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Street Food in Tokyo & Berlin (and a night in Arlington)


The main pleasure of travel is the food. This thought conjures up visions of exotic meals in elegant restaurants; but the reality of travel is often quite different. Oh, we planned on finding a great restaurant for lunch that day, but there was so little time since we had to fit in that extra show at the art museum, so... what's the best food to buy in the city as you walk between sights? This article will highlight some of the more native fast-food delights to be found in modern Tokyo and contemporary Berlin - the sort of stuff you'll find near a station on the Yamanote Line or the S-Bahn.

Some travelers (whom I consider 'tourists') are drawn to the ever-present American franchises, like McDonald's. They enjoy discovering the subtle differences between the international offerings and what's served back home. I'm not writing for that crowd - I seldom darken the door of McDonald's in the USA, and when I do, it's for the same reason I'll visit one abroad - for the restroom. Never for the food - that, only as the last resort.

Both Tokyo and Berlin have many street-side food stalls open late into the night. The Japanese have an evolving tradition of these, which they call yatai, and a wide assortment is available from them. Noodles are common late at night, and during the winter the vendors of roasted sweet potatoes appear. The tastiest are the inexpensive skewers of grilled chicken called yakitori. Germany is not typically thought of when it comes to street food, but Berlin (or at least West Berlin) has been the modern exception. The "Schnell Imbiss" kiosks have been a feature of any heavily-trafficked Platz for some time now - a place where you can buy a canned drink (beer naturally being a popular choice) and a sausage. Their tasty, most typical offering is a long Bratwurst, served with a split chunk of bread (to hold it) and a small square of cardboard upon which rests a dollop of mustard. The early closing times of restaurants are far more prevalent and annoying in Tokyo, but one frequently finds a similar situation in Berlin: Nothing's open except the kiosk!

In Tokyo the street fare I seek out is not the curry-rice or the sweet-bean cakes (although the latter are also very nice), but the octopus blobs called takoyaki. The vendors selling these can be identified by their grill equipment that looks like black egg crates. Chunks of octopus tentacle are mixed in to a buckwheat-flour dough, and ladled into the molds. As they harden, the cook deftly rotates the balls with a sharp probe, twisting them into spheres. Mysterious spices and powdered nori (seaweed) are also shaken onto the takoyaki as they cook. Eight or eleven steamy-hot balls are placed in a plastic clam-shell with a couple of toothpicks, and secured with a rubber band -- yours for 300 yen!

Almost everywhere now in Berlin one sees signs for Donner Kabob. These stalls are run by members of the large Islamic immigrant community, originally composed of only the Gastarbeiters from Turkey. Since there's no difference between the "b" and "p" consonant sounds in Arabic, the spelling of these signs may also read Donner Kabop. Their main offering is quite similar to a Gyro - souvlaki meat & etc in a pita. But I prefer the pizza offered at these places, as well as at the numerous walk-up windows (an interesting addition to the more recent ethnic restaurants). A serving consists of a square of pizza cut into six smaller squares and served on a paper plate. The pizza's toppings might include slices of canned pineapple or sausage. These pizzas don't really resemble the Italian variety -- they're more like an Armenian pizza. Very thin crust, not much cheese. The slices cost under 2DM.

Having just returned from Austria, I'll add a Viennese epilogue. The "Wiener" Imbiss has the usual sausage items one finds in Berlin, with the addition of the most wonderful 'Hot Dogs' (that's what the signs say). Now, I've never been a fan of this American treat - they made me nauseous when I was in grade school - but the Viennese do 'em right. Each stand comes equipped with a small device which has a formation of what looks like four aluminum dildoes, standing upright in a square. The cook prepares long, crusty French rolls by lobbing off the end (sometimes at an angle) and impaling the roll on one of these spears, creating a cavity into which he'll squirt a thick jet of wonderful spicy mustard. Then he slips a sausage into the hole, with an inch or so of the wurst protruding. Some places also take the lobbed-off end and insert the angled point back in with the sausage, creating a little "beak". A napkin is wrapped around and it's handed to you upright so everything stays intact. Delicious!

* * *

Tonight I will leave my "Hyde Park" condo by the side entrance and walk up Glebe Road to the Ballston Common mall. I'll enter the large door, passing the chain bookstore as I swing up the open stairway to the second floor. I'll walk along ignoring the shops, but staring at the people, making eye contact with any who dare. I'll pass an open space to my right: two floors below lies the basement food court where the immigrant laborers are enjoying their beers, muttering quietly among themselves in Spanish and sometimes snickering at the more mainstream black and white Americans around them. I'll pass through the automatic doors, entering the first of two enclosed flying bridges. This is the larger one... recently augmented with large chunks of colored glass which appears to be the same work of the artist whose large sculptures dominate the central atrium of the National Science Foundation, just ahead. I'll look through the glass walls - down on the sparse traffic of Wilson Blvd, and over to the left at the obsolete 50's splendor of the Bob Peck Chevy showroom. I'll hit the door at the end of the corridor smartly with my out-thrust palm, shoving it open as I stride through. Then I'll be within the NSF, moving along its open mezzanine level which wraps around a central court containing an Uno Pizzeria and a dozen bogus palm trees. The two sculptures are here, both essentially consisting of narrow slabs or prisms of tinted glass, racked into long linear elements. The floor-mounted one is erect with a couple angular bends; the other, a curve, hangs in the atrium, which is maybe eight floors high. As I exit the NSF I'll enter the second, much shorter flying bridge which leads into the Alta Vista Condominium/Renaissance Hotel building which is labeled Ballston Metro Center. I'll pass a branch of my gym ("Sport & Health") - I signed up here, but seldom visit it - the one room always has bad radio playing, and the lack of ventilation triggers my asthma. I'll smell the pool's humidity and think, once again, like I always do on my way to Metro: "Shoulda brought my trunks - coulda takin' a dip!" I'll then descend the escalator down to the ground level, passing first the rudimentary newsstand and then the expensive (but excellent) Tivoli Pastry/coffee establishment. Then I'll go through the doors which open onto the Metro station's escalators, and I'll be outside again. I'll jaywalk across Fairfax Drive, facing the Pita Palace, el Jaguar Cafe and Eat 'n' Run Deli as I veer right into the alley. My destination is around back of this strip of shops: the Islamic pleasures of the Food Factory are within grasp now. I'll push through their double doors, and hopefully there's no line: I'll request "Chicken With Bone", pay them my $5.15, accept my receipt and drink the styro cup of chilled water I'll decant from the cooler as I read my book, waiting for my number to be called. Then I'll tuck into the five orange chunks of grilled thigh and leg meat, served within a folded-over disk of "nan" bread. This is presented on a sectioned styro plate which also has a small salad (just some lettuce and a tomato wedge) and the spicy yogurt sauce, for dipping the meat and torn-off bits of bread. Delicious!

Note: This consolidates two pieces I wrote around the same time, during my inter-California period when I lived Inside the Beltway in Northern Virginia for a few years in the mid-90's.
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