Monday, September 24, 2012

Village Vanguard Diner, Koshigaya, Saitama

On recommendation from a coworker of mine, I decided to have lunch at Village Vanguard Diner at Koshigaya Laketown.  Before even discussing my lunch, I need to talk about Koshigaya Laketown first.  I believe that Aeon Laketown, which is located at Koshigaya Laketown station (about a half-hour northeast of Tokyo), is the largest shopping mall in Japan. So if shopping is your thing, this is the place.  I'll talk more about malls later.

Now on to the important stuff apart from my mall discussion.  In sum, Village Vanguard Diner has great burgers.  Actually, not just great burgers, but really, really great burgers.  It's not often where a burger makes me think, "Wow this is something special!"  I ordered the smokey bacon BBQ pepper cheeseburger.  As to burger size, I chose the wide mouth burger, which is the larger of the two sizes.  I recall that it was around 1430 yen.  The hamburger was freshly off of the grill and had a hearty seasoned flavor.  The giant bacon strip was salted and spiced well and the pepper cheese made my taste buds sing with joy.  The bun was something out of a fine bakery and added to the greatness of my burger.  I washed the burger down with a medium-sized pineapple juice.

One of my companions ordered the avocado burger and she was thoroughly impressed with it.  She got the non-big mouth size.

The burgers included a small amount of fries which were fresh-cut.  The fries were nothing to write home about though since they were overshadowed by great burgers.  In addition to the burgers above, the restaurant had a good variety of others to choose from.

The restaurant houses an assortment of interesting U.S. memorabilia.  I happen to like the Lion Coffee picture below since I love coffee so much.  Our entire meal was accompanied by Dixieland jazz music.  The decor and music create a very eclectic atmosphere.

The restaurant maybe only seats about 50 diners and you can tell from the picture below that it can get crowded.

All in all, I give Village Vanguard Diner five out of five moos for the great hamburgers it has.  Regarding this restaurant, as the Terminator would say, "I'll be back!"

Back to my discussion on malls, Aeon Laketown is actually three malls in one, the Kaze mall, the Mori mall and the Laketown Outlet mall.  You could spend your whole day there and it has every store from Gap to Lego to Sony Plaza to obscure boutiques.   They even have a Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory there, which I'll review in a later post.   That said, Aeon Laketown is in my top ten favorite shopping malls which are:

  1. Mall of America, Minneapolis, Minnesota: 2 giant food courts, an amusement park, an aquarium, Legoland and a movie complex.  It was at this mall that I first experienced Rain Forest Cafe and Planet Hollywood (which like most Planet Hollywoods, closed).  Along with well-known stores, this mall boasts plenty of smaller shops and carts too.  The view from the food courts (they are opposite from each other) into the centrally-located theme park gave me a shopper's impression of what it must be like for a tourist to look into the Grand Canyon for the first time.
  2. Miracle Mile Shops at the Planet Hollywood Casino, Las Vegas, Nevada:  Huge mall set in a wonderful Middle Eastern theme (it used to be the Aladdin Casino).  There is a pretty cool thunderstorm every hour, and I think the store selection here is better than the Forum Shops at Caesars and the Venice-themed mall at the Venetian.
  3. Downtown Disney, Orlando, Florida: Spending a year as a performer at Disney World has made me quite fond of this mall, not for just the memories, but also for the magic feelings that only Disney can make you feel.  I believe that Downtown Disney's World of Disney is the largest Disney Store in the world, and restaurants such as Bongos, Wolfgang Pucks, Rain Forest, T-Rex Cafe, and Fulton's Crabhouse ensure that you'll have a fun place to eat.
  4. The Eaton Centre, Toronto: The diversity of people shopping at this mall is amazing.  The setting and store selection is something very nice too, especially for a mall set in a downtown area. 
  5. Woodfield Mall,Schaumburg, Illinois: This is a hometown favorite, a high school hangout for me. Woodfield is one of the largest U.S. malls in terms of retail space.  I saw Jurassic Park here, watched the OJ chase here (at Lucky's which is no longer open), and Mom currently works here.  For me, Woodfield has many good memories, and is a mandatory visit when I return to Chicago. If by chance you go here, enjoy a root beer at A&W for me.
  6. Aeon Laketown, Saitama, Japan: Well, this is the place to go when I feel like shopping in Tokyo.  Please see my thoughts above about it.
  7. Harbour City, Hong Kong: Huge mall in Hong Kong located in the Tsim Sha Tsui area.  Fine dining, luxury stores and more.  We went here almost everyday when we were in Hong Kong.
  8. Orland Square Mall, Orland Park, Illinois: Another sentimental favorite. We went here quite often in law school as the store selection was better than the much closer Southlake Mall in Merrillville.  This mall isn't really that great, but it has a store selection that I like a lot, Games Workshop, a toy store (probably not since Kay Bee went under a few years ago), and a pretty large Barnes & Noble in the perimeter.
  9. Grand Avenue Mall, Milwaukee, Wisconsin (circa 1980's).  I say circa 1980's because I went to the mall about 5 years ago and it was pretty disappointing as there were a lot of vacancies.  This mall had one of my favorite stores of all time, the Puzzle Box. The Puzzle Box was a store where you could find a dizzying assortment of miniature toys- dinosaurs, dice, animals, robots, balls, blocks, etc.  It was something like the assortment of toys presented in those I Spy and Can You See What I See books.  The mall had this pretty cool food court where there was a bear that was going across a tightrope on a unicycle.  For some odd reason, the Stanley Cup visited this mall and I actually had a chance to touch it (I didn't for some reason and will regret not touching  it for the rest of my life).
  10. Sunshine City, Ikebukuro, Tokyo: Packed with young people with a wide assortment of fashion styles, there are always interesting people to watch here.  Combined with an aquarium up at top, many game centers below, a Gyoza stadium and the Namco Namja Town theme park, this is a pretty cool mall.  Many years ago, I lived within walking distance from this mall and as a result, I have many good memories at Sunshine.  If you like Mexican cuisine, there is an El Torito here, which can satisfy your cravings for Americanized Mexican food.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

