Category Archives: Japanese

Koyama Shoten

japanese markets columbus ohio

Cuisine: Japanese
5857 Sawmill Road
11am-8pm Tuesday-Sunday. Closed Mondays

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Koyama Shoten is a small Japanese market that has been open since 1986. While not as large or busy as Tensuke, you can nonetheless find some items at Koyama that aren’t carried at Tensuke. As such, it’s definitely a popular stop for Columbus’ Japanese community.

japanese markets ohio

One of the main attractions at Koyama is their bento boxes (available both for lunch and dinner) and ready made bentos are found on a small table at the back of the store, available from 12.30pm-8pm. If you don’t see any out there ask one of the staff. If you want a specific one and are short on time or have a large order it is advisable to call ahead.

bento boxes take out

Here’s the menu:
Sake (Grilled salmon) (pictured bottom right)
Unagi (BBQ eel) (pictured top left)
Karaage (Fried chicken)
Tonkatsu (Pork cutlet)
Hirekatsu (Pork fillet cutlet)
Yakiniku (Grilled beef)
Buta Shouga Yaki (Ginger pork) (pictured top right)
Korokke (Croquette)
Hambagu (Hamburger patty served with demi-glace)

Gyu-don (bowl with thinly sliced beef) (pictured bottom left)
Katsu-don (Pork cutlet with egg over rice bowl)
Oyako-don (Chicken with egg over rice bowl)

At Koyama, everything with the “don” suffix are served in bowls with a side of  Japanese pickles. All others are in the rectangular bento box with sides of pickles, vegetables and fruits. Each one comes with a small bowl of miso soup. These bento boxes are not as varied as most restaurant bento boxes often are – they consist of rice and protein with the aforementioned garnishes, but they are an exceptional value for lunch with most in the $5-6 range. It’s a simple and healthy take out lunch. We recommend the gyu-don bowl, the unagi and the ginger pork.

There is nowhere to eat at Koyama. It is strictly take out, but there is a nice little park a few blocks away.

Yoshi’s Japanese Restaurant

Yoshi's Exterior

Cuisine: Japanese

5776 Frantz Rd., Dublin OH 43016

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Yoshi’s is reputed to be a popular restaurant destination for the Japanese folks living in town, and we expected to find enjoyable food. Spoiler alert – all true.

What we didn’t expect, though, was to be so thoroughly entertained by the proceedings.

A bit of background – we’re lucky to be able to rely on a friend fluent in all things Japanese (thanks, KC) for help with evaluating what dishes we should try. As such, we walked into Yoshi’s with a good deal of knowledge of the more unusual options on their menu.

So, long story short, we ‘order like the Japanese’. Or so said the perplexed hostess, prior to asking if we’d lived in Japan.

Before that, our waitress did a double take on a few of our requested dishes, politely explained what they were, and went to some effort to verify that we actually wanted them.

While we ate, we occasionally felt 3 or 4 pairs of eyes on us, as if to suggest, ‘they ordered it, but will they really eat it?’

If this sounds intimidating, it shouldn’t. All was smiles, conducted with a good natured curiosity and genuine concern for our experience. It culminated with Yoshi himself, on the other side of the sushi bar, peppering us with questions, offering up specials and tips on ‘off the menu’ items, and showing off some of his more exotic sushi preparations.

Maybe we have an odd sense of fun, but fun it was. We left with big stupid smiles on our faces, smiles smudged with things like this:

Yoshi's onsen tamago

That, in the image above, is onsen tamago. Reminiscent of an oyster shooter, this very soft boiled egg is served chilled and topped with a little seaweed and a light dressing. We were advised to slurp it down in one go, and very much enjoyed the how the soft egg white yielded to reveal the wonderfully custardy yolk.

Yoshi's tako wasabi

The tako wasabi was one of the plates that, upon ordering, raised eyebrows among the staff. It’s a simple dish – raw octopus marinated in wasabi and salt. It was, at best, moderately chewy, and tasted mildly of the ocean. Even the kick of the wasabi was surprisingly mild. It all came together beautifully, and we loved it.

