Street food is a popular thing throughout most parts of Asia — it’s big in Taipei, Seoul, Bangkok, and a plethora of other major cities. For whatever reason, it isn’t common in Japan. I know Singapore outlawed it in order to improve the safety and cleanliness of food, which is why they have hawker centers throughout the country; however, I do see the occasional food stall line up near a shrine in Japan, so I don’t think they’re illegal here. In any case, Ameyoko (abbreviated for Candy Store Alley) is a street near Ueno station that has a bit of street food for those, like me, who enjoy grazing. Please note that this isn’t a night market, so things shut down in the early evening.
Despite the name, there isn’t much candy for sale. Rather, I’d say most vendors sell produce, fish, meat, spices, and then a bit of street food. I saw fruit slices on a stick (100 yen each), sheng jian bao, doner kebabs, boba, dukkbokki, yakitori, and takoyaki, among others. I opted for an order of sheng jian bao and an order of takoyaki from two spots with long queues (good rule of thumb in Tokyo).
The takoyaki line moved pretty quickly and was impressively run by this one girl. The price was under 200 yen for 4 takoyaki balls — the mayo, sauce, and bonito flakes were all self-serve, so you can dress them to your liking. These were particularly wonderful — super fresh, slightly crisp exterior, molten inside, with chewy ocotopus bits. There was a bit of al fresco seating for you to quickly consume your takoyaki and get going.
If my memory serves me, I believe there were two sheng jian bao open air restaurants along Ameyoko. Both were always busy with people, so when I saw a few seats open up near the end of the night, I decided to stop by for a quick bite. For those that have never had the pleasure of eating these Shanghainese dumplings, they’re PHENOMENAL. They’re like xiao long bao, but pan fried. If that’s not illustrative to you (as in, you have no idea what xiao long bao are), then let me explain.
Basically, sheng jian bao is a pork dumpling, which is cooked in a covered, cast iron pan, so that the dumpling is simultaneously pan fried to a crisp on the bottom and also steamed on top. Inside, the pork cooks and fills the dumpling with a hot savory broth, so when you bite into it, be careful!!! They’re always garnished with sesame seeds and bits of green onion.
The typical strategy for consuming sheng jian bao is to dip it in vinegar (vinegar cuts the greasiness and tastes nom, you’re welcome), place it in a soup spoon, nibble the top of the dumpling, slurp some of the broth, summon all your self control to pause 10 seconds before consuming so you don’t burn your taste buds off, and then enjoy in one bite. Done! The flavor is incredible! I love xiao long bao, but have never tried sheng jian bao until I arrived in Tokyo.