Food

How to Tell If a Spot Is an Authentic Japanese Restaurant

You don't have to be Italian to own a pizzeria or to smash some Koopa's, just like you don't have to be Japanese to own a Japanese restaurant.

Now that’s said, if you’re here, you’re probably looking for a Japanese owned and operated restaurant because you want to experience what authentic Japanese food is like, without having to go Japan. If that’s you, you’re trying to avoid going to a country where they have beer vending machines, no open container laws, and cheap affordable and delicious food everywhere, but you’re really hungry now and a flight to Japan will take you at least ten-plus hours. So to help you avoid all that, here’s how you can have a similar experience that’ll be more on par with Lost in Translation (featured image) vs. Showdown in Little Tokyo (you know, the movie where a dimwitted “Japanese” guy played by Brandon Lee teams up with the Japanophile Dolph Lundgren). So here are the five key identifiers that’ll help you to be more knowledgeable like Dolph Lundgren.

  1. Japanese Business and Porn Star Names

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    Nobu “Matsuhisa” of Beverly Hills. Picture courtesy of Matsuhisa Beverly Hills.

    Your pets name and the street of where you grew up is how you get your porn name, but for a large majority of Japanese restaurants and businesses they base their business names on their surname (last or family name). The most recognized examples are Nobu (first name) Matsuhisa (surname), Morimoto (surname), Kazunori (first) Nozawa (surname), or even Jujiro Matsuda (which sounds like “Mazda”, but is supposedly based on the Iranian god of harmony, “Ahura Mazda”). Other inspirations for restaurant names may even be where the person is from which may be the case of Yoshinoya (Yoshino-ya) who’s owner is Eikichi Matsuda (no relation to the Mazda founder that I know of, haha) who is from the town Yoshino.

    Toyohara_Kunichika_-_The_kabuki_actors_(right_to_left)_Ichimura_Kakitsu_IV_as_Asahina_Tobei,_Nakamura_Shikan_IV_as_Washi_..._-_Google_Art_Project
    Image of a kabuki performers: he is holding a knife, so I guess you might think sushi. Image by Toyohara Kunichika

    There’s also the non-Japanese names where a Japanese person is like “wtf?” because they have names that include or are named “sumo” (wrestling), “taiko” (Japanese drum), “geisha” (a female entertainer/hostess, you knew that), “katana” (Japanese sword), “kabuki” (Japanese dance/drama), “mizu” (“water”, ok, not totally horrendous for sushi), or “wasabi” (either is this one, at least it’s food related). I mean, the worst of them are silly because the American equivalent would be like having an American diner in Japan called “wrestler”, “pinup girl”, or “nacho hat” (and yea, not totally horrendous).

  2. Pizza and Kalbi on the Menu

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    Ramen-ya serving primarily ramen and tsukemen

    Japanese restaurants typically have a focus because many of the restaurateurs are family owned businesses that have been in business for generations in Japan. Not to say it’s the same with the U.S., but a lot of the restaurants here follow the same basic style which is that they are focused on a particular type of cuisine such as sushi, yakitori, udon, yakiniku, oyakodon, oknonomiyaki, or ramen (all with teriyaki combo… not even joking). You can find places that offer up a variety of items like an izakaya restaurant, but the majority of restaurants focus on a particular cuisine.

  3. Japanese Are Comfortable with Tiny

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    Pictured is Mensho Ramen in San Francisco which totally matches the Japanese culture because it’s a walking city with tiny spaces.

    If the place looks like it will seat between 3-30 people vs. 60-200+, it will most likely be a Japanese establishment because you can take the Japanese person out of Japan, but you can’t take the Japanese out of the person. If you’ve been to Japan, a broom closet is a cozy table for two or a bathroom. It’s also not so uncommon to find a bar or other type of business that will only seat four people because tiny spaces like a capsule hotel and automated parking garages are nothing new to a country that makes efficient use of space.

  4. Irasshaimase and Arigato Gozaimasu

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    A staff shot of Santouka Ramen. Image courtesy of ab-out Corporation.

    Obviously, you’ll want to see if they look, have Japanese names (Nobu, Yuki, Yukiko, etc.) or speak Japanese which is the most tell-tale sign. The easiest way is if they’re able to say “irasshaimase” (welcome) and “arigato gozaimasu” (thank you very much) when you enter or leave without sounding like “ear-rah-say” or “ari-gato goes-away”. Although there are other ways to be able to tell such as the type of service you receive. Japanese service is professional, but they aren’t overly friendly or personal. The differences is that the staff will be very quick, proper, and attentive, but they typically won’t pry into asking if that’s your date or your wife or what your sign is (I’m a Leo btw).

  5. Quality over Quantity

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    A tiny delicious little piece

    Quality and affordability are usually ingrained in the culture, so you won’t see an abundance of spots offering absurdly cheap AYCE sushi. You will see value-oriented pricing that is a balance between quality and price, but price and quantity won’t be the end all, be all. It’s one reason why when you’re in Japan you can get some of the most amazing meals for a couple bucks.

Nacho Hat American Diner

You can do all five, but you can also just simply ask the staff directly although I stick with the subtle approach. I go about that way because I know there are a few places where they’re conscientious about divulging that sort of information because people can be overly critical of who owns and operates the business (in California). I find that silly to some extent because there are a few individuals who aren’t the same nationality, ethnicity, or yet alone race that could give an ethnically native person a good run for their money (unless you’re thrown under the bus by a media outlet like a certain pho owner in PA).

“…there are a few individuals who aren’t the same nationality, ethnicity, or yet alone race that could give an ethnically native person a good run for their money.”

On the flip-side is and the reason why there’s a prevailing sentiment among diners which is that there are businesses who just jump on the trend bandwagon for the money.

That won’t be the case with me because my future place Nacho Hat will have some of the best pork green chili and nacho cheese filled edible hats. I’d also be doing it because I love and respect the cuisine, and you have to respect it if you’re wearing molten chili/cheese on your head.

2 comments

    1. Damn it, my comment didn’t go through (crappy connection). Hahahha, yea, I’d also do the same by having my girlfriend at the time to give them a call when we were headed on over to ask them how busy they were in nihongo. That was one tell tale way of confirming it.