Eating Out · Japan · review · Travel

Travel: Gluten Free in Tokyo, Japan

Before I arrived in Tokyo, I couldn’t have been more excited about the extensive list of eateries offering gluten free options – including five entirely gf restaurants – that I had researched and compiled. However, it quickly became apparent that the dream wasn’t quite as rosy as I’d anticipated – restaurants close in this city almost as quickly as they pop up, and there were several occasions where I turned up ready to eat, only to find the place no longer existed.

While this was obviously disappointing, there are still plenty of places in Tokyo that serve up some absolutely divine gf offerings – and, as with Kyoto and Nara, I was lucky enough not to be glutened once during my time here. From the fluffiest of pancakes and oodles of noodles, to utterly divine falafel and vegan mac and cheese, read on to discover more about my finds in the (second) city that never sleeps…

Gluten Free 61 Café and Bar
This entirely gf restaurant was one of my favourites during my entire trip to Japan, not only thanks to the delicious food, but its wonderful welcome and atmosphere. All the food is cooked by two lovely ladies in a small open kitchen area, and with only about 10 seats, you really feel like they’ve welcomed you into their home as they chat away to customers. In fact, my boyfriend and I were so charmed by the entire place that we visited twice – the second being our last meal before flying home, and I wouldn’t have wanted to go anywhere else.

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The menu isn’t massive but still manages to offer a good variety of dishes: everything from traditional ramen and okonomyaki, to open sandwiches and vegetable gratin; some are also available dairy free and vegan. During our first visit, my boyfriend and I started our meals with pork gyoza – I was incredibly excited as it’s been YEARS since I could have these little parcels of deliciousness, and they were absolutely perfect.

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For main, I then had the special of the open prawn and avocado sandwich, which was loaded with fresh topping and exactly what I needed after several days of rice-based dishes; while my boyfriend had the chicken and pork ramen, and was very impressed.

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Upon our second visit, I went for the ramen, while my partner chose the special of the okonomiyaki – I hadn’t been too fussed by the sound of it, but once I’d tasted some it was a different matter… cue massive food envy. For dessert, we shared the shiratama mochi – it was unlike any mochi I’ve tried before, being much stickier, but was incredibly moreish and came in a sweet red bean syrup that complemented it perfectly.

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As we were leaving on our final night, the owner gave us two cookies as a goodbye – the most perfect (in both taste and gesture) farewell I could have asked for.

Soranoiro Noodles
I can only describe Soranoiro as the Holy Grail of Ramen. They have several restaurants located throughout the city, but I visited the one at Tokyo Station, which is downstairs in the insanely large basement that’s lined with different shops and restaurants. Aside from the Gluten Free 61 Café and Bar, this was the only eatery that we made a repeat visit to during our trip – and the queue out the door indicates just how good it is before you’ve even sat down. There is only one gluten free option on the menu here, and it’s vegan (but don’t let that put you meat lovers off).

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As with the majority of ramen restaurants, you choose your dish via buttons on a ticket machine (a menu in English with pictures beside it will help you decipher which one you need to press for the gf option), which then dispenses a ticket that you hand over to the server, who seats you and hands it over to the kitchen. Food arrives quickly, and portions are very generous – there’s loads of different veg and some tofu swimming about in the wonderfully orange carrot broth.

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There is no better way to describe it but utterly divine. In fact, I was so desperate to eat every last bit that I looked ridiculous trying to get the final drops of soup out with my big wooden ladle spoon, but it was so worth it. Final tip: don the bib that they give you – it’s not pretty, but definitely necessary.

Gluten Free Café Little Bird
If you’ve done any other research, you’ll probably have come across this eatery already. One of the original entirely gf restaurants in Tokyo, this little restaurant attracts coeliac tourists from far and wide. Situated on the third floor in what looks like a residential building, open the front door and you’re greeted with several tables and a small kitchen.

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The menu comprises a mix of Western and Japanese dishes, with pizzas, burgers, pasta and ramen on offer – and some dishes can be made diary free, too. I couldn’t resist the lure of a pizza, which looked huge in the menu pictures and turned out to be even larger in real life. I have to say, the dough was one of the strangest I have ever had in a pizza – it was like eating a giant fluffy Yorkshire pudding (of which I am a bit fan) – but in turn was also strangely moreish.