Yoshi's moro q

We also loved the moro q – strips of cucumber served with a nutty and deeply savory miso relish. It’s a great example of how two simple ingredients can sing when they’re so perfectly matched.

Yoshi's shishito shrimp tempura

Then, we took Yoshi up on his offer to taste the daily special, shishito peppers filled with a shrimp pate and tempura fried. Think green pepper but subtler, shrimp flavor but denser in texture, and a pleasant contrast between crunchy and chewy.

Yoshi's okonomiyaki

Finally, we were let in on a secret – Yoshi’s often prepares a few servings worth of okonomiyaki. It’s not on the menu, and not always available, but it is emphatically worth asking about. Okonomiyaki is a savory pancake filled with shredded cabbage and (in this case) small bits of octopus, and topped with an okonomiyaki sauce, a mild Japanese mayo, and bonito flakes. Yoshi’s version was easily the best we’ve ever tried.

Yoshi’s also offers a wide variety of noodles, including soba, udon, and ramen.

Belle’s Bread

Japanese bakery columbus

Cuisine – Japanese

1168 Kenny Centre Mall  Columbus, OH 43220

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It’s no secret that, in the US, we tend to twist the cuisines of other cultures around to suit our tastes, often to such a degree that that they end up bearing a questionable resemblance to their origins. On occasion, I’ve wondered what a Japanese person must think when encountering cream cheese in a sushi roll, or a Chinese person might think of General Tso’s chicken.

If I had to guess, it’s probably something similar to how I felt while perusing the wares at Belle’s Bread, a pastry shop and cafe geared towards the local Japanese population. From cod roe spaghetti to curry donuts to mac & cheese ‘gratin’ spiked with shrimp and served in a bread bowl, Belle’s is a quick trip to a European/American culinary uncanny valley.

Belle’s scrupulously tidy and immaculately clean interior suggests a vague French theme as filtered through a Panera lens. All staff are spiffily dressed in pressed white shirts and – I kid you not – berets, and are impeccably polite. Baked goods are wrapped individually and proudly displayed, while jewel-like single-serving desserts glisten and tempt from behind the glass of a long row of refrigerated cases.

japanese pastries columbus

The delightfully bizarre selection in the bakery section overwhelms with options, the first of which is – sweet or savory? As in, a pistachio tart, or the one with the hot dog in it that looks like it has a ketchup drizzle? Chocolate eclair, or a donut filled with chicken curry (picture below)?

japanese curry donut

Almost regardless of your pick, you’ll encounter an extremely light and fluffy white bread-like pastry base that has very little flavor of its own. We’re told this is a Japanese preference, and as such it leans heavily on the fillings, toppings, and the like to carry the experience. This can be pleasant on its own merits, but one can’t help but imagine the reaction of a Parisian to the sacrilege of patisserie-perfect appearing goods sporting the base texture and flavor of Wonderbread. One notable exception was the danishes, in particular the pear-custard version – the pastry was delicious and the custard sublime.

best danish pastries columbus

Moving on to the savory dishes, the curiosities fail to abate. The Neapolitan spaghetti was a reasonably enjoyable bowl of noodles and red sauce, though the hotdog slivers within added little beyond question marks. The smoked salmon sandwich was absolutely gorgeous in a scaled up British tea snack sort of way and featured a clever use of avocado, but the salmon flavor was strangely muted. The aforementioned gratin was essentially mac & cheese, light on the cheese though rich and creamy in the extreme and dotted with bits of shrimp. It’s offered in a bread bowl, just in case you need the extra carbs.

japanese cafe columbus

Perhaps most intriguing was the Japanese spin on beef bourguignon called hayashi rice – tender beef, mushrooms, and onions smothered in a rich wine sauce served alongside rice. Rich, savory, and emphatically comfort-foody, this dish – essentially a stew – speaks directly to the Midwestern soul.

japanese food columbus

The single-serving desserts struck sweet chords left and right among our table of tasters, with the chocolate mousse cake garnering unanimous praise and the impossibly light and powerfully mango-ey mango mousse finding fans among the mango lovers. The fig tart was also well received.

japanese desserts columbus

And then there’s the soft-serve green tea-flavored ice cream, and the self-serve yakisoba noodle sandwiches, and… well, I could go on, but won’t. If you have an open mind to novel twists on familiar favorites, check Belle’s out.

