Young and Hungry

Tokyo’s ‘Diner’ Comes With a Push-Button Version of a Jersey Waitress

the machineAt 9 a.m. in Tokyo, there's no brassy, Jersey waitress dishing out both attitude and scrapple, but I'm desperately wishing I could conjure one up right about now.

My boyfriend and I thought we found the Japanese equivalent of a New Jersey diner: an all-male clientele, some tucked into a suit and tie, others strapped into a messenger bag,  and everyone hunched over rice bowls, with lit cigarettes waiting for them in between bites. The chef, who doubles as the server, marches from the kitchen to the counter, offering no unsolicited advice. No chatting. No bullshitting.

We sit at the counter. And wait. The server/chef sees us but doesn't acknowledge us. We watch him bring food to others, but he barely glances our way. It's Day 4 for us in Japan, and we've become accustomed to not communicating easily in restaurants.

I'm trying not to exaggerate here, but I somehow remember waiting a full five minutes — five minutes is long at this quick-stop — before our breakthrough.

A new customer walks in. He doesn't sit right away. Instead, he walks directly to a machine in the back. A machine we never even noticed. It has buttons, like a vending machine, but there's no food inside. It's similar to the touch screen I remember at the McDonald's at American University a few years back.

The new customer swiftly pushes buttons, slides coins inside and takes his receipt. He sits and the server/chef walks over to collect his printed order and returns to the kitchen.

Embarrassed, we walk to the machine. And stare. Lots of buttons. No English. Lots of pictures.

lots of pictures, no english combo meals

We can identify some of the food pictured, such as eggs — both yolk-exposed and shelled — in bowls. But we can only guess what kind of animal makes up those thin, long, and scraggly edged pieces of meat. Like McDonald's, the machine offers combo-meals. So we go for it, knowing we'll be given plenty of food, even if we don't know what everything is. Again, it's something we've become used to.

We sit down in our same seats. But now the chef walks right over, almost in relief, and takes our ticket.

Returning quickly with broth (every meal is served with a variation of a fishy sea broth!) and a small salad, our anxiety over the machine dissolves.  But wait! There's six different squeeze bottles in front of us. What to use for the salad?

I motion to the chef, point to the salad, then to the array of liquids, and back to the salad, finally raising my shoulders while tilting my head sideways. He squirts the dressing on the cabbage for me, and realizes that, aside from being our waiter and cook, he must also act as our babysitter.

While I still can't believe that no one in this small, casual place pointed us to the machine while we just sat there, the broth put me to ease. And then I thought: Why can't broth automatically come with my bagel, egg and cheese order back home?

Within five minutes the chef/server/babysitter arrives with our food: a large bowl of white rice, caressed with prosciutto-thin beef, both gnarly and deliciously edged with globs of white fat. That bowl makes sense. The small glass bowl, containing a shelled egg, does not.

The chef, forgetting his unspoken babysitting duties, is only a few feet away, but already in the kitchen.  I motion for him to come back. More pointing and raised shoulders: What do I do with that darn egg? (It was early, you know.)

He cracks the egg in the bowl, whizzes it around with chopsticks and motions for it to be poured over the rice. I smile wide, whisking the egg for another second and swirling it over the rice. The egg melts into the meat, adhering it to the steamy rice. Maneuvering the chopsticks over top and underneath, I incorporate the saucy egg around every grain of rice. Into every crevice of fat. The chopsticks feel heavy as I slide as much rice and meat as possible into my mouth.

But now, only four months later, I can't remember if the beef tasted particularly salty that morning. I can only remember feeling slightly helpless in an English-less land. And how all those buttons overwhelmed me at first, like that 14-hour flight, but how I soon realized it wasn't all that miserable. I also remember how we figured it out. How food makes everything better. Especially in Japan.

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