3th Anniversary!; Loft, Shin-Misato, Saitama

No words are needed to see the humor on this balloon...  I actually had to do a double take on this one after someone pointed it out to me because it was such an egregious English mistake.  For those of you not familiar with Japan, Loft is a store where you can buy everything from pillows to watches to novelty gifts to furniture and so on.

Come on now, I respect the fact that you want to use English, but if you are a major retailer (as Loft is here in Japan), I would at least check if 2 words are correctly spelled/being used.   On the same day as getting this balloon, I was able to dine at Village Vanguard Diner at Aeon Laketown, and boy oh boy that was some fine dining.  I'll put my review up soon.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Bad Ass Coffee, Makuhari, Chiba

Bad Ass Coffee...  From the name, who would know that Bad Ass Coffee is a chain of Hawaiian-themed coffee shops?  While the name of the shop is funny because it is based on the asses used to climb mountains that coffee grows on, most people don't get the connection between the name and Hawaii.  As a result, perhaps the theming aspect of the coffee shop might fail to attract customers with an interest in Hawaii.  The name even caused some controversy as I remember reading a story about how the city of West Dundee initially opposed the name of the shop when a West Dundee shop opened in the mid-2000's (it folded pretty quickly from my understanding).  However, the name is unforgettable and might help it stand out.  The theming is pretty good with palm trees, Hawaiian motif furniture and Hawaiian music.  No tikis though...
Unlike Honolulu Coffee Company, Bad Ass does not originally hail from Hawaii.

I visited Bad Ass on a Saturday a little after 2pm, and people were still eating lunch.  The place was absolutely packed as along with the coffee, it serves Hawaiian-style food.

 To get an idea of what is on the menu, please refer to the following picture.  Don't you love the Japanese-English with "The dish of legend" and "Pan Cake"?  At least they tried though; I can't imagine House of Kobe (a Japanese restaurant in Merrillville owned by a Taiwanese American family) trying to create a Japanese menu.

Here is one of the legendary bad asses:

They have a good variety of coffee blends such as Hawaiian Pie and Coconut Macadamia, but I was interested in the 100% Kona.  A large ice 100% Kona set me back 530 yen, which is about 6 bucks.  They had malasadas too, and I couldn't resist getting one.

