Okinawa has some of the most awesome food. Seriously. There's a reason I've gained about 20 lbs since I moved here, and it's not entirely because I completely let my gym habits fall by the wayside. There are countless places to eat while you're here, and so many things you simply have to try. I'll probably post a blog at a later date with specific things you should try, but this one is devoted to places.
In no particular order, some of our favorite places to grab some grub:
PIZZA SKY (or Sky Pizza, or Pizza in the Sky...it's all the same place)
They even put up big shades when it's super bright out, which is really nice. I love this place. About half an hour out of Nago, it's a challenge to find, but the food is fantastic. Seriously, I love pizza, and the pizza here is like sex in my mouth. The menu is very simple: one kind of salad, one kind of pizza, a handful of drinks, and a chilled mango dessert (on a hot day, that chilled mango is DIVINE). Bring yen - they do not take Visa! It can be crowded, especially on Sundays/Mondays (Japanese weekend), and it's closed on Tuesdays/Wednesdays, but it's well worth the drive and the wait. I highly recommend combining it with a visit to the aquarium, butterfly farm, Nakijin Castle, and/or the Nago Pineapple Park.
Plus the atmosphere is great:
Yes, this is the kind of place where you take your shoes off and sit on the floor. If your knees and hips can't take that, there are picnic tables outside with benches.
It's a little bit of a challenge to find the first time, but it's not too bad: Take 58 north into Nago. Go left on 85 (at the Kentucky Fried Chicken). Follow to a T-intersection and go right, then continue to 115 (which is marked and has a stoplight; you'll be driving for a while before you get there). Turn right onto 115, follow it past several cemeteries, and as you're going up a hill, you'll see a turn-off on the right with a green, white, and red sign (kind of like an Italian flag). Turn right. Follow to a T-intersection (no light), and go left. Follow until you see a tomb sticking out in the road at the bottom of a hill (trust me, you'll know it when you see it). Pizza Sky is on the left.
SAM'S BY THE SEA -- I have to say, I'm super-biased about this place. I think Eddie and I have been there about 50 times. The rest of the Sam's chain is good, but I'm rather fond of this one. Their steak is spectacular. Eddie tells me their seafood is wonderful. Their curry soup? OMFG. Even if you aren't a fan of curry, TRY THE SOUP. (It comes with every meal) One of these days, I'm just going to ask them to give me a spoon and let me sit at the big cauldron where it cooks all day long.
Insanely easy to find: Leave Kadena through Gate 2. Follow the road, which will take you out toward Awase. Keep going until you see a giant gorilla on your left (you can't miss it). At the light immediately after the gorilla, turn left. At the stop sign, turn right. Follow until you see torches. Go left through the gate with the torches on it.
And speaking of that giant gorilla...
KING KONG YAKINIKU -- The gorilla stands at the entrance to their parking lot, so turn there if you want to check this place out. It's basically a buffet of raw meat, which you then cook at a gas grill at your table. They also have soba, seafood, rice, sushi, and various desserts, so it's a really good place to sample things and get your palate acquainted with some of cuisine you might not be used to. They accept Visa, and it's about Y1600 a head (lunch is cheaper and less crowded). Can get crowded on the weekends and in the evenings.
MCDONALD's -- Yes, you read that right.
McDonald's in Japan is just something you have to experience. Why? Because it'll put any American McDonald's to shame. From the polite service to food that's actually prepared like they give a shit whether or not their customers are satisfied, it's awesome. And I think it's a crime that they make better Big Macs here than in the States. (Yen only...no Visa here.)
How to find: Drive. You'll see one. Trust me.
SEASIDE RISTORANTE at KADENA MARINA -- This is an American-run, dollars-and-Visa-accepting restaurant, so it doesn't count as dining out in town, but it's worth experiencing for the view alone:
I recommend it more for lunch than dinner; the portions are a little smaller, and they don't come with the salad and bread that accompanies dinner (which are good, but just way, way too much food). Don't expect 5-star food (though the vodka chicken penne contains large amounts of awesomesauce), but it's a nice place for a leisurely lunch outside on a sunny day.
