Category Archives: Casual Japanese

Udon West

Last holiday season I introduced Izakaya Riki at Midtown as a great option for a holiday party, and I received some feedback from readers that they could not get reservations. I was not surprised, though, because the holiday gathering at an izakaya restaurant has become one of the popular options for New Yorkers over the last few years. I would like to introduce another great, authentic izakaya in the area as a choice for this winter season: Udon West. As you can imagine from the name, Udon West is a Japanese noodle restaurant and located just few minutes from Grand Central Station. My observation is that most of the patrons are Japanese locals and expats – something that is typically a good indicator of the authenticity.

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Udon noodles are the main signature dish here, and they offer over 15 different styles of udon; you can add toppings from various selections that are equally numerous. I love their shrimp tempura udon that tastes like what I used to eat in Japan. I would suggest ordering several small dishes from the menu (note: some are posted on the wall). If you are not sure where to start, as your server for recommendations – with over 100 different options available, there should be something available for just about anyone’s palate.

I went to Udon West with colleagues after work and all were first-timers for izakaya and one person surprisingly had never eaten at a Japanese restaurant. Each of us picked our own choices for appetizers and shared them. I ordered minced-katsu which is a breaded and deep-fried ground beef cutlet, or basically a savory and crispy meat cake. We ordered several more of these as the group discovered how delicious they were! For my entrée I ordered a curry dish with a “topping” of fried chicken pieces, or karaage. I have to say that while there are several Japanese curry restaurants in NYC, this particular curry was the best I’ve ever eaten in the city. Highly recommended!!

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http://udonwest.com

Price: $40 per person for this gathering

Neighborhood: Midtown West

Dress code: Casual

Dining alone: Yes, but maybe good place for a group gathering

Azasu

Azasu is the restaurant I have wanted to visit for the last two years. I have seen multiple media articles giving all positive reviews as a real Japanese street-food eatery. Thanks to Timothy Sullivan, the founder of UrbanSake.com, finally I managed an opportunity to go there. Tim and his friends arranged a private sake-tasting event and I was graciously invited to join. I arrived early to do some research and was amazed at the restaurant’s décor. It almost seemed as if I were in a neighborhood eatery in downtown Tokyo. There have been a lot of izakaya restaurants that have opened in NYC over the last few years, however, I have not visited any that seem as authentic Japanese as does Azasu.

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Azasu has a comprehensive menu that ranges from popular Japanese dishes such as karaage, gyoza, and takoyaki to unique choices found in NYC like kushiage. Kushiage, also known as kushikatsu, basically is some type of deep-fried meat and vegetables served on a skewer. In Japanese “age” or “katsu” are deep-fried cutlets of meat and “kushi” is the skewer. These types of dishes are my favorite appetizers, the ones I ordered at Azasu are the best of have ever eaten outside of Japan. Because kushikatsu can be made with chicken, pork, seafood, and various seasonal vegetables, it is an opportunity for this type of restaurant to show its creativity in the selection and pairings. I would have to say that Azasu is as creative as peer restaurants in Japan.

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The selection of ‘cup sake’ is another uniqueness of Azasu. In Japan it is very common to find sake, especially in vending machines and train stations, in little six-ounce glass cups (equivalent to a tiny glass jar in the US). At Azasu there are almost 20 varieties of this cup sake that range from basic to high-quality (what we would call daiginjo and junmai daiginjo).

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Visit Azasu during happy hour before it gests crowded – you definitely will enjoy the decorations of Japanese cartoon culture!

Price: Private Sake Tasting $40

Neighborhood: Lower East Side

Dress code: Casual

Dining alone: Yes, but maybe good place for group gathering

 

http://www.azasunyc.com

Mocu-Mocu (Closed)

Mocu-Mocu is a cozy and casual Japanese café specializing in what I like to call “street food”. Their signature menu item is Okonomiyaki which is a Japanese savory pancake containing a variety of ingredients. The name is derived from the word okonomi, meaning “what you like” or “what you want”, and yaki meaning “grilled” or “cooked”. At this point I would assume the readers of this blog must already be familiar with the word “Yaki” from Yakitori, Yakiniku or Yakisoba. Okonomiyaki is known mainly as originating from the Kansai or Hiroshima areas of Japan. I try to eat Okonomiyaki every time I visit that region of Japan. Nowadays is has become popular and is widely available throughout the country.

