The 7 Immutable Laws Of Identifying A “Real” Japanese Restaurant

I know this week was supposed to be week 4 of the Shojin Ryori Series, but I need at least another week to cook more things to come up with a good meal combination for you guys. So, instead of that, I wanted to go over something similar… figuring out how to know if a Japanese restaurant is any good.

The thing is, most non-Japanese people don’t know good Japanese restaurants from bad ones. It’s not your fault, though. You grew up eating that Costco Maruchan ramen when you weren’t going to Happy Teriyaki (pro tip: they are not happy). I imagine it’s a lot like when I try to find a “good” Indian restaurant. I honestly have no idea what’s “good,” though for some reason I think I do (I don’t). If I took Ghandi to one of the Indian restaurants I frequent I’m sure he’d slap me in the face.

So, as someone who’s ridden the ol’ Japanese restaurant donkey cart a few times, I’m here to educate you. No longer do you need to go to sub-par Japanese (I should say “Japanese” restaurants just because you don’t know any better. I hope none of these methods “washoku” you, though. Har har har…

Law #1: Be Super Racist With Yelp Reviewers

Law #1? Don’t trust non-Japanese people on Yelp (sometimes you can trust other Asians, but they have to have a good track record). Okay, I know this is super racist (as in, if Superman had the power of racism, it would be at this level), but I hold myself to this very racist standard for all things on Yelp. If I want to find some good Chicago pizza, I try to find reviewers from Chicago. If I want to find good  Chinese food, I try to find Chinese reviewers (who say things like “this is just like what my mom would make me as a kid!!! ermagahd!!”).

Unfortunately, I had to learn my lesson the hard way. Coming to Portland, where everyone is white and can’t tell the difference between chuutoro and ootoro (I know, barbaric, right??), I was excited to see so many highly rated Japanese / sushi restaurants in the area. Then, I went to one. “Eugh, terrible!” I’d say. “Probably a fluke. Let’s try another… wth is wrong with you people??”

Then I learned… Some reviews are much better than others. Things to look out for in order of preference:

  1. Japanese people. Obviously they know what they’re talking about.
  2. People with Japanese names. Chances are they grew up with at least some real Japanese food.
  3. People who mention that they lived / worked in Japan (not always good, but a good indication because they’ve had lots of “real” Japanese food).
  4. People who don’t mention “pot stickers” in their review (last resort).

On top of this, you’ll want to look out for certain keywords in the reviews. If a lot of the reviews mention the miso soup, the pot stickers, or the bentos, there’s a good chance that this Japanese restaurant are not the droids you’re looking for. I don’t know what is up with Americans and their miso soup, though. The funny thing is, it gets way better than whatever gets served in America.

As one Yelp Reviewer said: “This miso soup is off the hook!”

Is it really, though? Is it? Yelp needs to add a “sort by racism” option.

Law #2: Avoid Anyplace With The Word “Teriyaki” In The Name

I feel like this goes without saying, but any restaurant with the name “Teriyaki” in it is almost certainly a no-go. Hey, teriyaki is tasty, but it’s almost always incredibly Americanized.

While you should avoid places that have the word “Teriyaki” in their name, it’s probably worth noting that there are good Japanese restaurants that serve teriyaki as a part of their menu. Note that this is probably because most Americans don’t actually like “real” Japanese food, so they have to serve salty meat behemoths. That being said, places that serve absolutely no teriyaki (chicken or beef, especially) at all get extra points and are more likely to be “good.”

Law #3: No Refunds. No Exchanges. No Fun.

Look around you. Do you see signs that say “No refunds,” “No exchanges,” “No …. etc”? If you do, you’re in luck! You may be inside of a “good” Japanese restaurant. Although not all good Japanese restaurants have these kinds of signs, only good ones do. I have no idea why this is, but I have a theory:

  1. Japanese person comes to America thinking “hey, I’m going to start an awesome Japanese restaurant.”
  2. Japanese person starts said Japanese restaurant. Americans can’t appreciate it because they aren’t used to this kind of “real” Japanese food. Ask for refunds and exchanges.
  3. Because Japanese people aren’t used to refunds or exchanges, especially with food, Japanese restaurant owner is shocked!
  4. Japanese restaurant owner slowly becomes more and more hard on the inside. He becomes bitter and cold. He puts up signs.

That’s only one theory though! One thing you can be certain of, though: If you enjoy good Japanese food, there will never be a reason to return any of the food you get at a sign-infested Japanese restaurant. It’s going to be excellent food. Give the owner a thumbs up. He probably needs it.

Law #4: Restaurant Should Have A Japanese Chef, Japanese Owner

sushi chef

Photo by Kojach

Whoa Koichi! Don’t go all KKK Nazi on us, now.

Sorry sorry! Hear me out, my dear Grand Dragon Of The Realm!

