a lot of customers from Vancouver who take the SkyTrain out here to try us,” Chan says. “I think people in Vancouver like to try new things.” If that’s the case, the future of Japanese fast food in this city looks very rosy, indeed.