A boom in the Japanese economy in the 1980s saw a flood of Japanese businesspeople arriving in Midtown, and this prosperity also paved the way for younger expats, who found the East Village more to their liking with its picturesque tenements, jazz and rock associations, and cheap rents. Some came here to attend NYU and stayed. Soon, the East Village became a mecca for Japanese twenty-somethings, and the empty storefronts furnished an opportunity to launch Tokyo-style businesses aimed at the slightly homesick new recruits, remaking izakayas, noodle shops, and sushi bars with an East Village flair.
Soon, the East Village became a mecca for Japanese twenty-somethings.
The first Japanese restaurant in the neighborhood was Mie on 2nd Avenue, one of the city’s original sushi bars — but its formality and staid décor made it seem more like a Midtown establishment. The first to really feel East Village-y was Sapporo East, founded in 1983. It became Little Tokyo’s equivalent of a diner, with inexpensive prices and a mixed constituency of Japanese and other East Village newcomers. Hasaki followed in 1984; in 1990 it was the first restaurant in Little Tokyo to be detected by Zagat, though by then there were nearly 20 such restaurants in the neighborhood. The owner of Hasaki was Japanese-born Bon Yagi, who went on to start 10 more establishments in the vicinity, including Soba-ya and Rai Rai Ken. You might call him the mayor of Little Tokyo.
This process accelerated in the 1990s, and soon there were grocery stores, fashion emporia, gastropubs, street food stalls, toy stores, hairstyling salons, and other commercial institutions, so that the East Village became rife with Japanese storefronts, of which the most profuse today are the ramen parlors. In fact, the East Village led the way in the current popularity of this noodle. Sushi was another commodity that found itself remade in the East Village. In Japan it had been among the most expensive of commodities; here it was democratized so that anyone could afford a set meal in a sushi bar, and the phenomenon soon spread to fast-food places and salad bars.
Following is a visitor’s guide to Little Tokyo, organized by type of attraction, listing some of the finest examples of each.
East 9th Street constitutes Little Tokyo’s glitzy main drag, and there are two literal stalls where street food is dispensed. The oldest dates to 2000 — Otafuku (220 East 9th St, 646-998-3438), named after the Japanese goddess of mirth, recently moved down the street to larger quarters. It now includes an eating shelf, but still no seats. The co-specialties are the stuffed pancakes called okonomiyaki and the spongy octopus fritters known as takoyaki, both of which arrive heavily squirted with mayo and tonkatsu sauce. The expanded menu also includes medetai — fish-shaped cookies stuffed with bean paste. In the old Otafuku space has appeared Yonekichi (238A E 9th St, 646-669-9785), which concentrates on rice burgers, which deploy pressed rice wafers in lieu of yeast-risen buns. Munch, munch. Fillings run to eel, ground chicken patties, lotus root, and miso salmon, and accompaniments include fried and flavored potato wedges and half-sour pickles on sticks.
Before 2000, East Village restaurants such as Soba-ya highlighted soba as the glamour noodle of the neighborhood. But in that year Rai Rai Ken (218 E 10th St, 212-477-7030) was founded in an exceedingly narrow space on East 10th, perfectly evoking the cramped ramen parlors of Tokyo. Only a few stools stood along a counter — much like Ramen Lab is today — allowing you to watch a bubbling stockpot bobbing with oddball items like whole turkey carcasses and apples. In 2012 Rai Rai Ken moved down the block into more spacious digs, still producing some of the unfussiest ramen in town. Yet it lurked in comparative obscurity until 2004, when David Chang opened Momofuku Noodle Bar (171 1st Ave, 212-777-7773), a key event in the current obsession with ramen. Many more places followed over the next few years, of which Tokyo mini-chain Ippudo (65 4th Ave, 212-388-0088) is the most luxurious and difficult to get into, highlighting an opaque pork-bone broth called tonkotsu. By contrast Ramen Misoya (129 2nd Ave, 212-677-4825) offers a menu centered on several varieties of miso, including one bowl snowed with parmesan cheese; while Japanese chain Ramen Setagaya (34 St Marks Pl, 212-387-7959) is notable for a wide range of broth stylings and the cheaper prices favored by students.
