Fondly known as the kitchen of Japan, Osaka's a place you go to with hungry eyes and leave twenty pounds heavier. Food's kind of the only tourist-oriented thing that this city has got going for it, other than Osaka Castle and the gorgeous Kaiyukan aquarium (whale sharks, I love you to the moon and back). But holy hell, those chefs aren't playing around.
THE NORTH STAR: DOTONBORI
Dotonbori is a glorious road paved with flashing lights, sizzling okonomiyaki stands, larger than life animal statues and ramen vending machines. If you do one thing in Osaka, you need to come here. This article's mainly going to focus on Dotonbori because I ate almost every meal there, since it was walking distance from my capsule hotel. There's also a big animated Glico Man sign over the river that everyone loses their shit over, don't ask me why though. I was busy losing my shit over the GIGANTIC ANIMATED ASAHI SIGN. (I don't have a drinking problem, you have a drinking problem.)
HOW TO FIND A GOOD JAPANESE RESTAURANT
Japan's like Hong Kong - the moment you spot a long line outside a restaurant, you've gotta get in it. Even if you don't know what the hell you're going to be eating, just do as the locals do and prepare to be taken on a culinary adventure. Obviously this doesn't work so well if you don't like lines, but I'm pretty patient and was on holiday damn it. Like hell I'm going to spend my hard earned money on a subpar meal.
Yo, I don't care if you're squirmy af about eating anything that doesn't come out of a supermarket. Takoyaki is MY JAM. They're a pretty big staple of Osaka street food culture and are grilled balls made up of fresh octopus, batter, chives, ginger. Then they bust out the holy takoyaki sauce, mayonnaise and bonito flakes and slather all that goodness on top.
My favourite joint was called Konamon Museum near the entrance of Dotonbori, which you can't miss because there's a gigantic cannibal octopus statue outside cooking takoyaki. Every time I passed it, there was a line sprawling out of the shop. They serve fresh traditional takoyaki, but wait for a minute for them to cool because the first creamy bite is like biting into hot lava. The payoff is incredible though. They also do less traditional alternatives like bacon and cheese takoyaki or shrimp takoyaki.
This is what Osaka's famous for and when you see it described in tourist guides, it's stupidly called 'Japanese pizza'. My sweet, adorable, tourist guide-trusting friends, do not go into an okonomiyaki restaurant expecting anything that remotely resembles pizza. It's a crunchy inch thick disc full of chopped up vegetables and meats, which you grill yourself on a hot plate and slice up. It's usually got yam, dashi, cabbage, eggs, green onions, pork belly, shrimp, octopus - basically whatever the hell you want to throw in it. Then they cover it in mayonnaise (why does everything come with mayonnaise in Kansai?) and okonomiyaki sauce, which is a sweet and savoury sauce which is amazing. They also have variations where they throw in yakisoba noodles.
I couldn't tell you where I had my okonomiyaki because I just wandered into a Dotonbori building that had a picture of it outside. Everything was in Japanese. I can tell you though that since it's a signature Kansai dish, you won't be hard pressed to find it. Go grab someone and split a dish since those babies are filling.
Don't freak out - these are actually a dessert. I'd never heard of these before, but my princess angel writer friend Venus told me I had to go to Pablo and snag one. If you've ever had Hong Kong or Macanese egg tarts, they look almost exactly the same but taste really different. They're very light and sweet with just a hint of cheesiness, making them dangerously easy to down in one. You can ask for different consistencies: ranging from a runny, lava like texture which I would highly recommend to a stiffer, more cheesecake like feel.
If you pass the bridge over the river from Dotonbori, go past the Glico Man sign and turn right, you'll see a gigantic Pablo cheese tart above the glass front store. You'll also probably see a long line so try to get there a little earlier in the day, at night they put out velvet ropes because of the massive and frankly deserved hype. You can get mini tarts or big ones - I got a small one to eat on the way back to my capsule.
Japanese food isn't always as clean and healthy as it's made out to be, tonkatsu ruins all those expectations in one fell crunchy swoop. This isn't an option for vegetarians (to be honest, most of these dishes aren't) as it's a pork chop deep fried in panko crumbs, which are the same thing they use to make tempura. It's usually served with sliced cabbage, soup and rice and a hefty helping of tangy tonkatsu sauce.
I went to a chain called Kimukatsu on a side street in Dotonbori, which is apparently one of the best places because of the way they prepare the dish. They slice the pork into sheets, stack it and then fry and steam it. I could sing songs about the tonkatsu there, it's juicy, packed full of flavour and has an incredible crunch without being too oily - when paired with the tonkatsu sauce (which you get to grind sesame seeds into), it was the stuff a carnivore's dreams are made of. It was a little more expensive, but damn if it wasn't one of the best meals I had the whole trip. I got a lot of stares when I made the mistake of ordering a bottle of sake by myself, mainly because it's not wise for a 5'2 girl to order a bottle of sake by themselves. Unless you are hitting a club afterwards. Which I was not. Walking home was hard.
If I'm ever on death row, my last meal will probably be ramen. It doesn't really need much explanation (broth + noodles = ramen) and it's comfort food to the maximum, especially on a cold winter's day. Kyushu ramen is arguably the best kind, with a rich pork broth that'll have you slurping for days. There's a popular place called Kinryu Ramen (Golden Dragon ramen) that specialises in it. They have a few open air stalls along Dotonbori, which can be spotted by the huge dragon statues slurping bowls of ramen. Dotonbori has a lot of animal statues.
You order these noodles by using a super affordable option from a vending machine. After that, you'll be led to a little table where you take off your shoes and sit cross-legged. A piping hot bowl of spicy ramen is then served to you and you can put some spicy toppings on it, including kimchi - the love of my life. I'm pretty good with spice, but my nose was definitely running by the end of that meal. It's not the best bowl of ramen you'll have in Japan, but we can definitely fuck with Kinryu Ramen.
You can't come to Japan and not have sashimi. Head over to Kuromon market for some truly fresh fish, where you'll be able to buy sashimi on the street and trot along with some melt-in-your-mouth goodness. There's the usual suspects: salmon, yellowtail and tuna, but if you want the best of the best, go for uni (sea urchin) or otoro (fatty tuna). There's also a couple of places in Dotonbori that specialise in fugu (blowfish), which is notoriously poisonous and you have to have a license in order to prepare and serve it. I always like a side of potential death with my raw fish.
Strawberries in Japan are next level. If you wander into the basement food hall of any department store, you'll find gorgeous deep red ones that taste like summer with each bite. (They're also phenomenally expensive.) Sometimes, they cover them in red bean paste and cover them in mochi dough to create daifuku. The tartness of the berry mixed with the thick sweet paste, topped off with the gooey consistency of rice dough is incredible.
And there you have it. There's so much to eat in Osaka and I've only really touched on the tip of the iceberg. Yakiniku, kobe beef, melon bread are all delicious af, but since I was only there for three days I couldn't try it all. If you're looking for an introduction to quality Japanese food, there's no place better than Osaka for a crash course.
Freelance lifestyle writer and elderly puppy cuddler. Based in London/Hong Kong, scribbling at Give Me Chills. Give me a shout at email@example.com.