Food Report: Yaki-Curry at Princess Phi-Phi (Mojikō, Kitakyūshū, Japan)

The Mojikō area of Kitakyūshū (in Japan’s Fukuoka Prefecture) is known for its collection of beautiful Western-style pre-war buildings: a legacy of its past as a major trading port. It is also known for making a rather interesting contribution to the wonderful world of yōshoku, in the form of a dish that turns ordinary Japanese curry into something quite different.

OVERVIEW

Name? Princess Phi-Phi (プリンセスピピ).

Speciality? Yaki-curry (焼きカレー).

Where? A short walk from Mojikō Station on the Kagoshima Main Line.

Operating hours? Lunch 1100-1500 (last order 1400) / Dinner 1800-2200 (last order 2100). Closed on Tuesdays. Tabelog indicates that they’re open on public holidays, but the official website says to contact the restaurant beforehand for the New Year holiday period (this suggests that they’re occasionally closed at that time).

How much? Yaki-curry dishes go for 1,000 yen each, whilst special curries – not prepared yaki-curry style – with crab or oyster start at 1,500 yen. Non-alcoholic drinks at 450 yen (300 yen if ordered as a set with a main course); alcoholic drinks average 600 yen each. Desserts and side orders are also available at different prices. Note that these figures don’t include Japan’s consumption tax (8% as of this writing, set to rise to 10% in October 2019).

English menu? I neglected to ask if they had one as I used the Japanese menu, but at least one member of staff speaks some English.

Related links? Tabelog / Official Site.

Date of visit? Sunday, 23 September 2018.

Time of day and type of meal? Early afternoon, lunch.

MY EXPERIENCE

Yaki-curry (焼きカレー) is one of those dishes that’s incredibly simple in theory, yet near-impossible to pigeonhole. A speciality of Mojikō (門司港, “Moji Port”), the former harbour district at the northeastern tip of Kitakyūshū, this rather odd hodgepodge is said to have originated from an experiment gone wonderfully right – or so says the Kyūshū Tourism Promotion Organisation:

Yaki curry itself was started back in the 50s and 60s. Legend has it that a local restaurant owner stuck a leftover curry in the oven for more texture, and the rest is history. Being that it was historically a trading port, Mojiko is known for its international flair; yaki curry is no exception. It is now a locals’ favorite.

To put it succinctly, yaki-curry is really just a bowl of rice topped with curry sauce and cheese, then baked in an oven. The possible variations on this basic recipe are all but limitless: a fact reflected in the proliferation across the Mojikō area of restaurants touting their own versions, whipped up to varying levels of originality. There’s even a “Yaki-Curry Map” available at tourist information desks, offering a list of more than twenty establishments where visitors might sample the dish (and there are probably others not even listed).

Now I’d spent the morning sightseeing in downtown Kitakyūshū, and it was already well past my usual lunch hour by the time I reached Mojikō. If I was to have a successful afternoon of poking about this historic district – more on that in another post – I decided that a refuelling stop was in order. Yaki-curry had already figured in my pre-trip research, and some last-minute digging pulled up one particular spot as a good place to try it.

As you can see in the map, this place is literally just across the street from Mojikō Station. Perfect – no need to wait long until I can tuck into a hearty meal.

Or so I thought. There was no queue outside Princess Phi-Phi (プリンセスピピ) when I arrived…

…but that was deceptive, as the sight of a completely packed restaurant greeted me as soon as I stepped through the door.

Not to worry. As a staff member explained to me, the restaurant has two dining areas. One in this street-level café-like setting – and another in the basement directly beneath it.

I popped round to the side entrance towards the right of the shop front…

…went down the stairs and stepped through the rustic wooden door…

…whereupon I was escorted to a table.

Though there were still vacancies down here, the fairly compact basement was nonetheless well occupied, making me reluctant to snap pictures of the tables and seats (lest I intrude upon the privacy of my fellow diners). That said, you can form an idea of the place from the little accents on the windowsill near my table…

…and even the folksy metalwork fittings and rough plastered walls of the washroom.

A cosy, casual feel, more along the lines of a trattoria than a formal restaurant. There are pictures of the different dining areas on Tabelog if you’d like to compare them: the first picture on that page is of the upper level, the second is of the basement (where I was seated).

The table equipment.

The welcome set. Glass of iced water and plastic-wrapped oshibori.

Right, let’s have a look at the menu. Note that these prices don’t include Japan’s consumption tax (currently 8%, scheduled to rise to 10% in October 2019).

I ordered the restaurant’s classic 王様焼カレー (Ō-sama yaki-karē / 1,080 yen with tax / side salad included) – that’s the dish featured on the upper-right-hand corner of the menu. And to wash it down, a glass of chilled 門司港バナナスカッシュ (Mojikō banana sukasshu / 324 yen with tax if ordered with a main course), a banana-flavoured carbonated beverage.

Why the banana flavour, you ask?

Mojikō was an important harbour in its heyday, and one of the products brought ashore to Japan in large quantities through this port was the humble banana. Hence the cute – or to my mind, faintly disturbing – Banana Man figure used as a local mascot.

The banana squash, along with my complimentary side salad.

The banana flavour was quite mild, perhaps on the weak side of subtle. If I were blending this glass, I’d probably add more of the concentrate.

About ten minutes after ordering, I was served the main course.

Here’s a snapshot taken a few spoonfuls into the meal. Note the different layers: cooked white rice at the bottom, a generous slathering of rich curry sauce, then an egg with the yolk still delightfully runny, and a blanket of cheese on top. Along the edge, an assortment of vegetables and some bacon.

Fresh from the oven, the contents of that rustic ceramic dish were piping hot, and it was a good few minutes before I dared to take my first bite. (Well, the caption on the menu did say アツアツとろとろめしあがれ! so I can’t say I wasn’t forewarned.) It was, as I’d expected, a hodgepodge – but of the best kind. A furious mashing of textures and flavours, all cemented together by the cheesy, eggy mess of the curry sauce.

The only things I’d ask for: a bit more punch and intensity in the flavour of the sauce, plus a good deal more rice underneath. (Much to the objection of sodium-watchers and calorie-counters, no doubt.)

Oh, and more bacon of course. Bacon makes everything better.

Right, time to settle the bill.

Nice of them to round the sum down in my favour, even if it’s by just 4 yen. There’s nothing like change in the form of an incredibly versatile 100-yen coin – the best friend of vending machines and coin lockers everywhere – as opposed to any combination that includes the useless 5-yen and 1-yen coins that I loathe with a passion.

And with that, I was ready and raring to explore the harbour district that gave birth to this culinary oddity…

…but we’ll save that tale for another post.

Cheerio.

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