 My meal looked like this:

The malasada was the bomb.  For a second, I thought it was fresh out of the deep fryer.  Maybe it was...  My little golden puff of joy was warm, slightly firm but soft on the inside, and had just the right amount of sugar.  The coffee was, well great.  You can't lose with 100% Kona, the king of coffees.  I definitely recommend that you make it out to Makuhari for this place.  Although the website still lists the Jimbocho location, it closed about 2 years ago.  The closure is a shame as I have some good memories of the Jimbocho location- I spent one of my birthdays there with a buddy and also it was the place where I learned of some great news.  For all of you Chicago people, there is a Bad Ass somewhere in the city.  Please try it and let me know what you think.

The bottom line- for the malasada, Kona and theming, I give Bad Ass Coffee five coconuts out of five coconuts.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Hooray for Boobies, Shinjuku, Tokyo

Amazingly, Hooray for Boobies is an actual name of an album, the Bloodhound Gang's third studio album, released in 1999.  From that album, you may remember that song, "The Bad Touch" with great lines such as:

"So put your hands down my pants and I'll bet you'll feel nuts
Yes I'm Siskel, yes I'm Ebert and you're getting two thumbs up"

If not, check YouTube for the video, which is an absolute classic.  It has three elements that have been historically deemed as funny: 1. full grown men running around in monkey costumes (monkeys), 2. mimes, and 3. little people.  Even in 1999, poking fun at little people was considered bad taste, but it is obvious that the song is aimed at the fratboy crowd.

Back to Japan, I was in Yodobashi Camera to buy primer for my models this weekend when I ran across the picture above as the cover of a magazine.   Japanese culture is no different than other cultures in its men's obsession with large- breasted women.  However, unlike other cultures, I have a feeling that many Japanese men would actually prefer a comic book/cartoon (manga/anime) version of the foregoing over the real thing.  In this regard though, I can't imagine a cartoon girl getting mad at you for spending too much money at the casino, or spending too much time at the gym, or even for forgetting to take out the trash.  Maybe the cartoon girl isn't so bad afterall...

The above picture is actually so comical, that I had to take a picture of it.  The cartoon big-breasted girl is doing the whole touch your shoulder blades joke that most guys tried to get girls to do in junior high school.  Not only that, I'm not even sure if her proportions are physically possible.  The pose is just so hilarious as it screams- I'm showing off my large cartoon chest!

Pictures like this are the norm here and there's entire district called Akihabara (秋葉原) where one can buy comic books, cartoons and little figurines of girls like in the above picture.  Sadly, it is a multimillion dollar business in Japan.  Is this the reason the childbirth rate has decreased to alarmingly low levels in Japan!?  Have real sweethearts been replaced by their cartoon counterparts?  Has the guy next to me on the train with this picture as his main screen on his smartphone given up on real girls? The above being said, perhaps today's post should be called Hooray for Cartoon Boobies.    

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Guangzhou Ichiba 広州市場, Shinjuku, Tokyo

Well, you want a review of a hole in the wall with good food?  Then, I got one for you.  Note that I'm not actually sure what the Japanese reading of the restaurant's name is, so I'll go with the Chinese reading of it.   This noodle shop is located closest to the West exit of Shinjuku station and is within sight of the big Shinjuku post office, on the same street.  Yodabashi Camera branches are all close to this one.

To start, the restaurant is not the cleanest, and well, it really felt like I was in Chinatown in Chicago rather than anywhere in Japan.  I think that is a good sign food-wise.  There are only about 12 seats at this one, so you might have to wait a bit.  I ordered the shrimp wanton men set, which includes fried gyoza.  This one set me back 1020 yen, which is about 12 dollars.  After I ordered, I realized that I could choose the flavor of the soup that holds the noodles and the dumplings.  They didn't offer a choice to me, perhaps because I quickly put my headphones back on after I ordered.  I ended up with the thickest soup, which was quite flavorful (I could imagine the pork simmering for hours on end to create the thick broth).  As Rachel Ray would say, yum-o!!!

The noodles were very thick too, much like tsukemen noodles.  There were three wantons and I saved them for last.  Unlike the wantons that I am accustomed to such as those from Hong Kong Cafe on Algonquin Road near Schaumburg, these were like shrimp gyoza.  Maybe because Japanese are more familiar with these kinds of dumplings?  Regardless, they were very yummy.