First off, I’ll say that there are exceptions to this rule. That being said, I’d rather go to a Thai place run by Thai people or a McDonalds run by an American. In general, this is just a better experience. When a Thai person makes Thai food, chances are they’ve been making it their whole life. When someone else makes Thai food, it’s probably something they learned recently (in the last few years). I’m not saying non-Thai people can’t make good Thai food. I am saying that Thai people, in general, make better Thai food. Same goes with Japanese, possibly more so.

Here’s the deal: Japanese food restaurants have nice profit margins. People pay top dollar for sushi, and it definitely doesn’t cost them $6 for two slices of tuna. Because of this, there are many other people who want to jump in on this business to make some mad sushi-bank. This is probably why there are so many “Japanese” restaurants run by Koreans and Chinese. There’s a lot of “exploitation” in this way.

Of course, these people are mainly in it for the profits. I find it hard to believe that they’re in it for their passion of Japanese food. They’re in it for the profits that Japanese food holds, which means the quality suffers as well (people who want more profits cut more corners). So, in general, Japanese restaurants run by non-Japanese people aren’t as good. The experience isn’t there and the passion isn’t there. There’s a reason why Korean kimchi tastes way better than Japanese kimchi.

But how can you tell the difference between a Korean owner and a Japanese owner? Well, sometimes you can’t. Usually there’s a few hints in the menu, though:

  1. Do they serve any non-Japanese food that’s Korean or Chinese? If so, the restaurant is probably not run by Japanese people.
  2. Are there takeout menus? If so, there’s a decent chance that this isn’t a restaurant run by a Japanese person.
  3. Do the menus have numbers next to each item? This is generally a Chinese restaurant thing.

But like I said, sometimes there are great Japanese restaurants run by non-Japanese people. In general, though, non-Japanese people running Japanese restaurants are in it for the money, not for the passion. You’ll be able to taste the difference in the food.

Law #5: Should Not Serve Orange Chicken Or Hamburgers

Photo by pointnshoot

As mentioned in Law #4, there shouldn’t be non-Japanese food on the menu (maybe something for the kids… maybe). Whether it’s because it tells you that non-Japanese people are running the restaurant or that they don’t have focus, in general this is never a good thing. Have you ever been to a restaurant that was great that served two or three completely different categories of food? Probably not. There are a lot of “Japanese” restaurants that serve non-Japanese food out there as well. In general, they’re not great. Exception? Hawaii. Hawaii can get away with anything in regards to food.

Law #6: Should Not Be Named After Mt. Fuji

Photo by アリセ

There’s one thing that connects all mediocre Japanese restaurants, and that is the name. Usually, good Japanese restaurants have unique names. Perhaps it’s the owner’s name, perhaps it’s something else. What I can tell you is that the name probably does not contain any of these words.

  • Fuji / Mt. Fuji
  • Bento
  • -Zilla
  • Tokyo
  • Sushi
  • Samurai
  • Wasabi
  • Ninja
  • Teriyaki
  • Sakura
  • Any combination of Beni or Hana.

Oh, and it gets worse when you combine any of these. “Samurai Wasabi,” “Fuji Bento,” “Tokyo Sushi,” “Ninja Teriyaki,” and so on. These sound concernedly real to me.

Think about it. What do non-Japanese people know about Japan? Okay, there’s Mt. Fuji (Google shows nearly 15 million results for “Fuji Restaurant”). Then there’s Tokyo… everyone knows about Tokyo. After that there’s Godzilla, Samurai, Ninja, Teriyaki, and sushi. In terms of “what Japan is to regular Americans” this is about it. There’s two problems with restaurants having names that include these words:

  1. It may have been named by someone who knows nothing about Japan (and probably nothing about Japanese food, see Law #4), which is why they chose some generic Japan-related name. Not any different from naming a Chinese restaurant after pandas and bamboo.
  2. Someone is making this restaurant for Americans, which means it isn’t Japanese food anymore.

Let me know in the comments. How many of you have Japanese restaurants that include one of these words? I’d bet at least 100% of you?

Law #7: Sushi Rolls Should Not Take Up Twelve Menu Pages

Photo by ayesamson

And the last law: sushi! With the soaring popularity of sushi in America, you can’t skip this. Sushi gives you a ton of clues as to whether or not a Japanese restaurant is “good” or not.

One Page Maximum, Please: If the menu contains more than one page of sushi rolls you’re in trouble. First of all, sushi rolls are much more of a thing in America than they are in Japan. Americans go apeshit over sushi rolls, for who knows what reason. I guess they contain less raw ingredients and you can deep fry them? I have no idea. Thing is, there are way too many of them. I consistently run into sushi menus that contain literally six or more pages worth of sushi rolls, and every one of them is just a slight variation on the last. Most likely, this restaurant is run by someone who is not Japanese. There’s lots of money in sushi rolls, so this person thinks that the more they have, the more money they’ll make. Obviously they aren’t in it for the passion of making great Japanese food.