Ba Sho

Ba Sho japanese restaurant

Cuisine: Japanese

2800 Festival Lane (near corner of 161 & Sawmill)

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As is often the case in quality Asian restaurants in Columbus, Ba Sho shows different sides of itself to different people. Should you not be conspicuously Japanese, it tends to provide the menus that show you the items they assume you’ll prefer. Though this may be frustrating, it’s worth keeping in mind that it’s intended as a courtesy.

And, should you be Japanese, an extensive a la carte (small plate) menu also shows up. One that, until recently, was only printed in Japanese, and even now may be a bit difficult for gaijin to get their hands on.

Don’t relent. At minimum, you’ll want the option of ordering from this menu (front, and back). It’s a big part of what makes Ba Sho distinctly different from every other sushi joint in town.

For a great example of this, see their salt-grilled (shio-yaki) items. Both the salt grilled tuna collar and yellowtail collar exhibited a wonderfully crispy char on the outside that concealed the almost creamily tender flesh within. The similarly prepared and distinctly non-rubbery ika-geso (below) has become my new favorite squid dish in town.

salt grilled squid ika

Ankimo (monkfish liver with daikon, ponzu, and green onions) is considered one of the great delicacies of Japan. Since Ba Sho is only the second restaurant we’ve encountered in Columbus to carry it, we had to try it.

ankimo monkfish liver

We’re glad we did. With pleasantly mild overtones of both liver and fish, it was both firm and velvety, and was well accompanied by the tart tang of the citrusy ponzu.

The above represents the highlights of our orders from the a la carte menu, though much remains to be explored. Andrew Zimmern-style curiosity seekers may find additional interest in the natto, fermented squid, and grilled blowfish (fugu) skin.

On a visit with a Japanese-speaking friend, we were told of an off-the-menu dish well worth noting – kani zosui (crab & rice soup with egg, mushrooms, scallions, seaweed, shown below). Though it’s traditionally consumed when ill, we’d gladly partake of its deeply savory comfort-foody qualities on most any occasion.

Ba Sho kani zosui

Ba Sho has an abbreviated lunch menu featuring bento box specials, noodle dishes and katsu (fried panko crusted meat) options. Among those we’ve tried, all were perfectly fine and largely consistent with what you’d find at most Japanese restaurants in town.

Japanese restaurants in the US tend to lean towards being bright and somewhat upscale, but Ba Sho takes a more traditional route. The relatively dark, highly divided, and clean but somewhat cluttered space makes for one of the most genuinely Japanese restaurant environments we’ve seen outside of Japan. The space, plus liberal use of the a la carte menu, amounts to a short, delicious trip to the East.

Freshstreet Yakitori

Cuisine: Japanese

482 S. Front St.
Columbus, OH 43215

Open  Thursday through Saturday, 6:30pm – Midnight

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There exists, in the Brewery District, a bar with no signage. The owners seem to do little in the way of self-promotion, and the lights are dimmed to the point that you might not even think they’re open. They occupy the old Gibby’s building on Front St., and call themselves ‘Double Happiness’.

Once inside, you’ll not mistake them for Gibby’s, or for that matter, any other Brewery District watering hole past or present. Huge red lamps hang from the ceiling, and a strong East Asian vibe permeates. DJs spin on some nights, live music occurs on others. Asian beers and sake-based drinks are the bar’s specialties. The place aims for and hits ‘cool’ dead center.

