While (everyone knows) Sapporo is the best city in the world, it is still a simple town. And while soup curry is a Sapporo signature dish, it is still simple food. So when people stand in line (sometimes for hours) to eat soup curry in Sapporo it is a little surprising. But that is part of what you should expect if you come to Sapporo’s Garaku soup curry restaurant.
Garaku soup curry restaurant is located between the Odori and Susukino stations (about five minutes from each), and just north of Tanukikouji. Other than Sapporo station, this might be the most popular area for tourists. When I first arrived in Sapporo, Garaku was easy to notice, because it always had a long line outside (often full of tourists).
I’m not usually excited to wait in line, so for a long time I wasn’t tempted to try their food. But then, at some less popular time, the line was less intimidating and I gave it a try.
And it was delicious. Yes, the rumors are true. They do a fantastic job, and take soup curry to it’s highest levels.
Since that first visit I have eaten at Garaku several times, usually bringing a friend with me. This week, as we continue to work on our list of the best soup curry restaurants in Sapporo, we planned a trip for lunch to document a “typical visit” to Garaku in Sapporo.
Garaku is popular. With the local Japanese, but also with tourists. You cannot make reservations. As we arrived at around noon on a weekday, the place was packed. There was a line out the door and spilling all over the sidewalk.
To manage the line, Garaku has a ticket number system. When they are busy (which is most of the time they’re open), you’ll arrive at the location, there will be a line, and you’ll walk downstairs to B1, and you’ll see the ticket kiosk.
Personally, the machine feels impersonal and is a little confusing. As an English speaker, “Don’t touch” is clear, but the rest of the process is mysterious (I had not needed to use this system on previous visits). My friend managed to get on the list, and we had the number 73. At that moment, Garaku was showing number 15 was up next. If your math is good, you’ll see that we were 50+ people deep in line to get in.
You can (somehow) see your number via your phone, so you can walk around if you want, and don’t have to wait in line the entire time. In our case, we went to a cafe, and waited an hour there before the app told us to be ready. That is a one hour wait… so far.
When we then returned to Garaku soup curry restaurant, this is what we saw:
Because of the ticket system, your exact order in line is irrelevant. We were at this spot in line, and we stayed there, waiting, for probably another hour. Occasionally a Garaku employee would walk up the stairs, writing down the numbers of people that were still there (you would assume some people must give up and just go eat somewhere else), they have to manually check to see who sticks around for their number to be called.
And at some point, they cut off the line, and post this “no more, that’s it” sign, and then do their best to work through the queue.
It was probably about two hours total wait to get in. At that point, our magic number was called, and we were ushered in and given a seat.
“One amazing discovery I’ve made is that there are people who are excited to stand in lines. To them, a long line often suggests that there is something highly desirable at the end, something a lot of others want. And they like wanting what others do.
— Walter Kirn
As previously mentioned, I don’t like waiting in line. And two hours for soup curry doesn’t really make sense to me. But perhaps, generally speaking, Walter is right? And I did wait in that line (this time)… just for you, dear readers. And I had a good meal and what I needed to prepared this review just for you.
And wait, wait; there is more. And it gets better.
As you can see the sign at Garaku is a little beat up; with the after-thought changes to the time, just stuck on there. And that part between the two “Rs” in “curry” has been sanded off. It’s a little rough around the edges (quite literally), as is Sapporo, our outstanding little town.
Like Sapporo itself, Garaku is not fancy, but has a rich local flavor. And once you’re seated, you finally get to the good part: the food.
The menu is relatively simple; several versions of the famous Garaku soup curry. There is dark-meat chicken, pork sausage, pork belly, and more. Garaku is also a good place for vegetables, and there are some non-meat varieties (although we can’t swear they are strictly “vegetarian”).
The process of ordering goes like this: You pick your curry. Then you pick your level of spiciness from 1 to 40, with habanero chilis adding the fire to the top end of that scale. (I am personally happy with “1,” or maybe “3,” I have never ventured beyond that.) And then you choose how much rice you want. And…
Maybe you want some extra toppings?
Now would be a good time to mention that Soup Curry Garaku has a “sister store” in this very same neighborhood. As we wrote about in our detailed review of Sapporo’s Soup Curry Treasure, you can get some of the same flavor nearby at Treasure. The menu is a little different, but same company and same spices. Both are delicious.
(As I am not overly invested in doing the “popular thing,” I would choose Treasure over Garaku – same flavors, much shorter line.)
On this visit I noticed a “Smoked Peppered Lamb” curry I had never had at Treasure, so that is what I ordered.
To be perfectly frank, as much as I was enjoying talking to my friend that day, that line was a bit exhausting. I was cranky by the time I sat down, and I was prepared to be a little dismissive in the review, but…
Garaku in Sapporo does make a very good soup curry. Is it the best? Is it worth the line? Only you can decide. But for my friend and I, as we sat down and the food arrived, I felt myself surrender somewhat. The food was amazing and I enjoyed being there. Yes, Garaku is serves a very good meal.
To risk one more negative comment: “crowd management” isn’t just hard on the crowd (which included a lot of very tired looking tourists), it’s also hard on the staff. It’s note easy to feel “personal” with the crowd pressing down on you all day. The service is dry and mechanical. In many ways, I think you’d better off at a smaller place (or at Treasure) where there is less pressure to “get through the line.”
But beyond (and despite) all that, I like Garaku. I’ll go back again.
And just as the sign is a little simple and casual, so is the interior.
Who knows why (and someone must) but Garaku uses a lot of American for decorations. We are big fans of the hamburgers at both Sapporo’s Route Nine and Hamburger Shop Tack. Both of those restaurants have an American theme. And Smile Kitchen Pizza Diner also manages to squeeze a heavy American nostalgia into their presentation. Garaku’s choice of that same style is a little more random, but it works for me.
The restaurant space itself also has some charm to it. The ceiling is basic “Sapporo basement;” raw concrete and lights that are almost surgically bright. But as you come down to eye level, there is a lot of wood to help the space feel more organic, and more like home.
And the fireplace (and the 15 foot runway that leads up to it) must have been designed to serve some previous occupant’s needs. Did that fireplace ever work? What was this space previously used for? If I was a better reporter I’d tell that story now… but since I am not, you’ll have to visit and try to discern for yourself. I do love the Evel Knievel helmet, though.
And if you’re loving Sapporo Garaku’s soup curry spices, you can apparently buy some spice kits to take home.
So, that is what I think. The flavor is worth it, but the line (for you) may not be (it is typically not worth it for me). But Garaku is a great spot, and we were happy to once again taste the flavor.
If you don’t have two hours to kill standing in line, this neighhood is full of great food and you have lots of choices. We already mentioned that Treasure Soup Curry is much easier to get into than Garaku. And for a different flavor of soup curry try Delhi Sapporo for an Indian-inspired twist on the Sapporo classic. If you can imagine yourself eating something other than soup, Hamburg Steak North Continent is excellent, and very close by. In the evening, for this neighborhood we like the Hawaiian-themed steak and oysters at Salt Moderate. And for something completely different, go try the best jerk chicken in Sapporo at Miss Jamaica (about five to 10 minutes away, in Takukikouji).