Beyond the Roll: The Best Non-Sushi Japanese Restaurants in New York
There's a lot more to Japanese food than California rolls. Justin Warner shares his favorite spots in NYC.
Photo By: Jeff Marini
Photo By: Mark Anderson ©llhhhfff
Photo By: Evan Sung ©Evan Sung
Photo By: Evan Sung ©Evan Sung
An izakaya is the Japanese version of our sports bar/gastropub/tapas joint, with dishes and snacks designed for sharing while drinking. If you like a meal with your drink, it doesn’t get much better.
Sake Bar Hagi
Personally, I think the best reason to visit Times Square isn’t the giant advertisements or the creepy people in costume: It's Sake Bar Hagi. When you arrive, you will notice that everyone is happy. That’s because Hagi serves inexpensive pitchers of Kirin Ichiban, and good sake in adorably little cans. While that is a major draw, the food alone is worth the trip. Only at Sake Bar Hagi can you leave filled up with squid legs in their own ink, spaghetti with codfish roe, and a slice of pizza tempura. (Yes, battered and deep-fried pizza. But that’s just how I roll.) There are tons of user-friendly items — rice bowls, pork cutlets, dumplings and stir-fried noodles.
Don’t leave without: a buzz, the iron- and sulfur-flavored bonito tataki (seared skipjack tuna with lots of garlic and onions) and mentaiko pasta (spaghetti with cod roe).
Village Yokocho and Angel’s Share
Village Yokocho, set along a strip of Japanese markets in the East Village, is a great place to head with your crew at the end of the day. These cats crank out inexpensive nibbles that pair well with shochu and a pitcher of beer. Buy two extra pitchers, one for the kitchen and one for the floor staff, and watch the entire restaurant erupt in “ARIGATO” and “THANK YOU!” (It’s hard not to feel like a boss at Village Yokocho.) Yakitori skewers (the chicken skin with lemon is otherworldly) and fun, boldly flavored little composed plates are the best bet. If you can manage one more cocktail, inquire about a table at Angel’s Share, the fancy cocktail bar hidden inside. My mental DVR is generally on the fritz by the time I make it in there, but it’s super-romantic and very cool.
Don’t leave without: sabashio (broiled mackerel), chicken skin skewer, takoyaki (spherical octopus pancake balls) and enoki butter (a foil packet of mushrooms and butter).
Within a skewer’s toss of the Barclays Center, Bar Chuko is the perfect spot to visit before a concert or Nets game. The service is super-friendly yet polished, and the selection of shochus and Japanese whiskies is unrivaled. I sit at the bar and start with the special frozen cocktail. This generally gets me limber enough to order enough food for two of me. The kitchen is directed by veterans of Iron Chef Morimoto’s kitchen, so these aren’t just some prefab meats on a stick. I have watched the chef break down one bird into 16 parts, each destined for a skewer, all with a different sauce. Their rice cakes with kimchi and mozzarella — somewhere between gnocchi and lasagna — also make me giddy. They're slightly crunchy and then chewy, enveloped in stringy melted mozzarella with kimchi for funk and zip; it’s one of the most-gratifying plates in the city.
Don’t leave without: Rice Cakes, any of the skewers. Really, just follow your heart.
The stuff in the packet on the bottom shelf of the supermarket is about as close to real ramen as a Canal Street purse is to couture. Like high fashion, real ramen isn't cheap, but it's absolutely worth it. The noodles seem to zip from the bowl to your mouth of their own volition. The broth is rich and hearty, a stick-to-your-ribs affair. The variations are endless, as NYC illustrates with its multitude of quality ramen-yas.
Down the street from Bar Chuko is Chuko Ramen. There are four broths, each with a different noodle-and-topping combo. I like the miso ramen when it’s cold out, and soy ramen when it’s hot. I always add roasted pork, but the vegetarian offerings are delicious as well. Every meal should start with their fried Brussels sprouts, which I attempt to replicate whenever I have them at home. Their shrimp buns are also worth the trip, kind of like a shrimped-out lobster roll but between two tiny, slightly sweet pillows of steamed bun.
Don’t leave without: Brussels sprouts, any ramen.
Dripping with the swag and creativity that has become synonymous with Brooklyn, Dassara is a mishmash of cultures and cuisines all tight-roping between each other on a ramen noodle. On any given day you can find influences from around the globe, from falafel patties to Cajun crawfish boils. The dish that put this place on the map, though, is the Judeo-Japanese mash-up known as Deli Ramen. Here your slurpable sustenance is augmented with smoked meats and matzo balls. This is Brooklyn.
Don’t leave without: Deli Ramen, Falafel Buns, a Ramen Burger
Ivan Orkin, who describes himself as a “Jewish guy from Long Island,” is a ramen wizard. He has shops in NYC and Tokyo, and they are all packed nightly. My solution is to visit his counter at Gotham West Market early in the day. His shio (salt) ramen is my jam. Ivan makes his own noodles with rye, which give them a unique texture and stronger flavor. Add whatever salad is on the menu and you are good to go.
Don’t leave without: making sure your ramen has tomatoes (kind of unheard-of) and whatever salad is on the menu.
On a side street straddling east Williamsburg, Bed-Stuy and Bushwick is this adorable little ramen-ya. I’m an enthusiastic carnivore, but my wife and I are really into their somehow-rich vegan ramen. My guess is that they create a veggie broth and emulsify it with some sort of veggie fat, but whatever the secret, it has a richness that rivals any pork-bone ramen in town. Their lunch special means the opportunity to enjoy it with a plate of handmade dumplings. Desserts are also rewarding, specifically their green tea shave ice.
Don’t leave without: vegan ramen (I’m not kidding; it’s awesome), dumplings and beer in a steel cup.
My pal Mikey makes some of the best wings I’ve ever had, with a really delicious yogurt sauce to offset the heat. His salmon ramen is one of the best pescatarian dishes in the city. What really tickles me, though, is when Japan lays over in Hawaii: Spam Musubi wraps rice balls encasing hot Spam and charred pineapple with a layer of seaweed. This is the best day of Spam’s life. Mikey also makes a really good bowl of Japanese fried chicken with rice and pasta salad, like a Hawaiian plate lunch done just right. His sushi is on point too, but I’ll save that for another roundup.
Don’t leave without: Spam and salmon ramen.
Only in New York
These are Japanese joints that are so uncommon I'm not sure if you could find them anywhere else. OK, maybe Japan, but you get the drift.
This is a Japanese breakfast joint. (Go ahead and reread that sentence.) It’s one of the best breakfasts I’ve ever had. They are also completely waste-free, a concept the Japanese call mottainai. So what does this zero-waste Japanese breakfast entail? Fish, rice, miso soup and an egg. There are various permutations and embellishments to this theme, all of which you can customize to your liking.
Don’t leave without: getting the fattiest fish (they will tell you if you ask) and all the fixings on the rice.
This is a Michelin-rated vegan restaurant. If you aren’t familiar with Shojin Buddhist cuisine, have no fear, because the choices are already made for you. By the second course of this two-hour experience, you will have completely forgotten about the lack of animal proteins. You will see it as what it is: world-class food, beautifully presented and thoughtfully composed.
Don’t leave without: getting the sake pairing, ordering the biggest menu, drinking the matcha at the end.