[Updated August 2019]
I LOVE Japanese food… Anyone visiting Japan quickly realizes that Japanese food in Japan is on average WAY better and significantly more varied than what you’ll find in Japanese restaurants outside of Japan. Additionally, there are on average WAY more restaurants in any Japanese town or neighborhood than you’ll normally find in the states, and because all Japanese are foodies, 99% of these eateries are on average BETTER than what you’ll find in most American towns. In essence, while you CAN of course use review services, such as Yelp for instance, if you want to experience the sublime (in Japan I’ve had meals that were better than sex)… the fact is that the Japanese take their food culture so SERIOUSLY that you don’t need to do that to find a good meal — as you might in the USA. [That, and anyone who has seen the film Tampopo knows that they are SO serious about food that it borders on funny.] As such, a chain like Denny’s of Japan, which offers up 24 hour offerings, has GOT to be better than it would be in the USA if it’s going to survive here.
First thing to realize is that unlike in the states, Denny’s Japan doesn’t tend to have a specific architecture… in fact except for the signage, no two buildings seem to be exactly alike (because the Japanese — unlike the Koreans — prefer uniqueness). I didn’t actually take the above image, it’s from commons.wikimedia.org, but of all the ones depicted it’s the closest in appearance to the one I was eating at.
I spotted it as my taxi was driving me to my airbnb near Sasazuka station in Tokyo, and since it was ONLY about 2 blocks away (and open 24 hours) I thought I would definitely explore it’s food options. That said, I was a bit nervous about it — because well, Denny’s, so I googled Denny’s Japan and found this article about why you should DEFINITELY try it while there, which assuaged my fears.
For anyone wondering what those options were, here’s the Denny’s menu that was available when I was there (like all things Japanese, the menu rotates seasonally) … and if you look you’ll see there’s very little “American” food on it, and even what’s there when you see it up close and personal has been heavily altered to meet the Japanese palate and concerns (while not listed on the menu above, if you look at this menu — which is the current webpage — good luck finding a desert that is over 800 calories, and most are between 240 and 550 calories — if you click on the red button to left of the food item, and above the English text, it’ll take you to the nutritional info page for that item). Another difference from the USA is there are NO HAMBURGERS on the menu, there is however a very large selection of “Hamburger steak” otherwise known as Salisbury steaks, with various toppings… and while there are pancakes, they’re relegated to the dessert section of the dinner menu, or to the breakfast menus (and that’s only available during breakfast hours — its not 24 hour breakfast).
The first time I went I opted for the healthiest food options on the menu. I was really happy to see that every food item on the menu includes calorie counts.
I opted for the grilled fish, with came with a little mound of grated Daikon (the white stuff) on the plate and a small dollop of a type of seaweed salad you almost never see in the USA (there are actually MANY types of seaweed, and many different recipes for seaweed salad… most Japanese restaurants in the USA only ever serve one of them). And of course, this being Japan, it came with bowls of white rice, and of miso soup. For my side dish I had a choice of cold tofu (which would have added a few calories), or the item in the picture, a salad of Spinach topped with grated Daikon root, and bits of grilled eggplant. I chose the latter.
When it arrived, the image below is what it looked like… not all that appetizing… and it didn’t smell so great (i.e., the fish was a bit fishy)… it tasted ok (mostly because it had a miso marinated, which kills all ills). That said, everything was reasonably tasty, and the whole thing came to 510 kcals (while beating the crap out of any lean cuisine I’ve ever had, while simultaneously offering MORE food). — the price of 1,049 ¥(en) in dollars translates to something just shy of $10.49, depending on what the conversion rate is that day; a price that is pretty cheap by Tokyo standards for a meal you sit down to eat.
In Tokyo many people live in apartments so small that they can’t really afford the space for a dinner table — my airbnb didn’t have one — so you’re paying for the land the restaurant sits on as much as you’re paying for the food. To this end, many restaurants will sell you the same meal cheaper if you order it to take out.
Warning, the green tea ice cream at Denny’s is for people who really love their green tea… as in, it has almost no sugar in it so you get a VERY intense green tea flavor.
With this I also ordered access to the all you can drink, “drinks bar,” which offered various kinds of tea, coffee, orange juice, and a selection of sodas.
From then on every time I went to Denny’s I just got hot water, which is free.