The gyoza were literally out of this world.  I never had such light gyoza, in fact they almost had a meringue-like feel to them.  I probably could have eaten 50 of them if I could afford to, but unfortunately, only five came with my set.  I really liked the gyoza here because they were so unique.

All in all, I give Guangzhou Ichiba four dumplings out of four dumplings for the shrimp wanton men and the gyoza.  When in Shinjuku, I'll definitely be back.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Dino Kingdom, Makuhari, Chiba

For all you dinosaur fans, the Dino Kingdom is currently being held at the Makuhari Messe expo hall in Makuhari, which is about a 20-30 minute train ride from Tokyo station.  Dino Kingdom boasts 22 new species of dinosaurs that were recently discovered in China.  The show will run until September 23, and its hours and prices are: 9am-5pm; ¥2,500(general), ¥1,200(elementary & middle school students).  I was able to head out to the show with my dinosaur friends last weekend and we had a pretty fun time geeking it up.

There were two highlights of the show for me.  The first, being a Disney freak, was an audio-animatronic of a newly-found species of T-Rex.

Compared to previous years, they had a good deal of dinosaur dioramas with life-sized dinosaur models on display.  I actually prefer the life-sized models over the actual fossils.

Of course, they also had fossils too, including the largest duck-billed dinosaur ever found (the taller dinosaur in the picture that is immediately below).

They had plenty of kid activities too, including design your own dino-cookie and dig for your own fossil (as shown below).

Finally, as expected, they had a large gift shop that you could not avoid (in true Disney fashion, access to the exit required passing through the giftshop).  I tried my chances with the gatcha gatcha machine, and bless the gatcha gatcha machine gods, got the coveted secret dinosaur (as shown in the advertisement).  

Getting the secret dinosaur was the second highlight of the show. The gatcha gatcha dinosaurs are a limited edition for the Dino Kingdom expo and cost 300 yen each.  I got three of them, the secret dinosaur and the two dinosaurs in the final picture.

All in all, it was a great time due to the luck with the gatcha gatcha machines, life-sized dinosaur models, fossil presentation, and children’s activities.  I give this year’s Dino Kindom five roars out of five roars.

Monsoon Cafe, Odaiba, Tokyo

Another restaurant review here.  This one is for the Monsoon Café in Odaiba, at the same location in Odaiba as The King of the Pirates restaurant.  The Monsoon Café is located throughout the Tokyo area and I’ve also been to the Maihama Monsoon Café. The Tiki connection here is the Monsoon Café’s selection of tropical drinks.  

Monsoon Café has a Southeast Asian feel to it, palm trees, somewhat third-world settings and lots of bamboo.  The food at Monsoon Café is a mix of exotic Thai and Vietnamese food and some familiar Chinese items.  The restaurateurs did a good job with this one, and it actually felt humid in the restaurant (although I haven’t been fortunate enough to visit SE Asia, this is my impression of it from Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, the Hang Over 2 and those feed-a-poor-child commercials/ads).  Unfortunately, they ruined the theming by playing reggae/hip hop music in the restaurant.   

 Let’s get to the food and the grog.

We ordered a variety of dishes and plates, xiao long bao, Thai shrimp toast, nama harumaki, the oriental salad, the meat satay set, and the pork and pineapple fried rice.  The xiao long bao (shou ron po) were pretty average, and you can get better ones from Chinese restaurants.  The Thai shrimp toast was pretty darned good, and had a nice distinct shrimp flavor with a nice crunchy crust.  The oriental salad was decent, but nothing to write home about.  As to the meat satay sticks, you can’t go wrong with sticks of meat that aren’t overcooked.  Two thumbs up for these.  Finally, the pork and pineapple fried rice was the favorite dish for our group.  A perfect blend of sweet and somewhat salty.  The best part of it was the fried rice was not too dry.  I think we ordered two plates of it.  As to my drink, I ordered the Exotic Pineapple.  I’m not sure what was in it, but I suspect rum.  It tasted pretty good, but not enough rum for my tastes. Finally, we ordered a dessert that had ice cream, fruit and little hard crepes.  Very nice presentation, but it tasted just like a bunch of sweets thrown together.

We love themed restaurants, so there’s a good chance we’ll hit another one of the Monsoon Cafés at another location in Tokyo.  The theming gets four out of five satay sticks.  As to the food, I give it three out of five satay sticks. 

