Originally, I intended this list to be a single post, but I managed to drone on longer than it takes to eat four full meals. If you’re still with me, thank you for tuning back in to catch the last half of my “last meals” on death row list. I can’t promise that this won’t be as exhaustive part 1, but let’s get into it, shall we?
I last left off finishing up my hearty bowl of miso ramen, which I promptly ate in the way that that dish was always intended to be. All of you who go out to eat ramen and spend more than 10 minutes sipping away at it and still don’t even get halfway done are curiously peculiar people. Anyway, I’m staying in Japan for my last afternoon tea, and I’m ready for a sweet delight to get me ready for my midday nap.
Afternoon Tea: Peach Parfait – La Pesca (Yamanashi City, Japan)
Let me start by saying that the concept of afternoon tea is not nearly prominent enough in American culture. I guess the symbolic yeeting of British tea into the ocean in protest of Colonial oppression kind of soured our freedom-loving society on this equally Colonial tradition. As a kid growing up in the 21st century, the only times I ever drank tea were when I had a sore throat, or when I happened to be in the mood for fountain iced tea. Needless to say, living in Japan for so long amidst a society where hot tea is dispensed from your average sidewalk vending machine profoundly opened my eyes to the drink.
That all being said, even though I became a fan of drinking tea, it was more the food culture associated with it that really sold me. A sweet or savory accompaniment is just as core a tenant to afternoon tea as the drink itself. There’s a reason why Fraulein Maria says “Tea: a drink with jam and bread,” when she’s teaching the von Trapp children how to sing in the Austrian countryside. It might be my American bias, but the food ultimately trumps the tea in its importance to the dynamic duo. All of this is to say, the thing I’ve selected for my afternoon tea meal is actually just a well-crafted dessert. It’s something that can be paired with any kind of tea, whether it be bottled convenience store tea or hand-picked, hand-dried, and hand-roasted artisanal tea brewed with purified mountain runoff. Lo and behold: the La Pesca Peach Parfait.
I lived in the prefecture of Yamanashi, Japan, which is an inland mountain region west of Tokyo. It’s considered the fruit basket of Japan, growing seasonal produce throughout the year—strawberries and cherries in the spring, peaches in the summer, and grapes in early fall. Hopefully, the judge has scheduled my execution day in the summer, because this café only serves these parfaits as long as their farms can produce fresh, ripe peaches. Coming here and waiting for up to two hours outside in the summer heat became almost a yearly tradition for me and thousands of Instagram eaters across the country. I mean, just look at that parfait! It’s made for the “grams.”
This café and dish powerfully represent the aching beauty of seasonality, and further exemplify the mores of Japanese food culture. For one season out of the year, La Pesca opens its doors to eager diners in order to share the bounty of their harvest. They are so proud of their peaches and the soil from which they’re grown, that they hold back crates and crates of them that would otherwise be going to households all across Japan, and instead, offer them up to the locals of Yamanashi as a gift of genuine neighborly generosity. If a food can make me, an outsider, feel like a welcome member of the community in a foreign country, it’s no surprise why it’s on this list.
Dinner: Yakiniku – Kinryuuzan (Tokyo, Japan)
Yakiniku, for the uninitiated, is basically just the Japanese equivalent of Korean BBQ. You love it, I love it, we all love it. It comes in all different shapes and sizes, qualities and prices, with varying degrees of seasonings and spices. But wait…what you didn’t know is that sometimes in order to eat some you’ll have to make some serious compromises. This place relies on its quality, so expansion is the thing it sacrifices. If you want to get a taste of this delicious meat, you either have to be a repeat customer, or know somebody who is—what a crisis!
This place was my “white whale” since the first year I lived in Japan. One of my students told me about Kinryuuzan in a casual classroom conversation, during a speaking exercise in which we were describing places we loved to eat. I don’t even remember what I talked about, because this namedrop was a flex of Neistat-like proportions. I had never heard about it, but when she described the rigid exclusivity coupled with its surreal quality, it planted the seed of this mythical meat in my stomach. I knew from the start, that I had almost no shot of ever getting to eat there, except that when you give your best effort for others and foster relationships into lifelong friendships, sometimes you get rewarded with more than you really deserve.
That’s me in the black shirt, my student in the middle, and my various dinner guests, getting the OPPORTUNITY OF A LIFETIME to get treated to a meal that even for the exclusive pool of guests who are allowed to dine here, are only given the chance once every six months. To call this place “hard to get into” is as big an understatement as “2020 was a rough year.” It makes me giggle when I read articles that rank this as one of the best yakiniku restaurants in all of Japan, because it gives people hope that one day, they might be able to experience it for themselves. Unfortunately, that simply is not the case, but it makes sense why. The dining room has enough space for only eight parties at a time, because it is jammed into what can only be described as the living room of the owner’s house. On top of that, Kinryuuzan is basically only open for about a four to five hour window a day: dinner.
This place is some rockstar shit, and you can tell just by looking at the food. Each plate is perfectly presented with A5 wagyu marbled up the ass as all artisan beef in Japan is wont to be. The owner, a small elderly Japanese woman, patrols the dining room floor every night to make sure her precious cuts of beef aren’t getting defiled by customers who think they prefer something a little more on the well-done side. If this woman tells you to eat it bloody and rare, you eat it bloody and rare, because this meat is so velvety and flavorful that if you are getting the privilege to eat it you better be eating it in peak form.