The next time I went I decided to get Denny’s version of Mentaiko Pasta, a Japanese-Italian fusion dish that usually uses a spicy pink cod roe mixed with cream on spaghetti instead of tomato sauce. (It’s USUALLY a heck of a lot tastier than it sounds, although sometimes it’s not. First time I had it was from company cafeteria when I was doing a summer internship at Eisai Co., when I was in my 20’s, and that stuff was kind of disgusting — in my opinion; my Japanese co-workers actually looked forward to Wednesday lunch because that was when it was served. That said, when it’s done right it’s REALLY tasty.) The Denny’s version is Squid and cod roe, which doesn’t seem to be spicy at all, and had relatively little cream compared to other versions I’ve tried. That said, according to their on-line menu’s dietary page it has only had 14.9 g of fat.
It arrived also looking pretty much like it’s photo, and while neither as spicy nor as creamy as it can be when really good, was pretty decent. That said, because it was neither spicy nor creamy, there was a there was a very slight fishy aftertaste which won’t bother the Japanese, but might not be appealing to westerners.
With it I got a bowl of the corn soup, which is one of my other favorite Japanese-western fusion dishes. I’ve had corn soup, and cream of corn soup, in a lot of different places, but it never tastes like the Japanese version of this dish, which is in fact my FAVORITE version of it. The Japanese do a really good corn soup, to the point where even their cup o’soup instant versions of it are pretty good.
[On the topic of corn soup: I recently flew on Japan Airlines from Chicago to Australia — with a change in Tokyo — and on the drinks cart they were offering hot corn soup as an option. It ROCKED. When the cart initially came by and I asked what they had she hadn’t mentioned it to me, assuming I think that as an American I’d be freaked out at the idea of sipping soup instead of coffee. But then I noticed it when reading their menu — one of these inserts in the pocket, alongside the emergency instructions. Next time the cart came by I asked for it … she looked genuinely surprised, and I drank that for the rest of the trip.]
Again, this Denny’s version of corn soup wasn’t the BEST I’ve ever had, but it was decent.
Together the 598 calories of pasta and soup left me with room for what promised to be a decadent dessert based on the photo in their menu
And THIS ladies and gentleman is why you don’t see a lot of fat Japanese …. 310 calories for THAT you ask? In the pictures on the menu it looks huge, like any American desert
But in reality NOT so much… and keep in mind I have really really tiny hands (does this desert make my hand look big?), hands that are abnormally small for someone my height (usually girls with hands my size don’t top 4 foot 9 inches). So what you’re getting is a tiny portion of mostly a low fat chocolate jello type thing, a tiny sliver of chocolate brownie— both of which are far more chocolatey than sweet, with a tiny serving of cream, and an equally small one of vanilla ice cream, all topped with chocolate syrup.
[Portion sizes is part of why you rarely see anyone fat in Japan, and when you do they are at best pleasantly plump by our standards. Japanese care far more about their food being flavorful than they do about seeing a massive amount of food on the plate, where in the USA those priorities are often reversed. I just recently saw an article talking about how a new nutrition group is being formed in the USA — which includes food industry leaders — to try to reign in portion size inflation in the marketplace. The goal is to erase the link in Americans minds between the value of a meal and how much food is on the plate, and to make it more about the quality and flavor of the foods used, like is the case in Japan. According the article, “Between 1993 and 2013, the average [American] bagel got 100% bigger; burgers got 78% bigger; cinema popcorn bags 120% bigger; and fountain sodas 207% bigger, according to the CDC. ” If you travel the world, you’ll realize an American small drink is served in what in the rest of the world is a medium sized one, and the large cup doesn’t have a comparison, let alone the extra large cups.]
The third time I went I tried what was described in a few different websites and youtube videos devoted to Denny’s Japan as their “Star” dish, Denny’s runny rice omelet (no this is not a spelling mistake). Even their own site describes it as “The popular No.1 menu of Denny’s became more and more delicious!” (again, NOT a mistake, that’s what the menu says — Japanese translations to English are often a bit odd). The two previous times I was there I had myself noticed that it appeared to be the dish most often ordered by the Japanese. It is a fried rice type thing covered with egg and some sort of brown sauce … since there weren’t any veggies on the plate, I ordered the same vegetable side I had eaten the first time (the spinach thing) and a bowl of miso soup …
Because it was 754 calories, and 39.6 g of fat (!!!), i.e., completely off my doctor’s prescribed diet for my fatty liver disease, I decided to only eat about half of the egg dish and instead fill up with the almost fat free veggie side and miso soup.
