For the most part, grocery shopping in the Tokyo area is a small-scale affair. The majority of shoppers go to the store on foot and carry their purchases home, meaning that each residential neighborhood has a number of small markets to ensure consumers don’t have to lug their bags more than a few blocks.
However, with a little over 15 years’ experience since opening its first store in Japan, mega retailer Costco has converted a number of the locals to its “bigger is better” philosophy. As you’d expect, Costco gives customers in Japan the chance to save by buying in large quantities, and also serves up hot meals in its food court, just like in other countries.
One thing that’s different about the food court at Costco in Japan, though, is the menu, which includes a Korean fusion item called the bulgogi bake.
Once we heard about the mysterious bulgogi bake, we knew we needed to try it. Since we also needed a 20-pack of paper towels, we piled into our car and cruised down to our nearest Costco in Tokyo’s neighbor to the south, the city of Kawasaki.
In keeping with the chain’s standard business practices, entering the store requires a membership, which runs 4,000 yen per year. We’ve been told our card, which was issued in Japan, will also grant us access to Costcos overseas, so we see no reason to think the reverse doesn’t apply as well.
Arriving at the Kawasaki Costco feels a lot like arriving at a Costco anywhere else. There’s a gigantic parking lot, attendant at the entrance checking membership cards, and everywhere you look, people are buying pallets of bottled water.
From standing at certain points in the store, you’d swear you were in Seattle instead of Kanagawa Prefecture. Rotisserie chicken? Check. Giant packs of muffins and cookies? Check.
But then you start coming across things that hammer home you’re in Japan -- full of takoyaki, okonomiyaki, and grilled rice balls.
Eventually, you start to feel like you’re warping between continents, as rows alternate between Costco’s proprietary Kirkland-brand snacks and decidedly more Japanese fare.
Sometimes, you can witness the gastronomic melting pot without taking a single step. For example, a glance to one side of the drink aisle reveals crates of Coca-Cola….and directly across from it, you’ll find boxes of bottled green tea.
But while we found plenty of tempting stuff to stick in our cart and take home, we were hungry now. So we sauntered over to the food court, where a glance up at the menu board revealed what we had come for: the bulgogi bake.
For the uninitiated, bulgogi is a type of Korean grilled beef dish. The meat is usually marinated with soy and other spices, and often mixed with things such as green onion or mushrooms.
Authentic bulgogi is grilled, but Costco’s creation is cooked in an oven, hence the name bulgogi bake. As you’d expect from the superstore, the bulgogi bake is reasonably priced at 400 yen, and large enough to be a meal all by itself.
Even after unwrapping the foil surrounding the bulgogi bake and looking at it close up, we’re not sure exactly how to classify it. It’s shaped like a subway sandwich, but it’s completely enclosed. Moreover, the outer portion isn’t ordinary bread, it’s pizza crust, making it feel like an oblong calzone.
The Italian food connection became even stronger when we examined the filling, which consists of beef, green onion, and, to our surprise, melted cheese.
All this time spent trying to puzzle out the bulgogi bake’s true nationality wasn’t doing anything to appease our appetites, though, so it was time to find out how it tasted. We bit into it, and the first sensation was of the soft, doughy crust, with just a little bit of flour left dusted on the surface.
Once you break through the outer layer, the cheese hits your palate. The flavor is mild, without even a hint of sourness, meaning the bulgogi bake can appeal even to people who ordinarily can’t stand the idea of eating coagulated milk. Likewise, the green onion isn’t overpowering, either. We’re not saying we’d recommend eating the bulgogi bake in the afternoon before your first date with someone, but if you’re already in a steady relationship, the smell it leaves on your breath isn’t anything that would put you in danger of getting dumped.
We’re not going to lie, the meat is on the tough side, enough so that it can be a little difficult to cut through with your canines, occasionally leading to ending up with a bigger piece in your mouth than you’d intended. That said, the level of quality is perfectly acceptable for a 400-yen food court meal, especially considering the generous portion of it present in the bulgogi bake. And while we’d like the beef even more if it was a little tenderer, we’ve got no complaints about the marinade that gives it a pleasant sweetness. It’s a bit like the flavor of a Japanese-style beef bowl, and it goes great with the warm, melty cheese.
So, while we can’t call the bulgogi bake an honest example of traditional Korean cooking, we can say we’d definitely order it again. We especially recommend it for those of you on the fence about whether to have pizza or a beef bowl for dinner, or who want to dive head-first into internationalism by eating an Italian remix of a Korean delicacy at the Japanese branch of an American warehouse retailer.
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