By the end of the night, you’re left wondering why it ever had to end. You want to stay and drink and laugh into the night, nibbling on any small, precious morsels that you can manage to fit into your full stomach, but you know that the next batch of customers who have also been waiting six months for their turn are right outside. Just like with the kaisen-don at Uogashi, it’s understood that these dining experiences are built around the respect for the food and the respect of the establishment and its way of doing things. It’s not about you. Sure, in this situation I’m on death row and I’m shoving myself onto their guest list on my final quest of gluttonous indulgence, so I understand the irony; however, we know it’s just a fantasy. I’m including this place on my list of final meals out of sheer reverence and admiration for what that old lady has managed to build. When she goes, she’ll be leaving behind a legacy that will be carried on for (hopefully) generations more to come. The least I can do, is pay homage to it here on my silly blog, so that you, too, may find your own “white whale” restaurant, and do everything you can to eat there. You never know when the chance might be gone forever.
Supper: Double-double with fries both “animal style” – IN-N-OUT
I’ve teleported back from Japan after a tour de fork of incredible food, and the hours are drawing near to my date with the chair. I started off my day eating foods rooted in nostalgia, so now it’s time to bring it back around with this one. I’m a California native, so this pick should come as no surprise to anybody. This is one for the boys.
In-N-Out is one of those things about which people have many hot takes and is something I will 100% be exploring later in this blog’s lifetime, but a few things that are inarguable are its consistency, its quality, its price point, and its spread being the best condiment in the entire fast-food-o-sphere. If you’ve never had an In-N-Out burger in your life, let me break these points down for you:
- Consistency – My first In-N-Out burger that I can remember was probably from around age four or five. Every single thing about the restaurant experience is exactly the same now as it was back then, from the taste of the food to the staff uniforms to the iconic interior design of the dining rooms with the red chairs and white tables. Fast food goes through rebranding all the time for good reasons or “holy shit that’s bad” reasons, but it’s the ones that go through hardly any change at all that have already managed to step off the ever-spinning Ferris Wheel of competition and trends, and ascend to a higher state of being.
- Quality – Just remember, the reason you folks east of the Mississippi aren’t able to stuff these incredible flavor grenades into your face-hole is because you’re not within a distance the company deems reasonable enough to deliver it’s beef to without sacrificing the integrity of the product. Don’t feel bad, though, your pizzas are way better out there and that makes me sad.
- Price Point – This will always be an objective win for this franchise. Whatever economics are going into it that let them serve up fantastic food, yet still allow them to pay their workers a pretty competitive wage, I hope they stick to that magic formula forever, because nothing makes my wife and I happier than when we realize we just spent only around $15 for one of the best tasting, quick, and convenient dinners you can get for two people.
- The Spread – Deniers will cry all day about how it’s just Thousand Island dressing, but they don’t actually know what in the fuck they are talking about. One might as well say that Kewpie mayo is just mayo, or that gin is just vodka with flavor. If you view the world through a lens that blatantly dismisses the time, trials and errors that went into creating something with character and distinction, we can’t be friends. This condiment is the entire reason anybody gets “animal style” anything here, and it’s certainly the reason I’m getting it as my supper on my last day on Earth.
Dessert: Blizzard – Dairy Queen
I can feel you judging me. I can hear your head shaking through the screen. At this point, I don’t want to have to defend my pick. It’s not like I’m drafting Sam Bowie before Michael Jordan here. It’s the last thing I’m ever going to eat, sure, but in my hypothetical last day of meals, I’ve already eaten seven other S-tier meals! I just need something simple, satisfying, and sweet to leave me with a smile on my face despite my inevitable demise. Dessert was never really my jam anyway. Hell, I never even really considered myself a “sweets person” until I moved to Japan (are you sensing a pattern here?), because at least over there they don’t use an amount of sugar akin to the amount of coke Tony Montana is snorting at the end of “Scarface.”
It’s curious then, isn’t it? Why am I not picking one of the dozens of standout desserts I had over there? Well, for one, it wouldn’t fit with the limitation I gave myself in this exercise, where I would be able to reasonably eat everything in a real-life scenario. I can’t go from Japan for dinner, to California for supper, and back to Japan again for a piece of fresh melon cake or something. It had to be something I could get within driving distance to my final destination—my executioner. So, I pondered this choice for quite some time. Actually, longer than any other food component on this list. For the sake of not overthinking it, I settled on a simple blizzard from Dairy Queen.
It ticks all the boxes: It’s a childhood staple, it’s a place my dad used to take me and my brothers on some weekend nights after dinner, it’s simple, and it knows what it is. DQ doesn’t try to be anything more than soft serve with some fun, colorful twists. It could probably stop selling all things besides the soft serve cones dipped in chocolate with only three options for ice cream flavors and still be that perfect place to go for a sweet pick-me-up. And just for the record, to bring this thing full circle, DQ is absolutely, objectively, now and forevermore, better than fucking Yogurtland. Seriously, they can’t decide what’s good in their own store, so they make you build the thing yourself with some pale slices of frozen pineapple and expired captain crunch.
At the end of the day, DQ is me in a nutshell. I’m an incredibly simple guy who doesn’t try to be what I’m not. Nothing on this list has been altogether that complex or ostentatious. I could not, without betraying something fundamental to my identity, bring myself to draft a list of only expensive and elaborate meals I’ve had, or want to have. A last meal has to be a celebration of you and the life you’ve lived. After your funeral, your family and friends are going to get together and do their best to remember you. Maybe they’ll make a playlist of songs you liked, or hang collages of photos that paint a picture of the life you lead. They might go to a restaurant which you absolutely loved and share a meal that puts your memory right at the head of the table, because it’s where you would have liked to have eaten with them.
I think this is why it was always so hard for me to satisfyingly answer the “last meal” question. In essence it’s a kind of eulogy for yourself. It tells people so much that they need to know about you, but more importantly, it tells you maybe what you didn’t know about yourself. I wanted to give you a sense of who I am through the food I chose. I did the best I could, and I hope it painted a clear enough picture for you, or at the very least, made you feel a little hungry.
By J. Michael Beza