The $5 Lunch Special

The $5 Lunch Special

I was never much of a day eater.  Breakfast was typically coffee, more coffee and then a little bit more coffee. Lunch was an after-thought — something I bowed to rather than enjoyed.  I saved my appetite for dinner, for that big meal at the end of the day.

As many a savvy eater knows (and something I have finally accepted) Lunch provides the biggest bang for the buck.  In Paris, the wise businessman goes to his local bistro for the Special of the Day, drinks wine and then enjoys a 3 hour nap. Same as in Italy.  Both then have a light “supper” and thus they stay trim and healthy and fitting into wonderful, custom-made suits.  My father aka Hungry Gerald regaled me with tales of his business schedule as a press agent in the 1960s: Wake up, smoke 5 Marlboros, drink much coffee and read all the papers, scratch foot calluses. Work hard until noon. Lunch time with clients or reporters at one of many fantastic NYC restaurants of the time. Drink at least 4 vodka martinis. Sleep on office sofa until 3:30. Work hard until six pm.  Sounds pretty good! Even without the martinis, New York still kills with great lunches —  all the famous, incredibly expensive restaurants offer quite reasonable lunch-time specials. Your dreamed-of-night at Le Bernardin won’t put you in the poor house if you eat there when the sun is shining.  In addition, lunch time has some treats that don’t exist at night such as the special hamburger (which, I have to say, is one of the more delicious things ever) offered up by famed steak-house Peter Luger . While in New York, I rarely took advantage of these specials. Occasionally I would splurge and get a sandwich at Court Street Grocers, but mainly, when forced by hunger, I would grab $2 wheat noodles in peanut sauce, a slice of pizza or egg, cheese and bacon on a roll at the bodega — things that coincided unsurprisingly with a hangover.

I have been reborn in Tokyo as lunchtime nosher. I am doing freelance work at the moment and taking care of child rearing duties while my wife endures a fairly brutal morning-to-midnight schedule as a chef at one of Tokyo’s most renowned Udon restaurants. So, I am at home a lot.  Much more than I have ever been. Around 12:30, I typically feel a pang of hunger, so I jump on my bike and go see what draws my attention. In my neighborhood, the options are just endless and the lunch specials amazingly cheap.  For less than ten dollars I have had a bowl of rice covered with incredibly fresh, delicious sashimi and red salmon roe; a Wagyu beef special so tender that the flesh seemed to magically melt on my palette; a tray of udon with feather-light tempura, pickles, salad and soup; dried beef curry rice with coffee, pickled onions and fresh tomato; Pork Tongkatsu (fried, breaded pork tenderloin) served on a nest of cabbage with miso soup redolent of tiny clams and seaweed.  I could go on and on and pick a different spot each day and still discover more.

The place I keep going back to however, is more pedestrian.  It is a “Chinese” restaurant that I have dubbed “Gyoza Girl” as their logo is a young pig-tailed girl with a plate of gyoza in her hand — she is a superhero that I can totally get behind. Needless to say, they specialize in gyoza: thin-skinned, juicy, just the right blend of garlic and ginger and served with a crunchy crust of rice flour on one side. I like to eat at the counter, bound in by my fellow solo diners who range from the retired to the salary man on break.  No one chats and everyone seems happy with their plates of, say, crunchy noodles and seafood with, more often than not, a frosty glass of beer.  The lunch specials run about $5 and pair those delightful gyoza with a range of options: a mound of fried rice tinged with the smokiness of a well seasoned wok, silky mapo tofu or a pile of fried chicken with green onion. Weekly, there seems to be seasonal specialties or regional treats, like the Nigata special which paired an heirloom variety of rice with fresh soybean and mushroom. The service is efficient but not rushed in the slightest. The thing that I most like about eating here is a certain anonymity and along with that, a certain lack of shame — specifically when it comes to eating gyoza.  It is common for diners to order 2 or 3 orders of gyoza with nothing else, or maybe with just rice.  You see, I am a long time dumpling fiend.  For some reason, at American Chinese restaurants, dumplings were listed as appetizers.  As a family of four, we would, if lucky be allowed to order 2 orders of dumplings, so 6 to an order meant 3 apiece.  Three?  Three of the best things on the menu?  I found it unfair.  My sister found it unfair.  In fact, in a wonderful moment of liberation, when my sister (4 years older than me) had her first boyfriend who owned a car, we made him drive us to a restaurant in Elizabeth, NJ where we threw off the shackles of the entrée and ordered 8 orders of dumplings. It was even better than we had expected.  Of course, the boyfriend fixed us with a certain glower, a look of quiet disgust at our dumpling gluttony.  It dawned on him that my sister and I had completely used him for transport and in fact vastly preferred dumplings to his wet sock persona.  At Gyoza Girl, no one would judge the solitary man or woman having a serious dumpling fix.  They would simply pour a glass of water, turn to their own plate and think to themselves, “Next week, I shall do the same.”



3 Replies to “The $5 Lunch Special”

  1. I love this and ALL of your posts. It’s by far my favorite blog!!! I have a huge sense of nostalgia for Japan reading these. Thank you for sharing! Love to you and your family. xx

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