I’ve been obsessed with Wagamama for well over a decade, when a friend said, “You’re going to London? You have to go to Wagamama.” If you’re from the U.S. you’re probably saying “Wagawhat?” But hopefully that will change someday soon!
Anyone who has traveled with me to the U.K. knows that as soon as I can, I make a beeline to the nearest Wagamama. It’s a chain restaurant, and they’ve multiplied like bunnies since first opening in 1992, with locations in Europe, the Middle East, Australia, New Zealand and the U.S. Lucky for me, on my last trip to glorious Britain I stayed in a hotel with a Wagamama in the basement (I didn’t plan it that way, I swear).
So far, Wagamama has only slightly penetrated The States, with three locations in the Boston area (we’re tied with New Zealand – yeay!). I think Wagamama must mean “good luck” because one of them is very near my company’s headquarters, which means I can usually get at least one visit in every year.
What’s so great about Wagamama, you ask? My answer: pretty much everything. It’s a “rice and noodle” casual dining Asian restaurant, with a blend of Japanese, Chinese, Thai, Indian and Vietnamese items. And if you’re thinking that this is another Pei Wei, think again. Wagamama offers a wider variety of flavorful dishes, and has more to offer for vegans and vegetarians. It’s the kind of place where everyone can find something on the menu to like, and they make it very easy for vegans to get a great meal by providing a vegan menu online. It’s also a great choice for gluten-free diners.
I have a bad habit of getting the same one or two things every time I go because I usually only get one meal in during a trip. I at least try to vary the starters if I’m dining with a companion. On my last visit, I tried the Summer Rolls.
They were light and fresh, and were served with a sweet chili, garlic and cilantro dipping sauce. I’ve tried the edamame with chili and garlic salt before – which is just fine. The Yasai Gyoza (veggie pot stickers) are also great, but I’m pretty sure they aren’t vegan – just vegetarian. If your meal doesn’t come with Miso Soup, you should definitely order a bowl as well!
My default entrée of choice for years was the Yasai Chili Men.
It’s a huge bright red bowl of veggies, tofu and noodles that provides plenty of heat in the mouth and belly. Since I’m usually traveling for work when I go to Wagamama now and not wanting my dinner to keep me up late at night, I’ve switched allegiances to some other favorites with less after bite.
As boring as it may sound, my latest favorite is the Yasai Cha Han (order it with no egg to make it vegan).
It’s basically fried rice, but it’s not greasy and nasty like some fried rice can be. Instead it’s light, hearty and full of subtle flavor. It also comes with Wagamama’s wonderful vegan miso soup, which is a life saver on a cold night in Boston. It’s usually what I get if I’ve arrived in town late and want to go to bed without a gut full of spice.
But the entrée that keeps me going back for more is the Yasai Itame.
This delicious noodle soup is made with coconut milk, rice noodles, a light hint of chili and ginger spice, and tons of tofu and vegetables. It’s always way more than I can eat, but I try to at least finish the tofu off. If you order it, make sure you squeeze lime into it to bring out the flavor even more.
If you have room left after all of that, Wagamama usually has a vegan sorbet that makes a nice palette cleanser. However, on my last visit in the U.K. they offered a vegan “ice lolly” that I thought would be something unique and fun. Instead it was a pre-packaged fruit juice popsicle shipped from somewhere in the U.S. Oh well!
There are other vegan entrees on the Wagamama menu that I haven’t tried yet. Maybe if they ever make good on their promise to open hundreds of locations in the U.S., I’ll feel less pressure to always order my favorites and will experiment more with the menu.
Beyond the food, the ambiance of Wagamamas always makes me happy. The restaurants tend to be in basements, so you feel like you’re descending into someone’s hidden, private space (except the Tower Bridge location in London — that one is down right scenic). The servers are always friendly, but not chatty, and very good at their jobs.
In the U.K., they sit you directly with other people at long rows of tables, so you usually get to meet fun people from a wide variety of countries.
In the U.S., while the tables are still long, they put small gaps in the rows so the visual of open dining is still there, while giving territorial Americans some sense of privacy. Maybe when they move west that will change.
The ordering process is unique as well. Wagamama is the first place I had been to where the servers used hand-held wireless devices for orders and credit card processing – and that was more than 10 years ago! It was cutting edge high-tech to me at the time! Every menu item has a number, and the servers don’t just enter it into their devices, they also write the numbers on your place mats so the right food goes to the right person. You have what I’d call a “main” server, but everyone manages your order in a communal fashion. All of this makes for an efficient experience.
Over the years, I’ve made Wagamama addicts out of several friends and co-workers. If you’re ever in Boston or in one of their many overseas locations, give it a try and let me know what you think! Maybe we can get a petition going to bring Wagamama west!