Monday, September 3, 2012

King of the Pirates Restaurant, Odaiba, Tokyo

Pirates may not be recognized as being related to Tiki culture.   However, there are some connections here since our seafaring friends traveled near and far and throughout the South Pacific Seas.  Case in point, that whole Lego pirate line from the early 90’s that featured Lego pirates amongst South Pacific islanders with their Tikis, longboats, palm trees and alligators!? 

This brings me to my next restaurant review, King of the Pirates, a pirate-themed restaurant on the Odaiba island in Tokyo (located on the 5th floor of the Aqua City Mall).  We went there for an early lunch (11:15am) on the first Saturday of Golden Week.  Amazingly, no wait, although it did get a bit crowded around 12:30pm.

Upon entering the restaurant, the Japanese pirate staff greeted us with “Ole!”  I guess nobody told them that pirates were chiefly British and the Spanish were the folks the pirates terrorized.  But at least they were keeping with the character they believed the pirates to have.

The restaurant is decorated quite nicely with galley-looking tables and woodwork, skulls, and a nice assortment of nautical signs and pirate booty.  The pirate costumes of the servers would fit well in one of the Six Flags Amusement parks during the Halloween weekends.  Unfortunately, the costumes didn't reveal enough pirate booty.  OK, pull me from the stage for that poor joke.

I ordered the tuna rib set which also included fries and corn.  White rice came with my meal.  From what I recall, my meal was around 1,000 yen, which is a pretty standard price for lunch meals in Tokyo.  The tuna was cooked well, not too tough.  It wasn’t the most flavorful, but that beats being over-salted.  The meal set also included all-you-can salad, curry rice, and chocolate fountain items.  I liked the curry rice, very mild.

Last, but not least, the meal included all-you-can drink beverages from the new Coca Cola machine which allows you to choose from over 150 different mixes of soft drinks.  I went with Fruit Fanta and Melon Sprite.  Pretty cool.  You can see the future of soft drinks in the background on the right side.

The other members of my group ordered the chicken grill set and chicken nugget sets.  Not exactly pirate fare, but at least the kid sets came in little black ships.  I feel the members of my band enjoyed their food and the dining experience.

I give King of the Pirates three and a half out of five doubloons for the food.  I give it four out of five doubloons for the value and four our of five stars for the theming. 

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Giovanni’s Shrimp Truck, Kahuku, Oahu

As promised, here is my impression of Giovanni’sShrimp Truck, just down the road from Romy’s.  Last week, I gave Romy’s stellar marks for its prawns and li hing mui pineapple.  This week, I’m going to give Giovanni’s stellar marks for its lemon butter shrimp (left in the second picture below) and garlic shrimp scampi (right in the second picture below).   Both were, drum roll…  Great.  I’ll talk more about the shrimp in a bit, but first a few words on the menu at Giovanni’s.  From my memory, there was not too many choices on Giovanni’s menu.   I actually think that it is pretty cool and it worked quite well.  Namely, Giovanni’s sticks to what it is good at and focuses on that exclusively.  No diversification here, no weak attempts at BBQ chicken wings or Kung Pao chicken to appease to the masses or get that few extra customers.  Just make the best shrimp and have people come to you for that.  As stated in a few lines above, pretty darned cool and pretty effective in this case.

Each plate was 13 dollars and contained a dozen shrimp.   The shrimp were perfectly cooked, not chewy as overcooked shrimp can get.  The shrimp scampi (right) was full of flavor, pleasant, carmelized garlic is great.  The lemon butter shrimp (left) were the favorite with my group, good for kids and a fresh flavor.  Not exactly sure what I mean by fresh flavor, but try them and you’ll agree.  Both were a mess in terms of deshelling the shrimp.  Luckily, Giovanni’s had very good facilities to wash hands.  From my memory, I believe Giovanni’s actually had non-portable restrooms too.  

Many of the shrimp truck reviews warn of long waits for orders, but since we went around 4ish to both of them (on a Friday), we were not hit by the long wait times, roughly only 15 minutes each.  I can imagine that on the weekends and for lunch and dinner, you might have to wait a long time though.  But for the shrimp and prawns that Giovanni’s and Romy’s have to offer, the wait is well worth it.

My review, five out of five shrimp for Giovanni’s lemon butter shrimp and shrimp scampi.