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Compared with sushi or ramen, Okonomiyaki is still relatively new to the US, and I would guess that some Americans are a bit suspicious how a savory pancake may taste. This time when I went to Mocu-Mocu I went with a Taiwanese friend who was very familiar with Japanese cuisine. We ordered Hiroshima-style Okonomiyaki with several side dishes. The ingredients we chose for our Okonomiyaki were cabbage, pork, and optional items such as squid, and octopus. The unique feature of the Hiroshima style is that noodles are used as a topping along with a fried egg and a generous amount of Okonomiyaki sauce, which has a teriyaki flavor.

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Even though we loved the Okonomiyaki and were tempted to order one more, we decided to save space in our stomachs for traditional Japanese sweets for dessert. We selected Obanyaki, Japanese sweet pancakes with various fillings. I had MATCHA DE BOSCO which had matcha cream and berry fillings – a perfect combination to satisfy my sweet tooth. My friend ordered UJIKINTOKI, a pancake filled with mocha, matcha cream, and Azuki red beans. He loved both the okonomiyaki and obanaki so much that he went back to the restaurant again just few days after our visit!

http://www.mocu-mocu.com

Price: Okonomiyaki starting at $14

Neighborhood: Hell’s Kitchen

Dress code: Casual

Dining alone: Yes, counter is available

Takeout/Delivery: Yes

Hinata

I found Hinata unexpectedly when my friend and I were walking toward Hide-chan or Totto for ramen. It is a tiny place with a cafe sort of feel, so at first we could not tell if this was a ramen place or somewhere to get a boost of caffeine. But we soon noticed that this was an authentic ramen restaurant managed by Japanese. According to their website, Hinata uses organic chicken for their broth and optional add-ins/toppings, and the sliced Berkshire pork, or Kurobuta, is accompanied with bean sprouts. MSG is not found in any of the dishes. For the noodles, one can select them as thick and wavy, thin straight ones, wavy vegan, or made from rice.

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There were other interesting selections on the menu other than ramen. My friend ordered a Pork Don which is shredded pork on rice; he liked it so much that he mentioned that he would return just to get the pork dish again. We both felt like Hinata was more like an izakaya restaurant instead of a ramen bar.

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Price: Ramen starting $12.5-

Neighbourhood:Midtown East

Cash Only, There is an ATM machine inside the restaurant

Dining alone: Yes

Ramen-Ya

I often go to the West Village to watch movies at small theaters around the neighborhood. When I watch a 7:00 or 8:00 film, it is a bit of a challenge to find a place to eat dinner afterwards, especially if I am looking for a nice Japanese restaurant. A recent Thrillist article entitled “The 8 Best Under-The-Radar Ramen Spots in NYC” introduced me to a very cozy ramen shop just around the corner of West 4th Street.

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I immediately sensed that the owner must be Japanese when I first observed the restaurant décor and then the menu. I went during the ‘Japan Authentic Craft Week’, which highlighted traditional craft items from Tochigi, Japan — an area relatively close to Nikko and the well-known temples — and ate ramen from a beautiful hand-made bowl from Mashiko. Mashiko is a famous little town that has many shops with beautiful, artful, and locally made pottery. I highly recommend their annual pottery festival if you are lucky enough to visit during the festival.

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Each time I visit Ramen-Ya I feel as if I am entering a cozy ramen shop back in Japan. I have eaten there more than five times prior to publishing this entry, and each time I think about what to order when I visit next. Usually my dinner course starts with their homemade gyoza, often called pot stickers in the U.S., which are pan fried dumplings stuffed with minced pork, cabbage, and chives – a flavorful blend of the outside crispiness with the juiciness of the meat and vegetables. Gyozas can be filled with many different ingredients but the pork ones are my favorite as they remind me of the tastes that I love in Japan.

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On the ramen menu there are two choices of soup: Musashi, a pork tonkotsu broth, and Kojiro, a paitan chicken broth. Then as it is standard in most ramen shops one can then choose shio (salt), miso, or soy tastes. Normally I order my favorite miso/tonkotsu but during my third visit I tried the Kojiro/shio. It was very flavorful and lighter than typical broths made from meat and equally delicious as the others. The tastes are rivals to those found in ramen restaurants in Tokyo, and one especially important item to note is the melt-in-your-mouth Char Siu pork that included with the noodles. That alone is worth a visit. The service is outstanding, too, as one might expect from a Japanese restaurant.

