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Breakfast of Champions, Tsukiji-Style

Japan is a culinary dream, a country that has as many delicious, surprising, and sometimes downright weird dishes as you could ever hope for. I have always nurtured a love of food (…and sometimes a waistline to go along with it), and that epicurean nature has only grown since I moved to Japan. In a land famous for bowls of perfectly chewy udon, giant pots full of comforting nabe, and all the ramen I could ever eat, there still reigns (at least for me) an ultimate king.

And that’s sushi. Tuna, salmon, scallop, yellowtail, flounder, shrimp, eel, clam, octopus, squid…give it all to me, the bigger the quantity and the fresher the cuts, the better. (Unless it’s the unholy trinity of uni/sea urchin/雲丹, namako/sea cucumber/なまこ, and shirako/cod sperm sacs/白子, in which case I will respectfully decline and wait for more salmon.)

A counter filled with fresh sushi is a beautiful sight.
A counter filled with fresh sushi is a beautiful sight.

Everybody who lives in Japan has their favorite sushi joint. Mine’s Kantaro, the conveyor-belt restaurant a five-minute bike ride from my house. My friends and I are regulars there, and we’ve filled up enough point cards to prove it.

On the way to Tsukiji Market in Tokyo, bright and early in the morning.
On the way to Tsukiji Market in Tokyo, bright and early in the morning.

But as much as I love Kantaro, it’s not the best sushi I’ve had in Japan. That honor goes to 寿司大 (Sushidai), a tiny shoebox of a restaurant located in the back alleys of Tokyo’s famous Tsukiji Fish Market. So long as you’re a morning person, Tsukiji’s the place to be for the freshest sushi you can get anywhere, Japan or elsewhere. And Sushidai (along with its neighbor, the slightly less famous Sushidaiwa) is the cream of the crop. Sure, just about any sushi that you get in Japan is bound to be pretty delicious, but at Sushidai has made a name for itself as being one of the best in Japan.

And so on my last trek down to Tokyo, I decided that I might as well give it a go. To be clear, though, Sushidai is not really the sort of place you decide to go to on a whim. Well, you could…but you’ll end up waiting in line for at least five hours. Sushidai doesn’t take reservations and it only seats about twelve people at a time. You will be waiting, no matter when you go. Bring a book or your iPod.

About two or three hours into my wait...thankfully I had my Kindle to keep me company.
About two or three hours into my wait…thankfully I had my Kindle to keep me company.

I rocked up to Sushidai at just after five in the morning. The sun hadn’t yet risen yet, but Tsukiji was already alive and buzzing with activity. When I saw the line outside Sushidai – with barely only a dozen people! – my heart lifted. Maybe I wouldn’t have to wait after all, despite reading dozens of accounts otherwise. And then I noticed that this was only the first batch of hungry masses; the rest of the line – at least forty more people – waited around the corner. With a resigned sigh, I took my place at the back of the line and settled in to wait.

I won’t lie. I waited a long time. I didn’t eat my breakfast until just before ten a.m., after nearly five long hours of waiting. Maybe you think that’s a disgustingly long time to wait for food, and maybe you’re right. For me, though, eating at Sushidai was just as much about the experience as it was the food. And I’d rather be waiting for some of the best sushi I’d likely ever have than sleeping in my hotel bed. Food ranks above sleep for me.

After a few hours, the hostess of the restaurant brought out steaming cups of green tea, and my half-frozen fingers were thankful for it. Even in late March, Tokyo mornings are a bit nippy.

Unlike your usual breakfast joint, Sushidai doesn’t have a menu off which you can pick and choose your sushi cuts. Instead, you choose between two sets. The far more popular choice is the お任せ (omakase) chef’s choice, which twelve pieces of sushi, plus a thirteenth of your choice and a bowl of miso soup. That’ll run you just under 4000円 (about 40 USD). The second, standard じょう (jyou) set, the name of which escapes me at the moment, has only seven pieces of sushi and you don’t get to choose your last piece.

Finally at the front!
Finally at the front!

When I finally made it to the front of the line, my stomach was totally ravenous. Even if the food hadn’t been delicious (and it was), the food I had at Sushidai is definitely some of the most beautiful Japanese food I’ve ever eaten. Here’s a full rundown of my breakfast at Sushidai.

