Sardines three-ways at a Michelin-starred restaurant; impossibly airy chiffon cakes; crisp and juicy deep-fried pork cutlets—here's where to score some of Tokyo's best inexpensive meals.

By Erin Mosbaugh
Updated May 24, 2017
© Erin Mosbaugh

If you’re obsessed with food, there’s no time like the present to buy a ticket to Tokyo. Momofuku’s David Chang calls it “the world’s best food city”; Anthony Bourdain admits, “If I had to eat only in one city for the rest of my life, Tokyo would be it.”

No matter if it’s a bowl of ramen, a golden fried pork cutlet or a cup of coffee, Japanese food culture dictates that everything be created with the utmost care. That means a budget-conscious traveler should have no problem finding memorable—even mind-expanding—eating experiences on the cheap in Tokyo, a city of limitless options when it comes to dining out.

We’ve scoured the city for inexpensive eats that you absolutely cannot miss, finding yuzu-accented ramen, succulent unagi, and impossibly airy chiffon cake along the way. And if you’d like to take your extra cash at the end of the trip and blow it on a mind-bending sushi experience, we recommend blowing it out at Sushi Ichi in Ginza or Sushi Shin near Roppongi Station. This list should get you started. If we figure out how to move to Tokyo permanently, we’ll be sure to let you know.

Chatei Hatou for coffee and chiffon cake

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Stepping into this traditional Japanese-style coffee shop is like stepping into your grandparents’ cozy home—that is, if your grandparents take 15 painstaking minutes to make one exceptional cup of coffee, and line their walls with hundreds of cups and saucers. The proprietor-slash-coffee master of Chatei Hatou opened his shop on a sloping side street in Shibuya over 25 years ago—and you can still spot him stationed behind the bar donning a pressed white shirt and tie, crafting perfectly executed cups of java (¥850 or $7.50) as well as cappuccinos scented with lemon rind and cinnamon (¥950 or $8.45). He warms the coffee cup and the saucer in a ceremonial manner, and serves an impossibly airy, maple-flavored chiffon cake (¥500 or $4.45 per piece). These are just a few of the many details that make Chatei Hatou a Tokyo essential.

1-15-9 Shibuya, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo; no website

Kaikaya by the Sea for unforgettable seafood

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If fresh seafood in a laid-back atmosphere is what you’re after, this unconventional izakaya is the spot. The crowd at Kaikaya is jovial and lively, there’s an open kitchen, and the decorative surfboards trick you into thinking you’re at a fish shack in a Japanese seaside village. House specialties include amberjack carpaccio (¥1,000 or $8.90) lightly dressed with olive oil, garlic, balsamic and sweet basil, along with tuna “spareribs” (¥1,200 or $10.65)—which are actually tuna collar and cheek—coated in a sticky sauce and grilled until caramelized. If you can swing it, opt for the 8-course tasting menu (¥3500 or $30), which features crowd favorites along with seasonal fish dishes and a pungent, fish-flecked miso soup that will warm you to the core.

2-3-7 Maruyamacho, Shibuya, Tokyo 150-0044;

Afuri for yuzu ramen

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We all love rich and fatty tonkotsu-style ramen, thanks to its porcine intensity and creamy broth. But limiting yourself to tonkatsu while in Tokyo would be a disservice, given that there are many other important ramen styles to be discovered. Cue the yuzu ramen at Afuri (¥980 or $9): a clean and well-balanced bowl of chicken-based broth accented with fragrant and tangy Japanese citrus fruit. You must choose whether you want the shio (salt) or shoyu (soy sauce) version of the yuzu ramen, but both come with a half boiled nitamago egg, bamboo shoot, and slices of tender braised pork belly called chashu. Added bonuses: you order from a vending machine and the staff cranks Jay-Z while you dine.

