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The Hottest Café Trend of Three or Four Years Ago

Some years back, my wife and I discovered the simple pleasures of the espresso tonic: a shot of espresso mixed with tonic water. If you’ve never had one, it sounds pretty bad! Hot espresso, mixed with the sweet and bitter flavor of cold, fizzy tonic water? Somehow, though, it miraculously comes together into more than the sum of its parts, into a drink that is simultaneously richly flavorful and incredibly refreshing.

Unfortunately, as trends do, espresso tonic faded away as quickly as it came, leaving us sadly deprived of the drink — particularly because we didn’t have an espresso maker at home (at least, not at the time). For a while, it became a thing we occasionally remembered and reminisced about, but mostly in the context of a lost, treasured past.

Several months ago, though, a new café opened near a bakery that I frequent on the weekends, and the lively, chatty owner has made it worth the trip out just for the conversation. During one of these visits, to enjoy an hour of chatting for the price of an espresso, it came up that my wife could really go for an espresso tonic now that the weather was warming up, but they’re so hard to find.


The next time I visited, I arrived just after the owner of the coffee shop had received a mail-order shipment: seemingly dozens of bottles of tonic water, in multiple flavors. He was so inspired by the previous weekend’s casual desire for an espresso tonic that he decided to not only start selling them, but to challenge himself to find just the right blend of coffee beans to perfectly complement each flavor of tonic water.

One challenge he did not foresee: the difficulty of opening the bottles without chipping the glass in his enthusiasm.

Happily, he did carefully filter the tonic water through a paper filter, and the resulting beverage was perfectly safe to drink.

Though I have yet to take a photo of any of his espresso tonics, please rest assured that they are all delicious. If you haven’t tried this drink yourself, give it a chance if you ever have the opportunity! You may well be pleasantly surprised.

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Unusually Exciting Ramen

Though Kyoto may be known for a thick, rich local variety of ramen, it’s also home to a small shop called Menbaka Ichidai that specializes in a style of ramen that is rarely found nowadays, generally known as negi ramen, or “green onion ramen.”

And yet, somehow, I feel like the name does not tell the full story.

This particular ramen shop has opted instead to rebrand it as “fire ramen,” perhaps because it is flavored with green onion-flavored oil that, just before serving, is heated and lit on fire, then poured into the bowls just before serving.

I don’t know if I would necessarily go back there a second time for this particular dish (it was pretty good, but fairly out of the way for me), but I’m certainly glad I at least visited once.

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Seasonal Flavor Trends

Japan has a pretty well deserved reputation for novel and unusual seasonal beverages, more or less entirely due to Pepsi’s string of annual really weird flavors several years back.* While Pepsi has largely calmed down with their more exotic flavors — they don’t even sell Pepsi Twist anymore — it’s hardly unfair to suggest that the unique seasonal drink market has collapsed. If anything, it’s stronger than ever.

*Like Pepsi Ice Cucumber or Pepsi Azuki or Pepsi Dry (the non-sweet cola!) or Pepsi Shiso, the last couple of which I actually genuinely miss more than you will ever be able to understand. At least there’s now cola-flavored Wilkinson seltzer, which essentially fills that “non-sweet cola” hole in my life.

The interesting thing to note is that the market seems to be heavily trend-based, and the road from Point A to Point B is rarely truly straightforward. While 2015 and, to an extent, 2016 were decidedly The Year of the Mojito (with lime-and-mint-flavored just about everything), 2017 has been a bit of a wild ride.

The first half of the year was seemingly The Year Japan Discovered Cilantro (or coriander, or pakchi). Cilantro-flavored products popped up left and right — cilantro-flavored popcorn, cilantro-flavored potato chips, cilantro-flavored chocolates.

Honestly, they didn't taste much like cilantro at all.

More recently, though, as we’ve moved into summer, another trend entirely has shown up. It began, innocently enough, with mint lemonade, itself perhaps a remnant of The Year of the Mojito. Not half bad, to be honest — if I were a lemonade-making man, I’d absolutely consider adding mint next time.


However, things took a turn shortly after I came across this. Spiced lemonade, flavored with peppermint, spearmint, ginger, black pepper, and lemon balm. This was also very good, to be honest. A bit reminiscent of the way that freshly ground black pepper works extremely well in hot cocoa.

It was stocked at room temperature at the store, and it is NOT VERY GOOD warm like that.

Then, of course, there is this, which you have no doubt been expecting for several paragraphs:

I haven't actually tried this one myself, but I hear it's actually pretty good.

Cilantro lemonade. At convenience stores, it even had a little tag around the neck that read, essentially, “They go surprisingly well together!”

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The Secret Ramen District of Kyoto

Kyoto usually brings to mind history and elegant culture, and for good reason. However, Kyoto also has more colleges per capita than any other city in Japan, giving it a second, very different personality.

One particularly good example of these dual personalities is food. While Kyoto has many exceptional kaiseki restaurants, there are also many restaurants for college students, and that means ramen. In fact, on Higashioji-dori, between Ichijoji and Shugakuin stations in northeast Kyoto, there are currently fifteen ramen shops, with no fewer than five more a fairly short distance away.

Perhaps most surprisingly, especially given Kyoto’s reputation for delicate, subtle, refined cuisine, what most of Japan thinks of as thick, rich ramen (like Hakata-style tonkotsu soup, made from pork bones) is considered “average,” or even relatively light, in Kyoto. For ramen, and seemingly ramen alone, Kyoto craves nothing more than something rich, thick, and flavorful.

Kyoto prefers a type of soup called marudori paitan (a type of chicken soup made by cooking chickens, meat and all, at a rolling boil, instead of the usual clear chicken stock made by simmering carcasses without the meat, making sure to prevent it from coming to a boil), and in extreme cases the soup is thick enough to nearly be a sauce — the noodles sit on top of the soup, instead of sinking into it, necessitating stirring.

In fact, the original Tenka Ippin (a relatively famous chain, known for their rich chicken soup) is located in this part of Kyoto, and in recognition of local and nationwide ramen preferences, their thickest and richest ramen soup is only available at their original shop in Ichijoji.

If you find yourself in Kyoto and you’re a fan of ramen with rich, thick soups, it’s worth making a trip to this area to try some out! My personal favorite is Akihide (the last one in the video), but when there’s this much competition, you’ll find that everyone is great, just as a matter of keeping up with the surroundings.