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Turning Japanese in New York City: The Cuisine (and Culture) That’s Sweeping the City

Bagels. Cheesesteak. Massive aged steaks, served by guys with thick Brooklyn accents and possible mafia ties.

If you haven’t been to New York City lately, you might think that these culinary delights sum up the foodie scene here. But that couldn’t be farther from the truth. In fact, thanks to New York City’s burgeoning Japanese population, specialties not usually seen outside of the “ Land of the Rising Sun” are becoming the norm here.

And taking a bite of the Big Apple doesn’t mean just crunching down on raw fish wrapped in rice and seaweed. Sure, sushi is popular here, and beyond that, has been raised to an art form by many NYC chef; one of the sous chefs featured in the sushi documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” now has a celebrated restaurant of his own in Gotham called Sushi Nakazawa (www.sushinakazawa.com). But what’s as interesting as the raw fish creation the cooked foods that are now debuting in NYC.

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The epicenter for this culinary tidal is a quiet, nondescript street in the East Village (specifically 9th Street between Second and Third Avenue). Take a stroll there and you’ll come upon:

*Otofuku & Medetai (220 E. 9th St; www.otofukuny.com) This counter service restaurant that serves takoyaki  (grilled balls of octopus and breading topped by a savory Worcesteshire-like sauce and dried bonito flakes), medetai (a red snapper shapes pancake—really, it even has gills etched in--filled with red bean paste) and okonomiyaki (a kitchen sink pancake made primarily of potatoes and cabbage, though it has other veggies too, and is topped with special sauce and bonito flakes). These are very popular street foods Japan; you’ll understand why once you taste them.

*Cha An (230 E. 9th St; www.chaanteahouse.com) A classic Japanese tea house, where traditional tea ceremonies, complete with a kimonoed waitress, are served in a private tatami room. It also serves up exquisite bento boxes filed with masterfully cooked polished rice, mountain vegetables (generally root vegetables), smoked salmon and other delicacies, a dozen tiny bites in one meal.

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*SobaYa (229 E. 9th St.; www.sobaya-nyc.com) A beloved noodle shop, diners slurp their savory soups while watching a master hand-pull noodles for the next guests.

*Robataya (231 E. 9th St.; www.robataya-nyc.com) A grill restaurant where guests site round a U-shaped counter while, in the middle,  two kneeling men grill up fresh fish, top quality meats, vegetables and balls of rice. When the food is cooked, they place the dish onto 6-foot-long paddles to hand the meal to the diners. It’s better than dinner and a show.

*Yonekichi (238A E. 9th St; no website yet): This one opened today! It serves burgers and fries….Japanese style. That means the buns are made of pressed rice, and the “patty” could be grilled sea eel with avocado, tempuraed vegetables, miso salmon with blistered shisito peppers or half a dozen other types of ingredients. The fries are wedge-shaped and tossed with flavored salts (my fave, so far, is “yuzu”).

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*Sunrise Mart (4 Stuyvesant St., right at the fork of 9th St.; www.sunrisemart-nyc.com) Not a restaurant, but a store that serves as a center for the expat community in these parts. It’s fascinating just to wander through, gazing at the 14 different varieties of dried seaweeds, the “training chopsticks” for young children, the oh-so-adorable candies (each has a different cartoon figure as a mascot) and more.

So on your next visit to NYC, skip Chinatown and head instead to the city’s ever growing, and far less touristy, “Japantown”. Your taste buds will thank you.

(Photo: A chef makes octopus balls at Otofuku & Medetai. Photo by author)

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