One thing I have to mention here is that the owner, Tyson Kobayashi, is from Utsunomiya, my hometown in Japan. We actually grew up a few miles apart, were born the same year, and went to neighboring schools, and then both left to attend college in Tokyo. I first met him at Ramen-Ya a few weeks ago and confirmed that it is indeed a very small world after all. How ironic to meet someone in a foreign country and find out you basically grew up as neighbors!! Kobayashi still resides in Utsunomiya and frequently visits NYC. He is a kind man with strong passions for both his business and commitment to provide authentic Japanese food and culture.

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http://www.ramenya.nyc

Price: Most ramen dishes are $12 with a variety of choices/toppings from $1

Neighborhood: West Village

Takeout/Delivery: Yes

Dine alone: Definitely

Vegetarian: available

Cash only

Open until 3:00 am on Fridays and Saturdays so you can catch a midnight show at IFC Theater around the corner.

Totto Ramen – Hell’s Kitchen

After a great concert at Lincoln Center my friends from Texas and I were hungry and not willing to go back home with a craving for more Japanese food. Yakitori Totto in the aforementioned post was absolutely perfect, but at this time we were in the mood for ramen. And given that Texas isn’t exactly known for its ramen, I wanted to take them somewhere where I knew the noodles would be delicious.

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I have been Totto Ramen on the East Side a few times already, but I had never been to the location in Hell’s Kitchen. It was a little before midnight and the wait was about 15-20 minutes; we placed our order outside which saved a little time when we were seated. As always, I ordered my standard miso ramen. Chicken broth is normally lighter than pork (tonkatsu or tonkotsu) broth which I like more. Here they offered a thick and creamy soup but never tasted greasy. The broth was very flavorful and lighter than typical broths made from meat.

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There were other interesting selections on the menu that were not ramen. One of my friends wanted to try something different and ordered a Pork Don and a pork bun. The former is shredded pork on rice and the bun contained delicious pork belly. And even though Totto Ramen is a true ramen restaurant, my friend said he would return just to get the pork dishes again.

It was almost 1:30 am when we finished eating and there was still a line to get in when we left! I highly recommend this small, cozy restaurant. And having visited two of the busiest Japanese restaurants in the city in one day I felt accomplished!!

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Price: $14+ for ramen, Cash Only

Neighborhood: Hell’s Kitchen

Dress code: Casual

Noise level: Lively

Dining alone: Yes, counter is available

http://tottoramen.com

Mokomiya in White Plains

I have several Japanese friends in Westchester County and I asked them where they go for Japanese meals, and most everyone suggested to try Mokomiya in White Plains. I visited skeptically as there does not seem to be enough competition like in NYC, but I decided to give it a try when I visited the area one weekend.  I was pleasantly surprised to find quite the variety of authentic items on the menu ― so much in fact that I have returned twice in the past two months.

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My first time to visit Mokomiya was after a potluck party where I did not have much food to eat. I ordered the tonkotsu ramen which arrived with a nice, rich broth and delicious pork taste.  The spice level was perfect for me but the server will ask how spicy you want it upon ordering.  I really did not expect to get such a high quality of ramen in White Plains! My second visit was with two friends after a concert at SUNY in December.  The restaurant was buy with several small groups but they made a special effort to set up comfortable seating for us.  We ordered a variety of small izakaya tapas to share amongst the three of us and found them all to be delicious and seemingly prepared from scratch! Our favorites were the Chicken Nanban (Fried Chicken with tartar) and salmon teriyaki, but all of the items were selections found in a typical Japanese restaurant.

If you live in Westchester or just have a chance to visit the area, I strongly suggest giving Mokomiya a try ― you wont be disappointed!!

http://mokomiya.com/

Price: $60 for two + one beer each and tip (dinner)

Neighborhood: White Plains Downtown

Dress code: Casual

Dining alone: Yes, a nice bar/counter is available

Take Out: Yes

Donburiya

After watching a Broadway show one Saturday evening with three friends, we collectively decided we were hungry but didn’t want a heavy meal at nearly 11:00 pm. We decided on izakaya because of the variety of tapas dishes as well as drink menu. Donburiya is located at West 55th Street between Broadway and 8th Avenues, and it is convenient from both Broadway theaters as well as Lincoln Center.

