You don't need a passport to experience an authentic Japanese lunch, or to net a truly Japanese grocery haul. Instead, head to Tokyo Japanese Food Store in Shadyside.
"It's 100 percent Japanese food," says owner Mitsuo Tsuda.
Many of the customers are from the region's small population of Japanese, he says. Students, professors and doctors make up a large share of the store's regular customer base. And some folks, he says, come to the store just to socialize and speak Japanese with friends.
The store carries mouthwatering produce from California's Nagatoshi Farm. Some of the offerings like shitake mushrooms, Fuji apples and green onions will be familiar to American palates. Others, like burdock, the roots of which are often pickled and used in sushi, and daikon, a white, mild, carroty-looking radish, are less common.
Rice vinegar and soy sauce are essential for Japanese cooking at home, as are a wide variety of noodles. Need meat sliced extra thin for shabu-shabu -- quickly cooked and eaten beef? You'll find it here.
Besides the ingredients to create meals, there are drinks and snacks -- such as Pocky, the ubiquitous chocolate-coated-cookie nerd-fuel -- to provide a little taste of home.
But the store's most typically Japanese offering is its lunchtime fare: the quick to-go Tokyo favorite of students and salarymen known as the bento box.
Tsuda makes the compartmentalized lunches fresh every day, and they're never the same. Whatever's available and freshest goes into the meal, he says: "For bento, you want it to be seasonal." Thus, the time of year might dictate whether a diner gets miso soup or tomatoes. Each box has steamed rice, and might include fried shrimp, pork cutlets, teriyaki chicken, yellowtail, black cod or tofu. Boxes cost $5 and up, depending on what's inside.
"I make everything myself," Tsuda says. "I have sashimi-quality fish, high quality.
"We like to introduce more to American people what is truly Japanese," he adds. And conveniently, some of it is available to go.
5855 Ellsworth Ave., Shadyside