SOBA AND UDON
In a neighborhood obsessed with ramen, the buckwheat noodles called soba seem like an also-ran. But these gluten-free ribbons — considered the Japanese national noodle — may be about to have their second moment in the spotlight. Sobakoh (309 E 5th St, 212-254-2244) pointedly serves no ramen, but presents soba, made right in the window with an arcane system featuring dowels of decreasing circumference, in soups and in more austere presentations featuring a bamboo mat and dipping broth. Founded in 1998, Soba-ya (229 E 9th St, 212- 533-6966) offers the noodles in slightly more opulent surroundings, as part of a fuller menu also highlighting tempura, sashimi, and tofu — but no ramen. Also bucking the current ramen craze, Udon West (11 St Marks Pl, 212-353-3888) concentrates on the puffy white, wormlike wheat noodles, which are a delight in themselves but rarely celebrated. Plain bowls of noodles are accompanied by curries, tempuras, and croquettes, at rock-bottom prices.
Founded in 1993, Decibel (240 E 9th St, 212-979-2733) occupies a hoary tenement downstairs, the serpentine rooms interrupted by columns that seem to be barely holding up the floor above. Dark and somewhat dank, the basement seems the perfect merger of the Tokyo and East Village aesthetics. The sophisticated sake list belies the apparent trashiness, and the snack food is exemplary, including savory grilled pork sausages and a winter stew called oden. On the other side of Tompkins Square, Satsko (202 E 7th St, 212-614-0933) is smaller, brighter, cleaner, and more comfortable, but with a slightly less impressive sake list.
There’s reason to believe that the all-purpose Japanese restaurant, featuring multiple specialties under one roof, was perfected if not invented in the East Village. The former Sapporo East, now dubbed Beronberon (245 E 10th St, 212-477-1005), is the perfect example, with almost shockingly inexpensive prices. Another is Sharaku (14 Stuyvesant St, 212-598-0403), an ancient spot that used to occupy the entire second floor of a building right on the Stuyvesant triangle that might be considered the most important building of Little Tokyo (Pan-ya, Sunrise Mart, and Angel’s Share are in the same compound structure); now the restaurant has a smaller space on two floors. The translation of the name ("the ship") refers to the sushi assortments served on a wooden ship, but the menu also excels at donburi, udon, tempura, and ginger pork.
Sunrise Mart (4 Stuyvesant St, 212-598-3040) — Matcha powder, green tea Kit-Kats, sashimi-grade fish, pork and beef sliced into barbecue portions, nearly every packaged ramen imaginable, fresh daikon and seaweed, boxed chocolates, cosmetics, cleaning products — really almost any item imaginable for homesick Japanese. Open since the early 1990s, and true anchor of Little Tokyo, it can be visited like a museum. Almost as well stocked as Sunrise Mart, but more in a snack-food vein, and exceedingly handy to the NYU dorms, M2M (55 3rd Ave, 212-353-2698) also mounts a small eatery with tables, and a made-to-order menu of sushi, ramen, and donburi with a few Korean dishes thrown in.
Sakaya (324 East 9th St, 212-505-7253) — this handsome wood-clad space stocks over 100 varieties of premium sake (including rare flavored sakes), as well as shochu and plum wine. Weekly tastings provide an easy way to become more knowledgeable about sake.
Walk-down Hasaki (210 E 9th St, 212-473-3327) was one of the first places to serve sushi in the East Village, and it’s still one of the best, with an omakase priced at around $50 that often contains some spectacularly obscure fish and shellfish. A few years ago, Kanoyama (175 2nd Ave, 212-777-5266) replaced Iso (founded 1984), an old-timer that boasted a logo created by Keith Haring. The sushi is still great, in about the same price range as Hasaki. Several places on the upper end create a sort of newfangled sushi and are owned by non-Japanese but still find it salutary to locate in Little Tokyo, including the celebrated newcomer Sushi Dojo (110 1st Ave, 646-692-9398) and Jewel Bako (239 E 5th St, 212-979-1012), the latter with a spectacular interior with arched wooden slats overhead. Finally, you can still get a sushi bargain in the East Village, at places like out-of-the-way Takahatchi (85 Ave A, 212-505-6524), which offers an early bird special from 5 p.m. until 7:30 p.m., and old-timer Natori (58 St Marks Pl, 212-533-7711), now sometimes called Sushi Lounge, which occupies a walk-down townhouse basement and furnishes a couple of tables for outdoor dining right on its rather quiet block of St. Marks.
European baked goods with a Japanese twist, including things like green tea tiramisu, cheese Danish, and hot dogs in brioche are dispensed from a counter at Panya (10 Stuyvesant St, 212-777-1930) and sometimes sell out fast. There are tables for lingering with a pastry and a cup of coffee, and a kitchen that sells the strange combination of home-style Japanese fare and Mexican antojitos. But the real glory of the place are the Japanese breakfasts, multiple dishes served on a tray with a plank of broiled fish as the focus.