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We arrived just before 8pm, which turned out to be last orders – so I ordered dessert at the same time. By the time we finished our pizzas we were fit to burst, and could barely even think about dessert; so when the largest plate of waffles, ice cream and strawberries arrived in front of us, we didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

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We were not to be defeated however, and tasted so good that it was definitely worth the effort – but we had to have a very slow walk back to the hotel after!

Elle Café
Yup – Elle, as in the magazine – has not one but two of its own eateries in Tokyo; the first is a small concession area in a fancy department store in Ginza, while the second is a decent-sized, tres chic restaurant near Shibuya. A large portion of the menu here can be made gluten free, and while the lunch/dinner options that I could have looked very tempting, there was only one thing that I really wanted here. Specifically, brunch – and big. fluffy. pancakes.

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Upon ordering, the waitress informed us that this dish took half an hour to prepare, but once they arrived, I understood why: they are possibly the most perfect pancakes I have ever seen (and eaten). The inside was so soft and light, and they were beautifully decorated with berries, flowers and a dollop of whipped cream, and another layer of thicker, warm cream sandwiched in the middle. While there were only two, they were so thick that it felt like more, and I definitely felt full by the time I left. Every breakfast since has paled in comparison…

If you’re not able to make it for a main meal here but find yourself passing by, definitely still pop in – they have a range of gorgeous looking cakes in a variety of sizes, the large majority of which are gluten free.

Revive Kitchen Three Aoyama
Just round the corner from the Elle Café, is this other equally chic eatery. The restaurant of a popular organic beauty shop in Tokyo, around half of the meals on the menu are gluten free, and many are dairy free and vegan, too – all of the allergens in each dish are clearly noted on the English menu, so it’s easy to find the ones that are suitable.

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I went for the gluten free and vegan mac and cheese, and it was utterly delicious – you’d never have guessed that the cheese wasn’t the regular variety, and the pasta was cooked perfectly. My boyfriend went for the roasted vegetables with trio of dips, which comprised a good range of different veggies and he enjoyed.

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However, it wasn’t really big enough for a sole main meal – so if you plan on ordering this on your visit, get something else to go alongside it!

Falafel Brothers
This was my first stop for food upon arriving in Tokyo, and was the perfect intro to a host of amazing food that I had in the days after. The falafel here is all gf and, while the pitta isn’t gluten free, the salad bowl option means we still get to enjoy it (and you get far more in the bowl anyway, so it works out as better value).

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There are lots of different ingredients that you can choose from, all picked out using different tongs, thus avoiding cross contamination, and staff are able to inform you about which are gluten free. Hands down, this is the best falafel I have ever eaten – bursting with flavour, really good sized balls, and with a perfect soft texture (definitely not too dry). I paired mine with a base of spinach leaves, sweetcorn, aubergine, carrot and the creamiest houmous ever – and couldn’t have enjoyed it more.

Captain Cook
While I was away from the UK for over two weeks during my trip, I didn’t escape entirely – thanks to my visit to this British themed restaurant. A large proportion of their extensive brunch menu can be made gluten free (and gf dishes are clearly marked), and there are several gf dishes on their lunch and dinner menus, too. If you follow my Instagram you’ll know that I can’t resist a good brunch dish – and the lure of French toast proved too irresistible.

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Fortunately, it also didn’t disappoint. A super-thick slice of fluffy gf toast arrived, drizzled with a good amount of maple syrup and topped with some berries, a bit of cream and accompanied by slices of banana. It all tasted fantastic, and kept me full up for hours – plus it was very well priced, too. Now all I need is to be able to get such gf French toast at more places actually in the UK!

Cityshop Noodle
Located a mere hop and a skip away from Elle Cafe, this restaurant has made me see noodles in a whole new light (aka not just for ramen and stir fries). Think of Chipotle but in noodle format: choose your noodle base (gf is rice noodles), then work along the counter and pick from a plethora of toppings – all of which are clearly marked up as to whether they’re gf, kept separate from each other, and have individual tongs. I went for cuttlefish (never had before but really liked) with courgette slices, then added on a fried egg, citrus garden salad and avocado.