Leave Kadena via Gate 1 and go right. You'll see the sign for Kadena Marina and the Seaside Ristorante on your left. Turn left at the sign, follow down the hill, and the restaurant will be right in front of you. Tip: This is also a great place to snorkel...just, you know, not right after lunch.
FAMILY MART, COCO!, LAWSON STATION -- Basically, the convenience stores. You'll see Lawson and Family Mart (and to a lesser degree, Coco!) all over the place. There's almost as many of those places as there are vending machines. Like, if you give someone directions that include "turn left at the Family Mart", they'll invariably glare at you and say that's about as specific as saying "go to the aisle with a bunch of cheap crap" in a Wal-Mart.
Why the hell should you eat at a convenience store? Well, if you're exploring Okinawa, you will inevitably find yourself, at some point, getting hungry. And quite honestly, the sandwiches, munchies, and baked goods at these places are awesome. Family Mart has some of the best chocolate eclairs on the planet, and even their prepackaged sandwiches are worth driving out of your way to find. Not that you'll have to, since these places are everywhere.
However, Coco! is not to be confused with...
COCO'S CURRY -- I wasn't a fan of curry before I moved here. Always too spicy for my taste. Japanese curry is different, though. The flavor is stronger, but the spice is much milder (though you're more than welcome to ask for a stronger spice...Coco's has from 0 to 10, and you have to finish a 5 before they'll let you order 6 or above). They also have salads and a mango pudding that is to freaking die for. This is a fast food joint with a diner atmosphere, but don't let it fool you: the food's amazing.
KOKUSAI STREET -- Okay, I'm kind of cheating here. Where should you eat on Kokusai Street? The short answer is...everywhere. The only Vietnamese restaurant on the island (that I'm aware of) is here, so if you're craving Pho, this is the place to be. Several of the Sam's restaurants are here, and there's at least one Yakiniku place. Really, you can't go wrong anywhere here. Well, except Perestroika, which is the only Russian restaurant on the island. Good luck finding it, since it's tucked down some back alley, but the one experience I've had there resulted in unanimous thumbs-down from everyone in attendance. So, skip that one and eat everywhere else on Kokusai Street.
The marketplace--which extends off the main drag for a loooooong way--itself is a good place to find munchies, whether they're giving out samples of cookies/sweets or selling pineapple on a stick.
I'm serious, you can get the most insanely awesome fresh grown-like-ten-minutes-away pineapple here. For Y100, you get a chunk on a stick. We've actually started carrying wetnaps with us when we go to Kokusai Street, because invariably, we end up getting pineapple, and this stuff is so juicy, it's impossible not to get sticky.
It's not just pineapple, though. This is a good place to get great deals on locally grown garlic, onions, tangerines, sugarcane, and some of the more unique-to-Okinawa produce, such as goya, beni imo (a purple sweet potato that I believe only grows here), and dragonfruit:
When cut open, dragonfruit strongly resembles kiwi fruit, but is either white or a vivid purple. It also tastes like kiwi. Tip: The closer you are to Kokusai Street, the more expensive the dragonfruit. When you first walk into the marketplace, you'll usually see it for Y800 or more. Keep walking, and you'll find it for as little as Y400 depending on which vendors are there, the time of year, etc.
THE GARLIC HOUSE -- If I need to tell you why you should eat at a place called the GARLIC house, then there is no hope for you. Go there. Eat. You won't regret it.
How to find it - It's in Naha, just off 58, but ask someone besides me for directions, because I will get you lost.
THE AQUARIUM -- The aquarium? WTF? Why the hell do I need to eat at the aquarium? Is the food really that good?
Well, no. The food is nothing to write home about. It's not bad, but it's not spectacular. Don't go in expecting to have your palate's socks knocked off, though some of their desserts are pretty damned good.
It also tends to be crowded, and it's every man for himself to find a table, particularly those with a view. Be ready to move quickly and commandeer a table. It's not quite the Thunderdome, but competition for a prime table can be fierce. (Tip: Don't go to the aquarium on the weekends. At all. Ever.)
