The word “authentic” gets tossed about a lot in the dining industry, especially when it comes to Japanese cuisine.
In fact, Japanese restaurants are everywhere in the United States. with one survey finding that there are around 9,000 Japanese restaurants across the nation.
Anyone can head to their mall’s food court and see restaurants touting their chicken teriyaki as authentic Japanese food. In truth, these are cheap imitators, made to cater to more American palettes instead of bringing more faithful renditions of traditional dishes and flavors. With one taste of real Japanese cuisine, with one visit to an authentic Japanese restaurant, and you’ll see that there’s no substitute, no comparison.
Want the best of the best? The truest of true?
Keep reading to learn how you can spot a real authentic Japanese restaurant from the impersonators and get the best meal for your money.
They Serve Authentic Sushi
Sushi is a Japanese staple, with an origin dating back centuries. And now, thanks to popular restaurant chains and even grocery stores, sushi is one of the most popular dishes around the globe.
But that doesn’t mean that all sushi is worth your time and money. Most restaurants skimp on ingredients, instead, charging diners more money for lesser fish. This is because they are counting on diners to not know the difference between sushi-grade fish and sub-quality. To most diners, if it’s called sushi, and sort of looks like sushi, then it must be sushi, right?
Authentic sushi uses only the highest-quality fish. Sushi-grade fish should have a distinct color that matches the fish’s natural flesh.
Most tuna, for instance, should have a natural maroon or white hue to it, depending on the type, while salmon should have a natural orange to pinkish-orange color. You can tell a restaurant is skimping on ingredients if tuna is darker or the salmon appears grey.
They Take Pride in Their Food’s Presentation
One dead giveaway of a restaurant’s authenticity is the presentation of their food. Authentic Japanese food is as much about the presentation as the taste.
True Japanese restaurants take a less-is-more approach. That’s why most dishes tend to be smaller, individualized servings. The price should also reflect the quality of the food, not the quantity. There is usually a balance in the pricing that shows as much as the food itself that you are having a quality dish at a quality establishment.
Often, Japanese dishes are served on smaller plates placed in a symmetrical manner, accented by palette-cleansing garnishments such as shredded daikon radish. You might also find the dishes given more colorful garnishments such as cucumber and carrot, all shaved or shaped into aesthetically-pleasing arrangements to better accent the presentation, but ultimately bring your attention to the centerpiece: the sushi you have ordered.
Also, do you notice how much sauce is given or placed on a food you order? Is your sushi drenched in sauce, or does your sushi look fresh and untouched by anything but itself? If you notice that the sushi has little to no sauce in it, that is likely because the chef believes the fish is of the best quality. While it runs a little counter to most American cuisine, less sauce means more faith in the flavor and freshness of the fish, that it is so good that you won’t need anything else with it.
This is to highlight the food itself, as Japanese culture considers cooking to be as much an art form as painting or writing. They understand that there’s so much more to the dining experience than tossing food on a plate.
Because of this, most Japanese food presentations stick to a set of guidelines and traditions.
Presentation in More Than Food
Speaking of presentation, another key detail in authentic Japanese restaurants is in the name. A lot of traditional Japanese restaurants will often name their establishments after their name, particularly their surname. This is because most traditional Japanese restaurants are family-owned and have probably been in the business for generations.
So, if you see a Japanese restaurant with names like Matsuda or Takahashi, chances are it’s legitimate. But if you find yourself standing in front of a restaurant called something like Taiko Kabuki (which would literally translate to Japanese Drum Dramatic Japanese Dance), then you best be skeptical about its authenticity as most Japanese customers would look at it and be confused. It would be the equivalent of going to a foreign country and finding a restaurant that claims to serve authentic American cuisine, but it’s “creatively” named something like Jack’s Toe Clipping Race Car and its menu reflects the organization of the naming scheme.
Another key point of presentation is in the service that is provided. Japanese culture places high emphasis on politeness. You can expect service to be prompt, appropriate, and welcome. People will be friendly, not overly friendly, but friendly in a respectful manner. And you can expect to be greeted when you walk in and wished farewell when you leave. Providing the best service is usually in the minds of a traditional Japanese restaurant.
One of the best ways to tell if you are being tended to by Japanese staff is also to just listen to them. If they greet you with a phrase such as “Irasshaimase” (pronounced “Ee-ra-shy-mah-say”, the polite version of “Welcome! Come on in!” The more informal version is “Irasshai”), chances are you’ve come to the right place. And when you leave, you will most likely hear something like “Arigato Gozaimasu” (pronounced “Ah-ree-gah-toh Go-zy-mah-ss”) which would mean “Thank you very much”.
You will also notice that an authentic Japanese restaurant is really clean. Japanese take great pride in cleanliness, and this is also important when you have raw food such as fish sushi and sashimi around. But it is not just the place and its trappings that are clean, worker attire and the chefs will often look very neat and tidy, all to help generate the impression of clean and proper service, clean and fresh food, and a welcoming restaurant establishment. If you walk into a restaurant that claims to be authentic Japanese, and the utensils and glasses are still dirty, or the tables are gunky, or the air has a weird smell to it—chances are you’re not in a real Japanese restaurant.
Authentic Japanese restaurants are not shy about making efficient use of space. It goes back to Japan where common spaces are known to be fairly small and space is at a premium. A Japanese restaurant may either be very small with a few tables making the most of that space, or it could be mid-sized with a few more tables to make use of the extra room. Whichever the case, you can expect a Japanese restaurant to be more about serving 10-30 people than an American family restaurant that may serve up to 120 people at a time. It’s all about efficiency and effectiveness, putting the focus in serving excellence and in providing excellent food.
They Stick to What They Know Best
Most metropolitan areas are littered with all-you-can-eat buffets promising authentic Japanese food for a low fee. If you’ve ever been brave enough to walk into such an establishment, you were probably shocked and confused to discover pizza, chicken nuggets, french fries, and more. And if it’s not a buffet, you might notice how the restaurant may have your expected Japanese dishes but at the same time, it includes some burgers, hot dogs, and dinosaur nuggets on the back of the menu.
If you are confused by that, it’s okay. Most Japanese customers would also be.
Suffice to say, these restaurants aren’t as concerned with authenticity as they’d like you to think.
True Japanese restaurants often have limited menus that highlight their chef’s specialty dishes. They stick to what they know best and leave the American foods to the American restaurants.
This is again because of how traditional, authentic Japanese restaurants are generational businesses that have been around for quite some time, normally in Japan first before opening an establishment in the United States. Their menu might be smaller than other restaurants, but you can bet that they will know how to make those dishes the best that you’ve ever tasted, thanks to many years and generations of practice and refining.
If the Japanese Like It, It’s Probably Japanese
Like many other ethnic restaurants and their respective ethnic customers, you might find Japanese visiting the authentic Japanese restaurants more frequently than the wannabe imitators. If you hear customers speaking Japanese with the chef or a server, chances are you’ve found the right place. Why would Japanese locals settle for less when they can have a real taste of home?
Look For An Authentic Japanese Restaurant Near You
Now that you’re an expert who can spot an authentic Japanese restaurant, why not celebrate with a delicious meal out?
We offer quality, authentic Japanese food including sushi, steaks, and sake that you’re going to love. Make a reservation today and see the difference for yourself.