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We started with a pitcher of Sapporo for $18 which is quite reasonable considering the price of a single bottle, and then each of us ordered our favorites to share. I ordered menchi-katsu (a breaded and deep-fried ground/minced meat cutlet) and hokke shioyaki (salt grilled Atka mackerel). The others ordered ham katsu, assorted sashimi, and Negitoro (minced raw tuna). The taste of this reminded me of a ‘mom and pop’ izakaya restaurant often found in small neighborhoods in all over Japan. Another dish popular with the group was potato salad. It generally has cucumbers, carrots, and onions mixed in. The crunch of the fresh vegetables combined with the creaminess of the mashed potato was absolutely perfect. I think I could have ordered several more servings, but I decided to save that indulgence for my next visit! Donburiya definitely serves home made, quality dishes. As our shime, or last meal order, we each selected a rice ball. I selected tarako which is salmon roe, and the other options were grilled/salted salmon and ume, or pickled plum. While there are many places in NYC where one can buy Japanese rice balls, the ones at Donburiya are the closest to those I normally ordered back in Japan.

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The restaurant has a bar/counter, a separate high table/chair area, and regular, low table seating as well. And located only a few blocks both from Broad Way and from Columbus Circle, it is a great venue even if you did not see a great performance beforehand.

http://www.donburiyany.com

Price: $140 including tip and several beverages for the four of us (After theater meal!)

Neighborhood: Central Park South and Columbus Circle

Dress code: Smart casual

Dine Alone: Absolutely comfortable

Takeout: Yes

Rai Rai Ken

One evening while on a M101 bus I noticed a restaurant in Harlem with hanging red lanterns out front. I felt the place was calling me so I decided to get off and try it out. I soon realized that the restaurant was a local branch of Rai Rai Ken from the East Village with a slightly different menu and cheaper prices. I chatted with a waitress and heard that the owner felt ramen was relatively new to Harlem and wanted to share it with people in the area.

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The shop is small and has less than 20 seats, but I noticed they received telephone orders for delivery or pick-up nearly every minute. As I always do in a ramen shop, I ordered miso ramen, and here it was topped with garlic, which is unique but also complementary to the miso. According to Chopsticks NY magazine, Rai Rai Ken does not use MSG in its ramen soup which explains why I felt the taste seemed somewhat lighter than I am used to. Not using MSG seems somewhat rare in NYC, so Rai Rai Ken offers a true Tokyo experience. I also ordered their gyoza – delicious and homemade – very similar that found in my hometown of Utsonomiya.

Ramen shops are sometimes treated as premium cuisine in some parts of NYC, but in my opinion, ramen should be a casual meal like it is considered in Japan. Rai Rai Ken is a great place to eat ramen – regardless of whether it is your first time or not.

http://m.mainstreethub.com/rairaiken

Price: $10+ for ramen dishes

Neighborhood: Harlem

Dress code: Casual

Takeout: yes

Zaiya

Since I started my blog, I dine at Japanese restaurants at least 3 times a week. The places I have introduced here are restaurants where not only did I like their food, but also some other aspect such as location, service, or atmosphere. Zaiya is a place I visit on a regular basis, so I was not sure if I should include it here on my blog. It isn’t a special place to me per se, but rather a comfortable, friendly, and casual place that is part of my regular routine. It’s like an old friend with whom you can chat for hours or just be yourself with.

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I decided to write about Zaiya when I noticed that it was highlighted on ny.eater.com with “15 Tasty Snacks for $2 and Under Around NYC”. Read more: http://ny.eater.com/maps/cheap-snacks-nyc-vanessas-grays-papaya-lam-zhou. And given the frequency in which I visit Zaiya, I felt I had credibility to share my experience, too.

Kombu (seaweed and salted plum) and salted salmon onigiri were introduced in the article, but there are various tasty casual foods available in there. The lunch combo is my favorite. One can select two proteins (Karaage, ebi-chili – shrimp with chilly sauce, Meatball, sweet and sour chicken, and others) that are accompanied by rice and vegetables. I have tried them all and have never been disappointed. I also like their dessert selections. Although I have lived in the U.S. for 8 years, I have not gotten used to the “sweetness” of American desserts; I typically look for Japanese options when I am in the mood for something sweet.

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Price: Very reasonable

Neighborhood: Midtown, @Kinokuniya, and East Village

Dress code: Casual

Takeout: yes

http://www.zaiyany.com