The only reason we know of this place is because we know Kenny Kim and Misako Ohba, owners of Fresh Street. They have struck a deal with Double Happiness, and now serve kushiyaki (and more) out of the previously dormant kitchen within. They call this new endeavor ‘Freshstreet Yakitori’.

Yakitori, literally translated from Japanese, means charcoal-grilled chicken on skewers. In the US, it’s often (mis)used to refer to anything Japanese-inspired that is charcoal-grilled on skewers, which is a range of offering that should technically fall under the umbrella term of ‘kushiyaki‘.

I mention this only to underscore one point – Freshstreet is serving far more than chicken. In addition to chicken thighs, skin, wings, and meatballs, they’re also serving pork belly, pork cheek, beef short ribs, bacon-wrapped mushrooms, beef heart & kidney, and on and on. As of our last stop in, they had perhaps 13 unique skewer options, with more to come.

I fear I may have objectivity problems – I’m thoroughly enamored with Kenny & Misako, and I’m a sucker for charcoal-grilled meats. When I walked in, it went something like this:

So it made for a good reality check when I happened to talk to a local restauranteur who is well versed in Japanese street foods, and had just been to Double Happiness. They said that Freshstreet’s kushiyaki was about as good as any they’d had anywhere.

Freshstreet also offers ramen and rice balls, and both are seriously good. The ramen’s chicken broth sets the standard in town, and the subtle spicing and crusty grilled exterior of the rice balls make for an edifying experience.

Expect the menu to change somewhat due to availability of ingredients, time of year, and the whims of the kitchen. This has long been a big part of the charm of Fresh Street, and our general advice would be to roll with it – you might not necessarily get the thing you’ve been craving from last time, but you’ll probably discover something new that you’ll end up craving next time.

Please note that Freshstreet provides vegetarian and vegan options. Skewers generally run between $2.50 and $4.00 each, and cups of ramen run $4.00 apiece.

Tensuke Express

Cuisine: Japanese

1167 Old Henderson Rd.
Open: Mon-Fri – 11am-2:30pm, Sat – 11am-7:30pm, Sun – 12pm-7:30pm

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Tensuke Express is a cheap and cheerful lunch stop, and a great little example of Japanese fast food done well. The space, which can be entered either from the outside (seen above) or through the adjacent Tensuke Market, is done up in a vaguely aquatic theme, and features a circular bar seating area with a large, cylindrical fish tank in the middle. Feel free to take a seat there and observe the drama of a 4-foot long leopard-patterned eel slithering out tight laps while smaller fish dart out of its way.

But only after putting in your order, at which point you’ll pay and be given one of those light-up buzzer bricks to signal when you’ll need to return to pick up your meal. Children (myself among them) seem to get a kick out of the obscenely evocative racket the buzzers make against the Corian tabletops.

Meals are a bargain at $5 – $7.50, and the combinations in particular are a steal, all at less than $7.00. Sides run from $.50 – $4.00, with most under $3.00. Beverages are all under $1.00, with Japanese tea at only $.50.

So, like I said, cheap – as in, within a buck or so of your average fast food drive-thru order. But so much better. For example, take a look at this ‘udon + BBQ eel bowl’ combo ($6.75):

It’s a solid rendition of your standard udon bowl – thick, white flour noodles, light, savory broth, seaweed, scallions, a slice of fish cake, and bits of tempura – served with a generous side of BBQ eel. Once you get past the foreign-ness of some of the ingredients, it’s easy to think of this as pure comfort food. The eel, served atop rice, seemed surprisingly generous – it was probably the equivalent of 6 pieces of eel nigiri sushi, and every bit as satisfying.

Yaki udon ($5.75) was similarly enjoyed. Pan fried noodles, bean sprouts, cabbage, carrots, onions and scallions in what Tensuke calls a ‘special sauce’ that was slightly sweet with sesame oil notes. Delicious!