First up: おとろ (otoro or "fatty") tuna. In the sushi world, the fattier, the better.
First up: おとろ (otoro or “fatty”) tuna. In the sushi world, the fattier a cut of sushi is, the better.
Next was 比目魚 (hirame, flounder).
Next was 比目魚 (hirame, flounder).
The third cut was 鯛 (tai, red snapper), but I scarfed mine down without taking a picture first...so I snapped a pic of my neighbor's!
The third cut was 鯛 (tai, red snapper), but I scarfed mine down without taking a picture first…so I snapped a pic of my neighbor’s!
Usually, the fourth piece is sea urchin, but as that's one of the few Japanese foods I dislike, the chefs were kind enough to swap it out for another cut of fatty, とろ tuna.
Usually, the fourth piece is sea urchin, but as that’s one of the few Japanese foods I dislike, the chefs were kind enough to swap it out for another cut of fatty, とろ tuna.
Next up: 鰆 (sawara, Spanish mackerel)
Next up: 鰆 (sawara, Spanish mackerel)
This was one of my favorites pieces! 赤貝 (akagai) is a clam with a slightly crunchy texture. The flavor is fantastic: it starts off mild, but as you chew, a sweeter taste blossoms. It provides good entertainment value, too. This guy was still alive when the chef set him in front of me, and he gave a last few valiant wiggles he became breakfast.
This was one of my favorites pieces! 赤貝 (akagai) is a clam with a slightly crunchy texture, with none of the “rubber band” feeling that I’ve come to associate with clams. The flavor is fantastic: it starts off mild, but as you chew, a sweeter taste blossoms. It provides good entertainment value, too. This guy was still alive when the chef set him in front of me, and he gave a last few valiant wiggles he became breakfast.
鯵 (aji) - horse mackerel.
鯵 (aji) – horse mackerel.
Baby ebi (えび, shrimp) that basically melt in your mouth.
Baby ebi (えび, shrimp) that basically melt in your mouth.
Blood red マグロ (maguro, tuna), topped with just a tiny dot of wasabi.
Blood red マグロ (maguro, tuna), topped with just a tiny dot of wasabi.
Tamago (egg, 玉子) isn't a sushi offering that you usually think of, but the light, fluffy cake broke up the meal well. Not very exciting, but still delicious.
Tamago (egg, 玉子) isn’t a sushi offering that you usually think of, but the light, fluffy cake broke up the meal well. Not very exciting, but still delicious.
Maki (まき, rolled) sushi only made one appearance in my meal. Cucumbers, tuna, shellfish made up this roll, and it was the only piece that I needed soy sauce to complement.
Maki (まき, rolled) sushi only made one appearance in my meal. Cucumbers, tuna, shellfish made up this roll, and it was the only piece that I needed soy sauce to complement.
The last standard piece of my set was 穴子 (anago), which is conger eel. 穴子 is one of my absolute favorite sushi cuts. It's topped with a slightly sweet sauce and served warm. It's soft and buttery and absolutely perfect. And Sushidai's was the best I've ever had.
The last standard piece of my set was 穴子 (anago), which is conger eel. 穴子 is one of my absolute favorite sushi cuts. It’s topped with a slightly sweet sauce and served warm. It’s soft and buttery and absolutely perfect. And Sushidai’s was the best I’ve ever had.
For my last piece of sushi, I chose to order scallop (帆立, hotate). Scallops are another of my regular, go-to sushi orders, and this one didn't disappoint.
For my last piece of sushi, I chose to order scallop (帆立, hotate). Scallops are another of my regular, go-to sushi orders, and this one didn’t disappoint.
It was GIGANTIC.
It was GIGANTIC.

So…five hours of waiting and forty bucks, all for thirteen pieces of sushi, and a bowl of miso soup. Was it worth it? In my book, absolutely. Well, let me modify that a bit: absolutely…once. You’d be hard-pressed to find better sushi at such a low price, and the atmosphere of Sushidai, with its pristine counter and jovial chefs, makes the meal all that more enjoyable. It’s as much about the experience as it is the food. But now that I’ve eaten there, I don’t feel the need to return to Sushidai. It was a “one and done” sort of deal for me, something that was on my “Japan bucket list.”

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One thing’s for sure, though: Wheaties aren’t going to cut it anymore. Sushi’s the real breakfast of champions.

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