This task was made WAY easier because to my mind, …. this rice thing was kind of seriously disgusting … Honestly, for the life of me I don’t get why it’s their #1 dish, it reminds me of the really disgusting concoctions I came up with in middle school when I was first experimenting with creating my own recipes. Not only does it look disgusting, but there’s some sort of tasteless cheese-product type substance in it, which I THINK is supposed to be mozzarella… and not only is this thing pretty fatty, it TASTES fatty (blech) … So I ate less than half (focused on the egg and not the rice) and ordered what I thought based on the menu photo was a chocolate ice cream dessert for 184 calories
What appeared to be chocolate ice cream turned out in fact to be red bean paste- Anko (koshian), on top of pounded rice stuff, seaweed gelatin cubes (don’t knock it, they’re good), bits of banana and mandarin orange… and a dried apricot…
As per the picture, it came with a sort of molasses to pour over… but I didn’t, as I didn’t think it actually needed it, and probably saved myself a few calories.
The next time I went in was for a late night snack. I had been going to sleep later and later, in preparation for my going home (for a variety of reasons I had to be good to go the day after I arrived, so I figured I would work through some of the Jet lag/time change issues while still in Japan — happily Tokyo is a 24 hour kind of a town, sort of like New York City.
This time I got what I THOUGHT might be a smoked salmon and cream cheese sort of appetizer.
what arrived instead was smoked salmon on mashed potato (?!), which explains how it was only 198 calories… with a sort of sweet onion sauce on top of the blobs of potato. Definitely a rather odd dish.
Initially I ordered it with what I THOUGHT was going to be a glass of Kiwi juice. Happily, the waiter, realizing I couldn’t read Japanese and was just going by the pictures, pointed out that the Kiwi juice was in fact an Alcoholic drink….
and pointed out something that till that evening I had completely overlooked….. Denny’s in Japan serves BOOZE!!! As in beer, wine, sake and fruity drinks…. I suppose the word highball should have keyed me in, but wasn’t expecting martinis at a Denny’s.
When I told him I really wanted some sort of fruit juice, and NOT the orange juice offered at the drink bar, he pointed me towards the special seasonal menu which had on offer all things strawberry (I just noticed on their online menu that the next seasonal menu is going to be all things mango), and what he promised was a fresh squeezed strawberry juice for 76 calories (versus the strawberry juice with alcohol in it which was 129 calories)
I followed this up with an Acai berry & yogurt dish, because I was feeling sort of dairy deficient in my diet.
What arrived on my table didn’t look very appealing, not as pretty as in the picture, but it was VERY tasty, and crunchy with bits of fresh mint on top.
One evening I decided that I wanted to try one of their salads. I opted for one that appeared to have grilled chicken and a poached egg. From the image, I assumed the salad had a blue cheese type of salad dressing
(I later learned it was in fact a Caesar salad dressing) and asked if it could exchanged for what looked to be a Japanese sesame dressing instead — offered with a salad with a much lower number of calories.
From the look on the waitresses face this was NOT a normal request (Japanese don’t futze with a chef’s creation), in fact she looked a bit freaked out by it… but their chef agreed to do it. (After the fact I no longer think it was sesame… but rather some other sort of dressing with nutty seeds). That said, the salad was REALLY tasty.
For the last meal I forgot to take any photos of my food … sorry, my bad: I had the Ginger grilled pork (which I found to be a bit oily — in retrospect I think it may have been pork belly such as the Japanese like to use in ramen… I kept having to pull off bits of fat… and ended up leaving about 1/2 of the serving on the plate as a result). Normally it comes with some mayonnaise on top of it (MORE fat) and mayonnaise potato salad; but I asked them to hold that, and instead paired it with the spinach/dikon side, and the seaweed salad that had come with the fish…. and of course miso soup. Additionally, I only ate about 1/3 of the bowl of rice. Overall, not bad, but not great.
Sitting across from me was a ridiculously cute four or five year old girl who was in the Denny’s with her mom… this girl clearly LOVED her egg carbonara pasta. Her mom had ordered an adult size, but was spooning it into a child sized bowl for the girl… and she had enthusiastically slurped up two bowls of the stuff… really cute
Later, looking on Youtube, I found this series of videos of things that are usually pretty mediocre in the USA that are MUCH better in Japan, which included an episode on Denny’s:
note, in the video the sister says the disgusting rice dish which is Denny’s top seller is her favorite item on the menu…
All in all, while not EVERY dish on the menu was a winner, I would definitely suggest that if there’s a Denny’s in your neighborhood while visiting Japan, and your in search of some decent and cheap eats, you not overlook it as an option.