Conbini (Japanese word for Convenience Store) are a way of life in Japan. Now, chefs are bringing their katsu sandos, egg salads, and onigiri stateside.
In Japan, the convenience store (or conbini) is more than just a sporadically used urban amenity, visited for snacks, beer, and slushies — it’s a neighborhood institution, offering everything from banking and photocopy services to bento boxes and clean restrooms. It’s starkly different than the spartan North American equivalent: convenient for beer and snacks, but often more of a stopgap between visits to a take-out joint or an actual grocery store.
Other countries like South Korea and Taiwan have similarly beefed-up convenience stores, although Japan arguably has the most engrained mini-mart culture. As countless tourists to Japan have discovered, the stores merit a detour in and of itself (although in a city like Tokyo, that’s hardly necessary, since it can seem like there’s one, most likely a 7-Eleven, FamilyMart, or Lawson, on almost every block). For just a few hundred yen (under $5), you can get crispy, juicy karaage (fried chicken) or a delectable egg salad sandwich served on pillowy milk bread, ready to unwrap and eat.
Now, it would appear that the ever-tasty, ultra-reliable approach of the conbini has won fans in North America, as a smattering of chefs and business owners are attempting to replicate those convenience stores — or at least their pre-prepared culinary options.
Los Angeles chef Daniel Son is one of those, with his pop-up Katsu Sando centered entirely around katsu, a fried pork cutlet sandwich that’s a conbini staple. Elsewhere in LA, the aptly named daytime-only restaurant Konbi offers conbini-inspired egg salad and katsu sandwiches. Chefs as big as David Chang are getting in on the action — his newest venture, Peach Mart, is one of few cheap eats options at New York’s ultra-luxury Hudson Yards development and blends elements of Korean and Japanese convenience stores: Beyond the shelves stocked with Hi-Chew candy and Pocky sticks, a kitchen puts together potato salad sandos on fluffy milk bread and crisp, juicy chicken katsu cutlets. At a time when North America’s appetite for Japanese food is arguably at its peak — from cocktail bars to Wagyu sandos to the nation’s beloved ramen chains — the ultra-accessible approach of the conbini seems like the natural next step.
Conbini have been a staple of Japanese life for a few decades — they proliferated in the ’70s when Japan’s densely populated cities made them viable, and a culture of long, late work hours helped them draw customers well into the evening. Son, who spent time working in Tokyo, was one of those late-night clients who used conbini as a lifeline to quality food. “I literally had five hours of sleep every night while working at a kaiseki restaurant,” he says. “And the only time that I had [to eat] was like 15 minutes to grab something that would pretty much keep me alive. Places like the conbini, for me, were a very reliable source of a quick eat, but without sacrificing quality.”