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June 21, 2013 at 6:00 AM

Seattle food-lover writes a “pretty good” Tokyo tour

File photo of Matthew and Iris Amster-Burton by Lara Ferroni/

File photo of Matthew and Iris Amster-Burton by Lara Ferroni/

Matthew Amster-Burton once wrote that he would be fine never leaving his home neighborhood of Capitol Hill. That’s where Amster-Burton, whose food-writing credits range from Pacific magazine’s Taste column to Gourmet, spent the bulk of his daughter Iris’s first years, along with his wife Laurie, taking them through eating experiences that he chronicled in the book “Hungry Monkey: A Food-Loving Father’s Quest to Raise an Adventurous Eater.”

But he and his toddler used to play a game where they imagined they would visit Japan — until, at some point, it wasn’t a game. The pair spent a week in Tokyo when Iris was six, then returned last year with Laurie to spend a month exploring the city from their tiny apartment. They found Japanese leeks, mucilaginous junsai, savory okonomiyaki, restaurants specializing in barbecued eel or in nothing but tempura, melon-flavored Kit Kat bars, and octopus takoyaki balls cooked expertly by a toddler chef.

Amster-Burton wrote about it all in his latest book, “Pretty Good Number One: An American Family Eats Tokyo,” which he published himself and funded through a Kickstarter campaign (full disclosure: I was one of the 381 backers.) It’s sort of a travel memoir, sort of a culinary guide, all-around funny — and a love letter that makes readers find the “misunderstood” city as entrancing as he does.

“Everyone knows you can fall in love with a place, but not everyone knows that Tokyo is one of those places,” he said.

He’ll read from the book at 4 p.m. June 23 at Ada’s Technical Books and Cafe (713 Broadway E.), before setting out on a national tour. Here’s a condensed, edited version of our recent conversation:

Q: I love eating Japanese food, but I never thought I’d want to visit Tokyo before reading the book. Now I really want to go. Was that your goal?

A: “That was absolutely my goal. Tokyo, despite being the world’s largest city, is an underappreciated — and, for people who don’t have a connection to it — largely unknown place. The images we get of it in the media are people responding to the latest natural disaster, people relaxing in a Japanese garden or temple context, or a Times Square-like neon lit ultra-urban landscape. I had been to Tokyo before taking this trip to write the book, and knew that my expereriences in Tokyo couldn’t be summed up by any of those things, even though they all have some truth to them. In the same way that Paris is a very comfortable, relaxing place to visit and a wonderful place to eat — Tokyo, to me, was like that, and yet more so, and nobody talked about it that way.”

Q: For Seattleites who can’t get to Tokyo but want to eat its food, where can they go?

A: I’ll give you a couple of places. It’s not about ‘this is the best Japanese food in Seattle,’ but ‘this is an experience very much like a food experience you would have in Japan. Two places that come to mind are U:Don in the University District, which is a cheap udon place catering to UW students. The creator of the place went to a week-long course on how to open your own udon restaurant in Japan, and has produced a perfect recreation of a Japanese udon chain restaurant…Another is Maekawa in the I.D., which is the most faithful (rendition of an) izakaya pub that I’ve been to in Seattle. It captures the varied menu and very informal food and drink and convivial atmosphere that you get at a good bar.”


Comments | Topics: culinary memoir, food writer, Iris Amster-Burton