Just as Rai Rai Ken and Momofuku Noodle Bar partly kindled a ramen craze, when Angel’s Share (8 Stuyvesant St, 212-777-5415) opened behind an unmarked door in 1994, it revived interest in classic cocktails. In the darkling premises, which furnish a wonderful view of the street below, dapper Japanese mixologists put almost unbelievable enthusiasm into their concoctions, and the sound of the ice-filled shaker reverberates across the room. Good bar snacks, too.
The best illustration of how staid Japanese dining institutions were transformed when they were recreated in Little Tokyo is Kenka (25 St Marks Pl, 212-254-6363). The walk-down premises right on St. Marks has been decorated with all sorts of hipster flourishes, including a pervy diorama, maybe to go with the mayo-drenched bull penis that is one of the menu’s most shocking offerings (it’s not very good). But most of the food is spot-on, including a serving of curry so large, you get it free if you eat the whole thing. And free cotton candy you make yourself awaits you upon exiting.
Offshoot of Sushi Dojo, Dojo Izakaya (38 Avenue B, 212-253-5311) has a menu of mainly small dishes that are all over the map, including homemade soba, fried chicken, cream croquettes, beef tongue, and rice balls. A more conventional experience awaits you, with a typical Japanese gastropub menu, at the izakaya called Izakaya (326 E 6th St, 917-475-1284). Behind Angel’s Share on the second floor of Little Tokyo’s most iconic building, Village Yokocho (8 Stuyvesant St, 212-598-3041) perfectly reproduces its Japanese counterpart, via a décor like a small country village, and a menu that concentrates on yakitori skewers cooked over real charcoal (try the chicken skin!) and kushiage (breaded and deep-fried dishes).
OTHER CULINARY SPECIALTIES
Curry-ya (214 E 10th St, 212-843-5992) specializes in rib-sticking Japanese-style curries, incorporating ground beef, chicken, and Berkshire pork cutlets. Hakata (58 St Marks Pl, ) and Shabu-Tatsu (216 E 10th St, 212-477-2972) concentrate on nabemono, Japanese hot pots. Several places with changing identities on the west end of the block of St. Marks between 2nd and 3rd avenues offer yakitori skewers, with the apparent intention of selling lots of beer. Finally, ChikaLicious Dessert Bar (203 E 10th St, 212-475-0929) creates multi-course dessert "meals."
Kids and would-be kids are inveterate collectors of little statuettes and other paraphernalia representing sci-fi movies, anime, comic books, and other evocations of testosterone-fueled pop culture, and the city knows no better repository of such objects than Toy Tokyo (91 2nd Ave, 212-673-5424). Even if you don’t buy anything, a stroll down its cluttered aisles reveals dozens of Godzilla statues, Star Wars figurines down to the most obscure, and even objets d’art based on forgotten 1950s sitcoms. For video games merchandised in a Japanese manner, check out Video Games New York (202 E 6th St, 212-539-1039).
Nothing captures the spirit of Little Tokyo in quite the same way or with quite as much fervor as Search & Destroy (25 St Marks Pl, 212-358-1120) a punk fashion boutique above Kenka that has long clothed many of the neighborhood’s Japanese denizens with fishnet stocking, Day-Glo boots, used military garb, and ripped Sex Pistols t-shirts, all at relatively low prices. Where did it all come from? You’ll wonder as you stroll its clothing-clotted aisles. For natty hats, gloves, scarves, and sunglasses, cruise the stalls up and down St. Marks between 2nd and 3rd avenues, which are open in all weather and at all hours. Tokio7 (83 E 7th St, 212-353-8443) is another emporium of fashions preferred by Japanese ex-pats.
One of the hidden assets of Little Tokyo are its Japanese hair salons, patronized by New Yorkers from all over the five boroughs. There are at least 10 of these places featuring Japanese stylists. Why not get your hair cut, styled, straightened, or colored at Sei Tomoko (240 East 13th St, 212-533-6613), where massage services are also available; Redge (75 East 7th Street, 212-777-3343), where problem hair is a focus; Dlala (151 Ave A, 212-777-5252), friendly to walk-ins; and Hair Kuwayama(406 E 13th St, 212-529-6977), where stylish coloring techniques are highlighted.