Yet under our noses, waiting patiently for us while we ramen-ed here and soba noodled there, was Pepper Lunch, a Japanese food chain that hits all those fun, cheap and tasty buttons us Japonophiles crave.
We kinda thought the food was going to be a bit fun-but-crappy, but it was surprisingly (almost disappointingly) good. And it's pretty healthy as far as fast food goes. A huge thumbs up from us.
Unlike a chain store in Japan, this place has plenty of room. Seats are wrapped around inside and end up out the front of Menya Mappen inside the mall. You order at the counter on the way in, grab your number and they find you inside.
The star of the show is the hotplate. This Beef Pepper Rice (small), great value between 2.00pm and 6.00pm only $5.95. It lands steaming hot on your table, finish the cooking yourself.
Mix it all together and you get a lovely, peppery rice dish. It kinds of tastes like a peppery, home-made Aussie fried rice. Simple and good.
Wikipedia explains the whole hotplate thing better than we can...
Pepper Lunch was created in 1994 by chef and inventor Kunio Ichinose, who wanted to serve quality fast food without hiring a chef. He devised a method using hot metal plates that are heated to 500 degrees Fahrenheit (260 Celsius) by an electromagnetic cooker. The raw meat with vegetables and/or rice are then placed on the plates, where they cook in front of the customer. The meat can be eaten rare or well done, depending on the customer's preference. The meal is then mixed with a choice of either the special honey brown sauce (Amakuchi) or garlic soy sauce (Karakuchi).
J-Curry Beef Hamburger - $11. Is this the happiest curry you've ever seen in your life? Underneath the brown sauce lies a hamburger (or cutlet as they are often called in Japan) and cubes of beef. There is a generous serve of curry and a boiled egg makes up his big nose. Alison reckons the hamburger is delicious, Shawn reckons it's disgusting.
Salmon and Cut Steak Combo - $14.80. This was was seriously tasty. The steak is actually real steak and real good. And the salmon takes Mr Shawn right back to Japan.
Mr Shawn continues the salmon theme with a Salmon teriyaki bowl - $8.95. A nice hunk of cooked salmon with sweet sticky sauce, veggies, and a googie egg. Mr Shawn is on a serious salmon bender, he's eaten a salmon-don nearly every work-day for five weeks at Jap's Table, but he still can't get enough
Even more fish for Mr Shawn with a Salmon Pepper Rice Bowl - $11. He is turning into Cat from Red Dwarf. Fish! Fish! Fish!
Miss Chicken loves any dish that has cheese where it shouldn't be, such as Kimchi, Beef and Cheese Pepper Rice Bowl - $11.50. But as we recently discovered, kimchi and cheese is magic, marvelous, weird combination that works, it gives a cheesy, spicy flavour that reminds us of nachos.
Salad bar is a bargain for $3.00 with a meal, otherwise $6.95 on it's own. Excellent for folks in need of a cheap veggie hit. We snuck back and got a refill but we're sure it's only one go. The bar has lots of cooked broccoli, cauliflower, corn, green beans, fresh lettuce, cucumber, seaweed, pasta salad and three different dressings. The sesame dressing is our favourite.
Pepper Lunch is at 537-551 George Street, Sydney.
There is another Pepper Lunch opposite the Entertainment Centre but is is slightly different. The two restaurants are listed on different websites www.pepperlunch.com.au (George Street) and www.pepperlunch.com/world/australia (Harbour Street). The latter one looks more like an official company website, not sure what is going on there... we wonder if it is a case of duelling franchise and company owned stores, like when we had Hungry Jacks and Burger King. Who knows.