In the first installment of How to eat, we visited Matsuya, which specializes on beef bowls. This time we will go to Sukiya, which has a much greater variety of food on offer, but is also a bit more challenging, because you have to order manually, and they have virtually no English on their menus! But hang tight and you might very well find a new favorite place to eat...
The name Sukiya is composed of the word for "like" (spelled out phonetically) and the kanji character "house", so literally it means a place where you can find things you like. But it is also a play on the word sukiyaki, which sounds similar but is written with different characters. Sukiyaki is a Japanese hot pot with various meats and vegetables that are cooked at the table. And suitably, the hot pot turns out to be one of the best things you can get at Sukiya. There are also beef bowls (much like at Matsuya and Yoshinoya), curries (of the peculiar Japanese variety – not very spicy and rather sweet), fried fish, raw fish bowls, and even desserts. Pair this up with big bottles of beer and a decent selection of highballs, and Sukiya feels less like fast-food place and more like an economy version of an izakaya, the typical Japanese casual restaurant. However, unlike izakayas, the interior is not really designed for large groups going out together, and the dishes are generally meant for a single person rather than sharing. Not a great place for social meals in other words, but perfect for grabbing some good food on a busy day or night out.
When you enter, you just take a free seat at a table or at the counter. A waiter will come over with a glass of cold tea, which is very good in itself and included in the meal.
At your table you will find menus at the side or in front of you in a stand. (The most popular items may also be printed directly on the table.) There are napkins, chopsticks, various condiments, and something you will find very useful at many similar places: A button that rings a bell to call the waiter's attention!
Grab a menu from the stand and start studying it. The first pages are dedicated to an overview of the most popular items, and after that comes pages for specific categories such as beef bowls, fish bowls and curries. There are also numerous side orders and drinks to choose from. There will be little or no English on the menu, but the pictures are for the most part self-explanatory. There is also some handy calorie and nutritional information for every dish!
When you have decided what you want, you call the attention of one of the waiters, either verbally ("sumimasen!") or by pressing the button. (Ringing for someone on a bell might seem rude if you are not used to it, but it is perfectly acceptable in Japanese restaurants.) Don't expect the waiters to understand English, but you can simply point at the picture of what you want. Also, make sure to decide which size you want; some dishes come in different sizes, denoted by different prizes and calorie counts.
The waiter will come to you with the food on a tray as soon as it is ready, which is usually very quickly. Here, we went for a bowl of beef on rice topped with mayonnaise, a side of miso soup and a raw egg for good measure! Beer is served in generous big bottles, and although it is not quite the steal of Matsuya's 150 yen draft it is still good value.
Here we got a bowl of raw minced and sliced tuna on rice, with a side of miso soup and a block of tofu (soy bean curd). There is a bit of wasabi to add to your soy sauce too. The fish is not as good as at a dedicated sushi restaurant or better izakaya, but it's a great option for non-meat-eaters or just as a change to the usual beef fare.
But the hot pot is the best thing of all, and at 680 yen (less than 6 US dollars) it is incredibly good value! It will be clearly advertised on its own page in the menu (including instructions for use which you probably can't read, but don't worry). The exact components seem to change with the seasons. This summer, it was a Korean-inspired bin bin bap that you would fry at the table and spice with hot chili sauce. In autumn, this got replaced with a more typical hot pot – a variety of ingredients in a broth that you cook for as long as you like.
The hot pots taste delicious, and are fun and easy to make. This one has beef, noodles, a variety of vegetables, a side of rice, and a raw egg to stir in whenever you like.
There will be a flame burning under the pot, and you simply stir the ingredients, taste as often as you like, and eat when you think it's ready. Don't worry about the open flame – the system is practically fool-proof. There are no set rules on how long to cook your food, and it will be more or less pre-cooked anyway, so it is safe to eat as soon as you want to try it.
A useful tip is to remember that the broth gets very hot, so you may want to transfer some into a separate bowl to let it cool of before eating. You can also use one of the empty bowls to transfer foodstuff into as it gets cooked, or you can place it on top of the rice. Another thing to note is that you can use the metal sift that comes with the egg to separate the white from the yolk. Simply crack the egg over the sift into a bowl, and the yolk will stay in the sift.
When you have finished, look for the receipt. It will most often be on the tray you got your food on, or (more rarely) placed in the little metal tube at the table. You simply take the receipt to the front counter and pay there. As usual in Japan, you will get exact change, and you can not tip. Have fun enjoying your new spot on the Japanese food map!
Quick factsLink: Official Sikuya web site
Where to find it: Everywhere – there are over 1800 locations in Japan
Price: Small beef bowls start at 430 yen. Set meals around 600-1000 yen depending on size; hot pot currently 680.
Hours: Open 24 hours.
Order system: Self-seating, order from the waiter at your table, pay at the check-out counter. Little or no English on the menu, but pictures are self-explanatory.
Vegetarian options? Most meals are based on meat or fish, but you can put together a decent vegetarian meal with sides such as salads and tofu.
What to get: The hot pots are the chain's signature and great fun to make, and they are delicious. They change with the seasons so make sure to check out the details in the menu. There are also good beef bowls, curry and fish options.