By Our Anonymous Travel Writer
Editor – Justin Howard @Jthnomad
As I travel, I find some things are harder to leave behind than others, and for me, that includes late-night eats and local hangover preventatives. After a night out drinking, no matter where you are, what could be better than random after-midnight Mexican food? As a Californian, there are plenty of Mexican burrito shacks and food trucks lining the streets after midnight to help quench the drunken palate. So, when you’re living in a new foreign country, drunk and hungry. What do you crave? What you left on the other side of the Pacific rim – burritos. Even if it means nearly hallucinating out of sheer desire.
I had just moved to Tokyo (and didn’t really have my bearings yet) when my friend Sophie decided to visit, and of course asked me show her around. Luckily, a few coworkers and I had already made some great connections at a local club in the Roppongi district that gave us free entry and cheap/free drinks. I suspected they were bringing us into their club just so they could draw in more locals who liked to mingle with us exotic expats. So it was a natural for my first stop with Sophie. But as the night went on and the drinks kept coming, we were getting hungry for something other than pizza and fries (yes, even in Japan).
Into the night (or early morning depending on your view) we start by backtracking towards the now- closed train station looking for food. Everywhere we looked was either too busy (even at 2:30 a.m.), all in Japanese, or street vendors. Some street vendor food is fantastic. Some is not.
“What about this?” Sophie asked, pointing to a pot of grey water with something, maybe meat, maybe fish floating around.
“Nah, that smells gross, I don’t even know what it is. There was that Mexican-looking place we saw earlier. I bet they have BURRITOS!”
“OMG YES!!!!!!!!!! Burritos sound so good right now.”
A brilliant idea was hatched: we would find the Mexican food, eat the Mexican food and then catch a cab to the Tsukiji Fish Market to see fish tossing. You have to be there really early in the morning to get in. We could do it.
Up and down the streets, in the rain, we looked for the sign with a gleaming green cactus and a sombrero. Businesses are stacked into Tokyo high-rises, one to three per floor generally, but the signs outside don’t give you a clue as to what floor you’re looking for. When we finally located Geronimo’s entrance on the third floor, I walked straight up to the barman.
“Can we get two carnitas burritos, please?”
He stared blankly at me.
I tried slowing down and speaking louder “Can.we.have.carnitas.burritos?!”
He responded in Japanese. I heard something that sounded like “burrido”. Undaunted, I persisted. “You know, like pork, car-ni-tas.” Still no clear response. He must not have pork.
“Carne asada burrito?” Were those tears in the corners of this polite Japanese barman?
“Beef burrito?” I tried again. He frowned, straining to comprehend this bizarre Westerner and his midnight needs. I heard him breathing deeply, as if trying to force extra oxygen into his brain so he could understand me better. As I said “Chicken, then?” I could feel Sophie pulling at my sleeve, trying to divert me from my desperate litany of potential burrito meats. Finally, the barman spoke again.
This time he said in broken English “No food.shots.alco.hol.onry.”
Hardly hearing him through the music, and still not believing there was no food, I said, “I see a kitchen in the back, so you have food, yes? This is a Mexican place – you must have burritos!”
Again his reply “Arukōru nomi. Shokumotsu ga arimasen.”
Sophie nudged me again, harder this time. She pointed to our surroundings. There were plenty of customers, but no chewing in progress. No empty plates waiting to be cleared, no bottles of hot sauce, no crumpled white napkins blooming on the tables in the darkness, no savory scent of pork and hot peppers stewing somewhere just beyond our line of vision. Slowly I realized what he had been saying the entire time.This wasn’t a bar with food.
“This.this place is a shot bar, huh?” I whispered to Sophie.
How stupid I had been to think that any Mexican-looking place would automatically have burritos, and how over-confident I was in showing my friend around Tokyo. “Let’s just get two shots and get out of here,” I replied sheepishly. I told the barman we’d take two shots of whiskey. I could see him gulp with relief as we moved back into his familiar territory and I noticed that he reached for a better bottle than I specified and expertly poured the drinks, plunking them down in front of us. He too had just had a multicultural experience and was equally glad it was over. “One for you, too!” I added. I felt horrible that I just argued with this person for five minutes about burritos, when all he had was hard liquor on his shelves. The whiskey did its work and took the edge off my embarrassment, but we didn’t linger and left quickly.
Already too late for the Tsukiji Fish Market, we spotted a noodle shop just around the corner that served noodles. It did take us a while to figure out how to use the automated all-Japanese ordering machine, but we managed. We dug into bowlfuls of steaming hot noodles, elbow to elbow with dozens of Japanese. At least, I comforted myself, I was able to provide Sophie with a fully genuine and satisfying Japanese experience and didn’t have to fall back on my old California habits. Burritos or no burritos, maybe I would catch on to Japan.