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They also have a range of dressings to finish off your plate, again marked up with allergens. The flavours worked perfectly together, and the noodles made the perfect base to bulk it all out without overpowering or being too heavy – and provided me with plenty of inspiration for my own concoctions now I’m back home. Meals are very well priced, and the industrial style interior of the restaurant feels cool without being intimidating or too try-hard.

DisneySea @ Disneyland Tokyo
Turns out that the happiest place on Earth is also a very happy place for coeliacs, too. Around half of the main restaurants in the park have a gluten free option on the menu (a list of ones offering it is available on the park’s website) and staff take catering to food allergies very seriously – as soon as I mentioned I needed a gluten free meal, they sent the manager over to talk to me and three people subsequently rushed around to make sure I was properly taken care of. The gf option at the restaurant I went to in the park comprised a plate of past and meatballs in a sweet tomato sauce, a small portion of steamed vegetables (including an adorable piece of carrot in a Mickey head shape), a couple of orange segments and a carton of apple juice.

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I’ll be honest: when I looked at the pasta dish, I didn’t think it looked too appealing. Upon tasting it, however, I was very pleasantly surprised and really enjoyed the whole meal. It was overall more filling than it appeared it might be, and wasn’t too bad value (especially when you consider that all the food in Disney and theme parks in general is insanely expensive) – the whole set meal came in at about £12.

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Snack-wise, there isn’t a great deal for us gluten free-ers, and I had to sadly watch on as people walked round eating the most amazing looking churros. However, I approached one of the ice cream stands to try and find out if I could safely eat anything, and upon mentioning that I was gf, the lady pulled out a giant ringbinder full of allergen information for the items on sale – it was all in English as well as Japanese, so I could see what was ok. I was able to have a Mickey head ice lolly (basically just orange-flavoured ice), but it was something – and the fact it was in a head shape again made it an automatic winner for me!

A couple of streets over from the shopping haven of Cat Street is this small but homely eatery – where all dishes on offer are gluten free and vegan. There’s not a huge amount on the menu, with options consisting mainly of soup, veg sushi rolls and wraps – and it’s pretty pricey.

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I ordered the wrap, which contained tofu, lettuce, beetroot and carrot – it was ok but fairly bland and only saved by the beetroot dip that came alongside it. It was also verrrrry small – I was expecting a whole wrap, but it was barely half of one.

Luckily I’d also ordered a bowl of carrot soup, but still had to hit my snack reserve in my backpack once we’d left. My boyfriend ordered the salad sushi rolls, which came with a bowl of brown rice and the carrot soup – but again was not a lot of food for around £15. If you want the safety of an entirely gf restaurant then definitely pay a visit, but be prepared to pay more than you might elsewhere and for smaller portions.

You’d think that salad would make a fairly easy meal to try and sort gluten free, but this was the trickiest meal I had in Tokyo. While I wasn’t glutened, I still feel very lucky that was the case – let me explain. The server had no problem at all pointing out gluten free items that I could choose from to make my salad from, but it’s the bowl that they mix all the ingredients together in that poses a cross-contamination nightmare. There is a sign on the counter that says (in English) that if you have any concerns about allergies and cross-contamination, let them know and they’ll use clean utensils/bowls etc to prepare your food. Fantastic, I thought – except despite my pointing at it, they had no idea what it said. My boyfriend speaks a good level of basic Japanese but even he couldn’t get them to understand that all my food needed to be prepared separately; it was only thanks to a wonderful local who came to our rescue and explained to them in full-on Japanese that they understood and were able to accommodate my needs properly.

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So all in all: if you speak (at lease some) Japanese or potential cross-contamination isn’t too much of a concern for you, then the food here is tasty (my salmon number was a winner), well priced, and worth checking out. Otherwise, don’t assume that the option of salad leaves and helpful (in theory) cross-contamination signage will make for an easy, safe meal – it most likely won’t!