A Japanese grocery store, food court, bookstore, cosmetics counter and bakery all in one giant mall? No, I'm not talking about in Tokyo proper; I'm talkin' Arlington Heights, Illinois. Inside a shingled, blue-tiled roof reminiscent of Buddhist temples, this "Mall of Japan" is a dream-come-true for suburban Japan-o-philes and Japanese folk alike.
Stroll into the food court and choose from three Japanese eateries (Otafuku-Tei, Kayaba and Santoka Ramen), a Chinese dim-sum house (Jockey Express), a Korean restaurant (Mama House) and a sushi place (Daikichi Sushi). Expect to hear plenty of Japanese, Chinese and Korean spoken throughout the stores, and to taste plenty of authentic food. Feel like trying something that's Japanese but not sushi? Order the Ramen Set C at Sanotoko Ramen, where you'll get an oden (flavored) hard-boiled egg, a bowl of ramen soup (ask for miso base) and a bowl of sticky nato (fermented soy beans) over white rice (a healthy Japanese favorite rarely ordered by Americans) for about $8. Delicious steamed pork buns are available at Jockey Express, you can follow it up with delicious green tea soft-serve right next-door at the Japanese ice-cream parlor re Leaf. After stuffing your face at the food court, head over to Hippo Bakery, where you'll find chocolate creme-stuffed frog- and hippo-shaped pastry puffs for cheap.
Wander about the giant grocery store section, where most everything is written in Japanese. Tako (octopus) head, as well as tentacles, are available in the fish section, plenty of packaged pickled veggies (we recommend the radish) are nearby, and delicious Pocky sticks (biscuit sticks dipped in chocolate, strawberry or green-tea flavored cream) sit in the enormous candy section. Brush up on your katakana at the Sanseido bookstore, or get a makeover at the Shiseido cosmetics counter. Be sure to bring a chunk of change (these imported products aren't cheap, after all) and an empty stomach for an afternoon-long adventure that sure beats a trip to Chinatown.
Average cost: $21-$30
Centerstage Reviewer: Alicia Eler