The steamed gyoza ($2.95)  – meaty steamed dumplings with a side of salty soy/sesame oil sauce – were also appreciated and disappeared quickly.

The takoyaki (spherical pancake dumplings with octopus in the middle, $2.95) were good, but we can’t help but feel spoiled by the exceptional quality of Fresh Street’s version. They’re a fine side if you’re already at Tensuke, but if you’re specifically looking for them, I’d recommend that you check here first.

Beyond the dishes shown here, Tensuke also carries a variety of cold noodle dishes, rice curries, ramen bowls, tempura bowls, and Japanese chicken and pork plates. If our experiences (and discussions with others) are any indication, any of these will likely be more than satisfying and an make for an exceptional bargain.

Note: Tensuke Market also carries pre-made sushi, and has a sushi order counter in the small room between the restaurant and the main market area.

Fresh Street

Cuisine: Japanese

1030 N. High St. (in the parking lot just south of Bodega)
Open: weekdays, 11:30am – 5:30pm (closed Tues), weekends, 12:00pm – 6:00pm
Facebook Page

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Imagine you opened a Japanese crepe cart last summer. People came, ate, enjoyed your endlessly creative dishes, respected your commitment to quality ingredients, and raved to others. In no time you had amassed a cult following, and were regularly flattered by glowing mentions in both the social media sphere and traditional media. By the end of summer, you’ve got a spot on an NPR show about street food under your belt. You pulled big crowds almost everywhere you went, and kept ‘em coming even through the cold of November. Eventually, though, the permafreeze became just too much, and you closed up for the season.

Next spring, my street food rock star, as the city defrosts… what do you do?

If you’re Kenny Kim and Misako Ohba, owners and operators of the much lauded Foodie Cart, the answer is: octopus balls!

A bit of back story – in seeking out a sheltered location, they connected with Mikey of Mikey’s Late Night Slice. His pizza ‘shack’ (an outbuilding in a parking lot in the Short North with an adjacent dining room) operates in the evening, and lies dormant during the day. A perfect spot for Kenny & Misako to do their thing during Mikey’s off-hours. Win-win, right?

Except that, for a variety of different reasons, the crepe apparatus wouldn’t fit into the location. Having had their eye on a much smaller takoyaki griddle, the plan came together. Foodie Cart became Fresh Street, and crepes shifted over to takoyaki – a spherical pancake-meets-dumpling style Japanese snack food, traditionally made with a chunk of octopus flesh in the middle.

That word – tradition – was not exactly a central tenet of Foodie Cart’s repertoire, and same goes for this endeavor though perhaps to a lesser extent. While you can get straightforwardly traditional takoyaki here (and if my limited experience is any indication, they’re as good as anything on the streets of Japan…), part of the fun is (and always has been) seeing what these guys come up with next and enjoying how they cajole disparate influences into harmonious flavor pairings.

On our first visit, during their soft opening, they had 3 takoyaki options on the menu – octopus (true takoyaki), Japanese pork sausage, and okonomiyaki. Each allowed for a variety of different sauce & topping options – some gratis, others with a small upcharge.

I loved all 3 types. Each had a nice crispy exterior that tastes of toasted sesame oil and yields to a bread-like layer that transitions to a delicious gooey center. The octopus, unsurprisingly, has chunks of naturally chewy octopus in the middle, and the pork sausage version had pieces of pork sausage that taste surprisingly similar to a breakfast link (and none the worse for it). The okonomiyaki has shredded cabbage in it, which makes for a creative take on the traditional Japanese okonomiyaki pancake. In spite of being the vegetarian option it struck me as every bit the equal of the others. All orders are finished off with a takoyaki sauce, your choice of kewpie mayo or hot mustard, and bonito flakes.

Eight balls come with an order, is surprisingly filling, and is very reasonably priced at $5 per octet. The skill involved in making these is considerable, open for all to see, and makes for entertaining food theater.

The grand opening is today (4/14/11), check ‘em out!