Multiple locations;

Nodaiwa for grilled eel

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This historic, Michelin-starred restaurant—located in the same office building basement as the famous Sukiyabashi Jiro—is the place to go for unagi, or grilled freshwater eel (¥2,900 or $25.75 and up). The masters at Nodaiwa grill the delicate fish over glowing-hot embers, dunk it into a savory soy- and mirin-based sauce, place it back over the embers until it is tender and caramelized, and serve it over rice in either a bowl or a gorgeous lacquered box. But it’s not just the next-level unagi that earned this place a Michelin star: the waitresses sport traditional kimonos, the chopstick holders are painted ceramic eels, and there’s sanshô—a close relative of the Sichuan peppercorn—on the table to sprinkle on your eel at will. (Pro tip: For a 360 unagi experience, head to Tokyo’s famous Tsukiji fish market before lunch to check out the main ingredient in its original form.)

4-2-15 Ginza, Chuo, Tokyo;

Maisen for tonkatsu

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If you’re craving a breaded and deep-fried pork cutlet (¥2,600 or $23.10)—the kind with a crisp panko exterior and juicy interior—look no further than this Tokyo chain. The Maisen flagship is in Aoyama, located in walking distance of Omotesando Station; here, you’ll find different breeds of pig, from Kurobuta to Chamiton, all waiting to be breaded in panko, fried until golden and served with a sticky dipping sauce and a mountain of shredded cabbage. Given that nothing soaks up beer and sake quite like fried meat, it makes sense to head to this pork paradise after a night of imbibing at Golden Gai or New York Bar at the Park Hyatt (made infamous by Bill Murray in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation).

4-8-5 Jingumae, Shibuya 150-0001, Tokyo;

Nakajima for sardines

How do you manage to eat at a Michelin-starred restaurant in Tokyo while on a budget? If we’re talking about Nakajima, an otherwise pricey kaiseki restaurant near Shinjuku Station, here’s how it’s done: You opt for the ¥800 ($8) set lunchtime menu, featuring fresh-as-can-be sardines prepared in one of three ways, along with rice, miso soup, pickles and green tea. There are sardines coated in panko and deep-fried, sardines simmered in a sweet soy sauce, and sardines presented sashimi-style with grated ginger and seaweed. If you decide to drop ¥900, you can have sardines cooked in a bubbling egg casserole called yanagawa nabe. It’s deeply comforting and, if you ask me, easily worth the additional 90 cents USD. Grab a seat at the counter so you can see the chefs at work, and get there on the early side to avoid the crowds.

3 32-5 Shinjuku, Shinjuku 160-0022, Tokyo; no website.

TsuruTonTan for udon

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Upon entering this Tokyo noodle mecca, you’ll see a man in the open kitchen stirring freshly made udon with long wooden chopsticks. He’ll grab the noodles from the bath once they’ve become slightly chewy and supple, then marry them with broth and freshly-fried shrimp tempura. You’ll find yourself surrounded by young, hip locals and in-the-know tourists, all patiently waiting for an enormous ceramic bowl filled with curry udon (¥980 or $8.70), truffle cream udon (¥1280 or $11.35), or a classic like the shrimp and vegetable tempura udon (¥1280)—udon that, regardless, came together just a second ago, right before your eyes.

Address: 3-14-12 Roppongi Minato, Tokyo

Seirinkan for pizza

Depending on how long you’re in Tokyo, there’s a possibility you’ll hit a Japanese-food wall. If that’s the case, head straight to Seirinkan in the gorgeous Nakameguro neighborhood for the city’s best Neapolitan-style pizza. It makes sense that Tokyo’s pie game is strong, seeing that the city excels in the art of bread and pastry (if you ask me, Japan gives France a run for its money). There’s only two pie options here, classic Margherita and marinara (¥1500 or $13.30), and they’re cooked for just 60 seconds in a wood-fired oven until the crust is chewy, bubbly and charred. If you need something green aside from the basil on the Margherita, there’s an exquisitely simple plate of broccoli with crispy garlic.

No website

Address: 2-6-4 Kamimeguro Meguro, Tokyo