Founded in 1983 at the corner of 10th Street and 1st Avenue, Sapporo East was the East Village's second Japanese restaurant. But while its predecessor, Mie, was oriented toward an uptown and slightly upscale crowd, humble and inexpensive Sapporo East served as a sort of clubhouse for the growing population of Japanese students and bohos who were just beginning to call the East Village home, attracted by cheap rents and its legacy of Beats, hippies, and jazz. It also provided employment for them, hiring an all-Japanese staff. In fact, Sapporo East might be considered an early anchor of the neighborhood that eventually came to be known as Little Tokyo, centered on Stuyvesant, 9th, and 10th streets.
But Japanese ex-pats weren't its only patrons. At a time when Japanese cuisine was considered exotic to Western diners, Sapporo East's low prices and diner-style lack of affectation soon made it popular with the East Village's burgeoning hipster population — joining the Ukrainians, Puerto Ricans, and Italians who were already there. So inexpensive was it that many could afford to eat more than once a week there. Not to pump the place too much, but it was a key institution in popularizing sushi in the city, and also a place where the modern pan-Japanese menu was forged — back home most eateries specialized in one type of food or another: ramen, sushi, or donburi, for example, and few places served more than one specialty. At Sapporo East, you could assay nearly the entire Japanese menu in one place.
So it was sad when Sapporo East closed after three decades at the end of last year. But like a reanimated corpse, the restaurant has risen again, now an offshoot of Kenka on St. Marks Place. The intention seems to once again be a Japanese clubhouse. As a sign of this, there is no English on the revamped façade, only ideograms. The new name is Beronberon, and the lengthy menu of seven pages virtually replicates that of the original.
Center of the restaurant's culinary program are the cut-rate bento boxes. In its final days, these cost around $16 at Sapporo East; now the price at Beronberon is approximately $18 — not much of an increase. The example shown includes (from the upper left going clockwise): potato salad, five pieces of tempura, chicken "tulips," eel over rice, and tempura dipping sauce, plus a choice of soup or salad. Quite a deal, and delicious!
The restaurant mounts a full sushi and sashimi program, from individual nigiri to assortments to maki rolls to churashi. This is not the best sushi you've ever tasted, not the kind that would make you leap up from your chair with ecstasy, and then reach into your pocket for $100 or more. In fact, the assortment shown will set you back $22.50, with the quality falling somewhere between Masa and the local salad bar. Totally edible. The churashi is perhaps a better deal at $20.50, but then churashi always is.
Reflecting its status as a sort of Japanese diner, the over-rice donburi selections — served with soup or salad — constitute meals that might fall in the "blue plate specials" category. The pork cutlets are profuse and of high quality, with just enough edge-fat hidden by just enough breading. The soy poured over the rice is slightly sweet, which guarantees that you'll actually finish the rice underneath. The "Mononoke special ramen" ($12), one of eight choices, was not quite as good, beginning with the noodles themselves and extending to the miso broth. You can find much better ramen at the dozen or so other places that serve it in the East Village. There's a comparable list of udon.
Beronberon has an expanded list of appetizers as befits an updated Japanese generalist, including three kinds of gyoza with exceptionally thin skins, deep-fried asparagus, octopus and squid in vinegar, and several types of seafood steeped in sake. Thought the layout remains the same, the interior has been extensively revamped, with three new raised tatami booths, some jazzy new light fixtures, a smaller sushi bar but a longer counter to sit at, and some rather uncomfortable chairs and tables, all in dark woods. Tea is free, but most patrons seem to be washing the food down with the $5 draft pints of Japanese lager. Hence, I suppose, the translation of the name Beronberon: Drunkdrunk.