So, crowded..."meh" food...competition for a table...
Why on earth are you telling us we should eat there, Lori?
Quite simply? Because this restaurant has the most spectacular view EVER:
Basically, you're sitting right next to this:
That's a 21-foot whale shark on the left. There are three in the tank, plus loads of manta rays, sting rays, and other sharks and fish. If you know how tranquil it can be to sit and watch a fish tank, then you can probably gather why eating your lunch -- mediocre or not -- beside the second largest fish tank in the world is an experience not to be missed.
FOUR SEASONS TEPPANYAKI -- WTF is Teppanyaki? You know those Japanese steak houses like Benihana, where they cook right in front of you? Half-show, half-dinner? That's Teppanyaki. Naturally, you can't live in Japan or even visit without going to one of these places. If you're a fan of steak, the words "highly recommended" don't even come close to how I feel about the Kobe steak. If the pizza at Pizza Sky is sex in my mouth, the Kobe steak at Four Seasons is a threeway-with-the-mancandy-of-your-choice orgy in every bite. (Give me a break, I'm an erotica writer...) Anyway, go there. Try it.
They're not hard to find; there's a Four Seasons out by Awase (near Sam's by the Sea and King Kong Yakiniku), and there's another by American Village. Check local guides for directions to the specific locations.
Tip: Go during lunch. It's less crowded and significantly less expensive.
Another tip: They offer a couple of side dishes with every meal; I highly recommend declining at least one, or else it is way, way, WAY too much food. And that Kobe steak is just made of too much awesome for you to walk out feeling like you never even want to think about eating again.
NAGO PINEAPPLE PARK -- Okay, so this isn't really a place to sit down and grab dinner, but believe you me, you can beat a serious case of the munchies in this place.
If you have a sweet tooth like I do, and you like pineapple, this place is a veritable cornucopia of pineapple goodness. Jam, tarts, cookies, cakes, fresh chunks of pineapple, white chocolate flavored with pineapple, chips, little cookies made of pineapple filling squished between two pancakes, more chunks of fresh pineapple, juice, wine, sake, vinegar, more delicious pieces of OMG THIS CAN'T BE REAL pineapple...you get the idea. Trust me, you can eat pretty damn well in there. Be prepared to spend some money, though...once you sample stuff, it's really hard not to buy it.
Tip: You don't have to go through the tour to visit the shop unless you want to do the wine-tasting. There's no charge to go into the shop itself. The tour is pretty fun, though.
Another tip: The pineapple pickles are interesting, but...well, try them just to say you've tried them, but don't say I didn't warn you. They're pineapple pickles. Just combine those two concepts, and you can probably imagine.
One final tip: After you've spent a shameful amount of money on pineapply things, you'll turn right to leave the checkout line. Straight ahead of you, before you turn right again to continue to the parking lot, there's a little booth where they sell PINEAPPLE CREAM PUFFS. Imagine, my loyal blog minions: a fresh cream puff that has been stuffed with cream AND PINEAPPLE. And then dusted with powdered sugar. Take the dirty descriptions I gave of Pizza Sky's pizza, Four Seasons' Kobe, and crank that description to whatever could possibly bring you an unspeakable amount of ecstasy, and that is a pineapple cream puff.
(I really like pineapple, so I may be biased.)
How to get there: Take 58 into Nago. Turn left on 85 at the Kentucky Fried Chicken. Follow to a T-intersection and go right. If you don't see the pineapple park, please return to base immediately and have your eyes checked. Parking can be a bit of a bitch, so if it's full, drive a little farther up the road to the Lawson Station and park there (there's also an Okinawa Fruit Park or something in the same parking lot as the Lawson...totally worth checking out too).
There you have it: a selection of some of our favorite places to eat on Okinawa. Have you lived here or do you live here now? Feel free to add your own favorites in the comments section.
Stay tuned for more installments of The Dumb American's Guide to Living on Okinawa.