Since its founding in Japan in 1994, Pepper Lunch has expanded to more than 200 locations throughout Asia. This, its first North American outlet (a counterfeit version has been operating in northern California since 1997), was bombarded from the first day, most of those waiting in line wearing the anticipatory expression of someone grateful to have found something wholly familiar—perhaps even nostalgic—in a land far from home.

Despite ostensibly serving fast food, Pepper Lunch offers a much more sophisticated experience than a value meal hastily consumed within the shadow of the Golden Arches. A protein, rice, vegetables, and optional accompaniments are brought to your table (after you order from a counter just inside the front door) in a sizzling iron pan heated to 260° C. Mix the ingredients with chopsticks until everything is cooked to your liking, then consume the elegant mess with frenzied pleasure. Hamburger steak served with a fried egg, long beans, bean sprouts, and a “special” flavoured margarine is an assemblage of humble components that becomes more than the sum of its parts, especially when Pepper Lunch’s proprietary garlic-soy and honey-brown sauces are liberally applied. (We wanted to guzzle the latter straight from the bottle.)

Salmon, chicken, a vegetarian option, and curry rice dishes swell the menu’s two-dozen-plus items, most of which are $13 or less. (An eight-ounce rib-eye meal will set you back $30.) Sated but not stuffed, one can then walk half a block to procure another of Japan’s excellent edible imports: Beard Papa cream puffs.