Too Much Rice: It’s hard to gage this if you’re not used to less rice, but in general, “bad” sushi contains more rice and “good” sushi contains less. This is a trick that most Japanese restaurants do to make things bigger and fill you up faster (without having to give up as much profit-cutting fish!). Almost every sushi restaurant in America uses too much rice, I can tell you now. When you find someplace that does less (and higher quality) rice and achieves a better balance, you know you’ve found a gem.

Sushi Chef Shouldn’t Talk To You Much: Well, unless he knows you pretty well. In general, Japanese sushi chefs tend to talk to people they don’t know a lot less (exceptions to this rule abound, I’m sure). Non-Japanese sushi chefs are more talkative. Perhaps this is due to focus. Perhaps this is due to culture. I’m not totally sure, but it is something I’ve noticed. They’re too immersed in making great sushi to talk to you about your marathon or whatever it is you’re blabbing on about.

The Air Should Smell “Fresh”: If you smell the air and it smells fishy… well… something isn’t right. Sushi shouldn’t be “fishy,” and it certainly shouldn’t make the whole place smell fishy. This probably means the fish isn’t as fresh as it could be. Smell the air and turn around if it’s not ideal.

Seasonal: There are a lot of items that should be served seasonally. While I won’t go into what’s served when, in general your chef shouldn’t give you anything seasonal that’s not available fresh during that particular season. One way to figure this out is to ask the chef what is offered seasonally right now or look for a “specials” board. This will take more experience to figure out, but this little hint will tell you about how important freshness is to them.

Sushi Shouldn’t Require Wasabi, Shoyu (Soy Sauce): This is how you know you’ve found the motherload. Almost no Japanese restaurant does this in America. Even Japanese places don’t do this. But, if you go someplace that applies both wasabi and sauce for you (because they know what’s perfect for that particular piece of sushi), you can pinch yourself and see if you’re dreaming. Most likely, you’ll wake up a moment later, hungry and covered in sweat. If you don’t, though, smile and know that you might be at Jiro’s.

That’s Just Like Your Opinion, Man…

Wow, what a load of racism this post was! Sorry about that. Just want to mention again that there are exceptions to all of these “laws” (okay, so maybe they aren’t “laws,” but it sounds cooler). These laws will only get you so far, though. You have to go out there and try real Japanese food if you want to learn to appreciate real Japanese food. The more you try (and cook!) the better your palate will become. Of course, same goes for all types of food, including Korean, Chinese, Thai, American, French, and so-on. When it comes to food, the mother-country almost always knows best. If you want Japanese food you should get it from a “real” Japanese restaurant.

Also, food changes as it gets touched by other cultures. This isn’t a bad thing, and “real” Japanese food as it is now is definitely just a series of changes and adjustments that would probably be an abomination if eaten 500 years ago. “Real” Japanese food doesn’t exist because it’s all real. Same goes for “real” anything. Real is what you make it.

That being said, let’s all get high and mighty about “real” Japanese food for a moment anyways. Tell me about your “real” or “not real” Japanese food experiences in the comments! How many restaurants with the name “Fuji” are in your city or town? How many pages of sushi-roll menu do you read before flipping your table?


Hope you enjoyed this post and are now ready to go out and find some “real” Japanese food. Sadly, there’s a chance you won’t find any at all, but it never hurts to try. Worst case scenario? Just go to Japan.


Source: Header Image (note that I’m not saying this is a bad place to eat, it’s just my header picture because it has the word Teriyaki in it).

  • greggman

    you’re going to be in for a treat when you find some good Japanese food. Mitsuwa food courts is not it.

  • greggman

    That depends on where you live. in SF there are a few and they are packed. Izakaya Roku on Market, Kiraku in Berkeley, Oyaji in Outer Richmond (though I’d avoid the sushi. It might be good but it’s there for the non-Japanese).

  • kiki

    here’s an idea you want authentic move to japan you sound like a weeaboo

  • Will

    This guide is spot on Koichi. My wife and I lived in Seattle for several years and unfortunately we learned this lesson the hard way. When we first moved there we were pleasantly surprised at how many “Japanese” restaurants there are. In the end there were only TWO that we’d frequent. Now we live in Denver and its the same. There are two places we go to here for real Japanese food.

    Lucky for me, my wife is Japanese so I get to eat plenty of good food at home, plus we visit Japan every year. :)

  • Joe L.

    I would like to point out that my favorite Japanese restaurant does not really meet any of these rules, but the fact that it is always packed with Japanese businessmen, who speak Japanese and order off Japanese menus, with Japanese game shows playing on TV, signals to me that this is the real deal. One law you you forgot to mention is, if the place is packed with Japanese customers, you probably hit the jackpot.

    Matsuharu Japanese Restaurant in El Paso, TX.

  • Megumi

    Very nice article. Made me (a Japanese expat living in US) laugh pretty hard. There is a Japanese restaurant named “Magoya” in my area. I couldn’t believe it when I first saw it. Did they mean “Nagoya”? Needless to say, it is not Japanese-owned.

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  • findingjolie

    One huge exception to this rule: Hawaii.