When Sunrise Mart opened 23 years ago near the corner of Third Avenue and 9th Street, it quickly became an anchor of the East Village’s Little Tokyo. Located on the second floor and accessible only by creaking elevator, the grocery store was initially patronized mainly by Japanese students and expatriates, who treated it almost as a secret destination. It sold a broad range of soy sauces, sashimi-grade fish, fresh vegetables not available elsewhere, and eventually, a modest collection of prepared foods in a teriyaki, curry, and donburi vein. A second location appeared in Soho a few years later, and then one across from the public library on 41st Street, which was more cafeteria than grocery store.
The prepared food was cheap and delicious, with specials offered every day. But who would have expected that Sunrise Mart operators Tony and Takuya Yoshida would parlay their modest empire — which also includes the upscale East Village kaiseki Kyo Ya — into a 20,000 square foot shopping center and food court in Sunset Park’s Industry City called Japan Village?
Industry City, built over several decades a century ago and comprising 16 buildings, has been a mixed use industrial facility for most of its history. Now, the long low buildings are a haven for start-ups, co-working spaces, and massive food courts, of which Japan Village is a now a key part. If plans go the way the Yoshidas want them to, the square footage of Japan Village will eventually double.
Step inside the building that houses Japan Village, right at the northwest corner of 36th Street and Third Avenue in the shadow of the BQE. Spot a well-stocked supermarket on the right, said to be the largest Japanese supermarket in the city, and on the left, a collection of food counters. The space is bisected by a hallway extending to the building’s art-filled inner courtyard, where outdoor seating will be available in better weather.
The counters provide Japanese snacks, meals, and desserts of a basic sort, but the complex will also contain a second-floor izakaya and a liquor store, neither yet open. The supermarket already features fresh fish and butcher counters, and a fresh tofu facility is under construction. The general layout of Japan Village seems similar to Mitsuwa Marketplace, the cult favorite grocery chain with a food hall that has an outpost in Edgewater, New Jersey.
Beginning on opening weekend in late November, I visited Japan Village three times with the intention of eating my way around all of the food counters, not all of which are open. Already open for business are counters that sell ramen, soba and udon, cold small dishes like hijiki, donburi and curries, rice balls and miso soup, okonomiyaki, and pastries and coffee.
On the weekends, the place has been wildly crowded with food lovers and families, many pushing strollers or leading toddlers. Seating at central tables or at counters that skirt the stalls is hard to find. But during weekday afternoons until the daily 7 p.m. closing, the place is relatively dead, and one can put together a good meal.
Here are the six best things I ate at Japan Village.
Unagi Bento Box at Obentoyasan
Specializing in rice balls, grab and go sushi, customizable miso soups of various hues, and bento boxes, Obentoyasan offers seating at a counter, where customers watch several uniformed attendants assembling rice balls with a variety of fillings. Those rice balls aren’t great, because the nori becomes soggy before you bite into them, but the eel bento box is superb. There’s a large filet cooked in the usual manner with a salty and sweet taste. Shredded seaweed tops the filet and, surprisingly, a ring of scrambled eggs surrounds it, like the sun’s corona during a full eclipse. $14
Gyusugi Udon at Gohei
The Gohei stall offers nine different bowls of noodle soup, incorporating either soba or udon. This stall will test your idea of what soups go with which noodles, because it’s possible for somewhat incompatible combinations to be ordered. Gyusuji, for example, is a sweet broth featuring offal that goes better with udon than soba; soba wouldn’t be right because the noodle is way too delicate and would break up in the greasy broth. But get it with the udon, and it’s a top option in the food hall. Though the menu says tendon, tripe is also present. The soup’s further improved with konnyaku, a translucent, deep brown cake made from a starchy plant sometimes called devil’s tongue. $13
Green Tea Tiramisu at Cafe Japon
The pastries at the Cafe Japon are one of the best things at Japan Village. Breads are made at the East Village’s Panya Bakery, according to their labels, but it is the delicate pastries that really shine. New York cheesecake is one of the city’s better renditions, with a crisp layer of caramel on top. The green tea tiramisu is even better, a foamy cylinder of green pudding with a layer of cake underneath and a little pile of red beans on top, very picturesque, and just the thing to go with a steaming cup of the stand’s cortado. $5.75
Katsudon at Moriya
Moriya is the most reliable provider of a full and satisfying meal at Japan Village. The stall specializes in donburi, which are over-rice dishes, some involving fried cutlets. The katsudon is very good — an heirloom Berkshire pork cutlet, with a nice bit of fat attached, deep fried and mired in egg and onion. Scallions and pickled red ginger provide extra flavor and color. Other rice toppings include beef, chicken cutlets, chicken legs, and shrimp. Curries also available. $9
Original Okonomiyaki at Hachi
This classic okonomiyaki counter also sells yakisoba and will eventually make octopus balls and bean-paste-filled fish cookies, though not quite yet. Two types of okonomiyaki — an eggy pancake filled with shredded cabbage, real street food — are offered, including the “original,” which features a thin slice of raw, flavorful pork that cooks with the pancake, and infuses everything with its flavor. Mayo, thick sweet soy sauce, and bonito flakes that flap mysteriously in the air currents add further savor. $9
Mt. Fuji at Ramen Setagaya
Tired of the usual tonkotsu or chicken broth ramen? The counter mounted by the East Village’s Ramen Setagaya has an off-the-wall solution. On its brief noodle menu find Mt. Fuji ramen. As the bowl is assembled, the cook grabs a contraption and blows tomato foam around the sides of the bowl and heaps lots of parmesan in the middle. The result, once this mountain landscape from hell is disturbed, is akin to a bowl of noodles you might find in Southern Italy. Quite good, just unexpected in a ramen joint. $14