When I get asked what do I miss the most from my home country, I always say food. In the USA I’m always eating hamburgers, barbecue ribs, lasagna, Mexican food, and pizza. Believe me, I love hamburger! But if I put those things off to the side for a moment, and think about food in Niigata, my response is – finger licking good! Niigata has some great dishes, and some surprising dishes, that will make you ask for seconds. お代 わりください (Okawari kudasai: Seconds please!)
Let me start off by saying my favorite dish in all of Niigata has been Hegi Soba (へぎそ ば). For those who don’t know, soba is a noodle made from buckwheat, but the special ingredient in Hegi Soba is a particular seaweed that’s mixed in when making the noodles. When served, it gets additional flakes of seaweed
sprinkled on top. “Seaweed?! Oh my gosh,” is probably what you’re thinking. Believe me, it’s delicious. If you’re in Niigata, you should go to Tokamachi in southern Niigata prefecture to eat at Kojimaya restaurant. When I was young, I didn’t like seaweed touching my feet whenever I went to the beach, but now, I love eating it. Hegi Soba is definitely something to say, Okawari kudasai!
Niigata is a huge farming prefecture, so it’s no wonder it’s one of the largest producers of rice in all Japan. In fact, it’s known for it’s rice, Koshihikari, which is often voted as one of the best rice in all Japan, if not the best. So when it comes to edibles made from rice, you can bet your Yen that it’s made with a lot of flavor. Senbei (rice crackers), o-mochi (rice cakes), sake (rice wine), and so much more is made with Niigata’s top rice. Many people throughout Japan come to Niigata to try some of the great sake produced by Hokusetsu Brewery. The brewery is located on Sado Island, an island just two hours off the cost of Niigata city. If you’re into snacks, head south of central Niigata city and go to Kameda town to eat delicious senbei at Kameda Seika Senbei Factory. If you’re around in the Spring, definitely head south of central Niigata City to the Shirone Grape Garden, where you can enjoy a 30-minute all you can eat strawberry picking experience.
Niigata truly does have a lot of hidden gems when it comes to food. In the city of Sanjo you can go around to a flurry of ramen restaurants that sell the cities signature curry-ramen dish. I don’t know about you, but I love se-abura ramen and I love curry. It’s a match made in heaven. If you go out to Yahiko Village, you can buy fresh produce straight from farmers. One of their signature produce is Yahiko Edamame. Oh boy do I love these! I can eat a couple of kilograms and still have room for more! These green beans in a pod are super delicious with a cold beer and sprinkled with some salt. You’ll usually get these beans when you eat at a traditional Japanese bar, better known as an izakaya, or when you have a traditional Japanese meal at a ryokan. Another great treat in Yahiko are the Panda Yaki! A small shop not far from the Yahiko train station sells grilled mochi that can be filled with a variety of flavors such as chocolate, custard cream, cheese, peach, and edamame! Just to name a few. Speaking of baked treats, if you go into Maki Town in the Nishikan ward of Niigata city, you can find a great little shop in the center of Maki, that sells freshly baked Taiyaki. These are fish shaped pancakes with different filling like chocolate, cheese, custard, and strawberry jam. Similar to the Panda Yaki.
Now I mentioned earlier how I love hamburgers, and anywhere I go in the world I’m always searching for a delicious hamburgers. I know hamburgers are not traditional Japanese food, but Niigata is no exception. Hamburgers are a specialty in Japan, but you can definitely find special hamburgers throughout Niigata Prefecture. If you head down to Joetsu area in the south of Niigata Prefecture, you have 66 Grill. A restaurant that is sure to be mentioned by locals. In Nagaoka City in Central Niigata Prefecture you have Gramercy Burgers. This is American burgers done right! Everything from the classic cheeseburger to chili cheese burgers are covered in this restaurant. If you could go to one place for burgers in Niigata, this is it. In Niigata City in the Furumachi area you have Ken’s Burgers. If you want to eat like a beast, this place sells super delicious and monster sized burgers! You’d better be ready to break you wallet however. And in Nishi area of Niigata City, across from Niigata Univeristy, is a small place called Japanican. It’s cool place for college students to hang out, but they have the best deal for hamburgers in all of Niigata. Did I mention that their burgers are all doubles!?
Now let’s get to the good stuff. I’m already rubbing my stomach and salivating just thinking about it. Niigata is next to the sea of Japan, which means Niigata gets some of the best and freshest fish for sushi. Don’t believe me? Come to Niigata, you can choose just about any location and get served some great sushi. I’m not talking about conveyor belt sushi (kaiten sushi). I’m talking about real sushi where the chef makes the dish right before you eyes. But if you want the cream of the crop sushi, I hear Sado Island takes the cake for best sushi in all of Japan. Don’t forget, sushi is made with rice, and Niigata is known for it’s premium quality rice. Can it get better than that? I don’t think so.
Last but not least, I’d like to mention a personal favorite. Being a Latino from the USA, I do miss my Mexican dishes, black beans, tortillas, and occasional margaritas. Hands down the best Mexican restaurant in Niigata Prefecture is El Mirasol. It’s a 10 minute walk from Niigata Stations Southern Exit. Great hospitality, incredible food, and the right atmosphere. Nothing makes me feel more at home than being at El Mirasol.
The list could go on for a while, but I rather have you the reader come up to Niigata Prefecture and have a look for yourself. You just can’t go wrong, and if you know where to look, you’ll be in for a treat. So Buon Apetito! And remember, Adventure is out there! So go find it!
Sergio Vasquez July 2019