New York City has long been a bastion of world-class sushi, but lately Japanese street food has been picking up speed. At the Lower East Side's Ivan Ramen, diners love creative noodle medleys along with steamed pastrami buns with daikon slaw and saucy pork meatballs strewn with bonito flakes. Ramen is also king at Mu Ramen in Long Island City and Ippudo in the East Village, both sporting frequent lines out the door. To partake of Mimi & Coco's wonderful teriyaki balls stuffed with shrimp, sausage, cheese or organic potatoes, get in line at one of Brooklyn's Smorgasburg locations on weekends through mid-November. Then there's yaki, meaning “cooked over direct heat,” an all-purpose word attached to snacks at Brooklyn's excellent Ganso Yaki (yakitori, yaki shumai); Midtown's Yakitori Totto, specializing in grilled skewered meats; and downtown's rollicking Yakitori Taisho, a hip, underground spot for cheap eats. Much of the Japanese street food scene centers around St. Marks Place and 9th Street in the East Village, and our slideshow has details on two of the best in that area, plus three other new joints in town.
245 Eldridge St., 212-475-4411, Lower East Side, Manhattan
The newly opened Bar Goto is an elegant, civilized watering hole on a seldom-traveled street on the Lower East Side. Proprietor Kenta Goto is a native of Tokyo and a veteran barkeep from the venerated Pegu Club, gathering enough of an insider following to obviate the need for signage at the discreet entrance. Japanese-accented cocktails, including a sake-gin martini garnished with a cherry blossom and a bloody mary dosed with miso, are smooth and precisely constructed. They go down so easy, in fact, it's wise to have a food foundation, particularly a skillet of okonomiyaki, a savory, filling pancake variously laced with vegetables, pork belly, chicken, seafood or lots of gooey cheese. The playful, small plates menu is prepared by Kiyo Shinoki (from underground restaurant Bohemian), whose black-sesame-flecked chicken wings and burdock root fries are finger foods par excellence.
746 Tenth Ave., 212-765-0197, Hell's Kitchen, Manhattan
Mocu-Mocu (pronounced “mokoo mokoo”) is a sleek, contemporary Japanese café and take-out shop that opened in Hell's Kitchen this summer. Tables are patchworks of inlaid wood, like expensive cutting boards, and set with flatware, not chopsticks. Textural artwork, flat-screens brightly looping food preparation videos and an adjacent room hawking ceramics, selected clothing and cookbooks enhance its personality. The cookbooks are by consulting chef Hiroko Shimbo, who collaborated on the place with owners Aya and Tomoni Tatsuhiro, two sisters from Japan. Her savory okonomiyaki is a comfort food specialty, stuffed with shredded cabbage, crisp ramen noodles and pork belly and zigzagged with mayo and teriyaki-like sauce. The fat, fluffy pancake comes on a wooden tray along with miso soup and a salad, all for $9. On the sweet side are obanyaki, pancakes filled with matcha cream and mixed berries, for instance, or yuzu-flavored apple compote and custard cream. Along with a brief selection of wine, beer and sake cocktails are quality teas and locally roasted coffee.
1006 Flushing Ave., 718-417-1091, Bushwick, Brooklyn
This Bushwick bistro bears a stamp of cool, its slate-gray backdrop not trying too hard, a stylish, attentive staff and Japanese street food favorites with a twist. There is classic, Osaka-style okonomiyaki (a pancake embedded with a kitchen sink of savory ingredients) as well as variations like the “spicy Hiroshima” stuffed with ramen noodles and strips of smoky pork belly; the top is squiggled with an artistic pattern of mayonnaise, slightly sweet brown sauce and a wild explosion of dried red chili threads. A squeeze bottle of wasabi mayonnaise can turn up the heat even more. The okonomiyaki is delicious and almost too beautiful to destroy, but hack away at it with a small, sharp spatula to form bite-size pieces to capture with chopsticks. Co-owner Vincent Minchelli descends from a Parisian restaurant family and until now diverged from his culinary heritage as a high-end hairdresser. He and partner Amanda Jenkins have traveled extensively in Japan, so there's authenticity combined with whimsy and a global outlook. Michael Arrington (ex-Morimoto) executes the menu.
Otafuku x Medetai
220 E. 9th St., 646-998-3438, East Village, Manhattan
This East Village food stand might as well be on a side street in Osaka, the snacks are so authentic, the crowd so Japanese. Takoyaki are battered octopus balls, smoky, pungent and pliant as doughnut holes but with a chewy center. They are cooked to crispness in muffin-like iron molds and come six to an order, drizzled with mayonnaise and syrupy brown sauce and topped with bonito flakes. More of those delightful bonito flakes tremble atop okonomiyaki—luscious vegetable pancakes served with a choice of pork or shrimp. Then there's medetai, fish-shaped waffles stuffed with sweet red bean paste or banana and chocolate-hazelnut spread. The storefront has a standing counter and a bench outside; eat it all while it's hot. Orders are called out by number, so hang onto your chit. Note too that it's cash only.
238A E. 9th St., 646-669-9785, East Village, Manhattan
Rice burgers, a rival of the ramen burger craze, are the focus at Yonekichi, a clean, white-tiled, windowed nook in the East Village. The only place to eat them—right away, at least—is on the street. The unagi burger is like blown-up sushi: barbecued eel, avocado, tempura flakes and shredded egg crepe in a soft, browned-rice bun. Other burger choices include sukiyaki (thinly sliced beef and onion), mugifuji (pork shoulder with ginger-soy sauce) and miso salmon with pickled daikon radish. They come wrapped like a gift in white paper. Hold that paper tight as the rice bun tends to splinter with each bite and you don't want to lose any on the sidewalk. Get a paper sack of furi furi fries, too, skin-on wedges dusted with fiery wasabi salt or citrusy yuzu salt, among other Asian flavors. Consider going for the “happy lunch” special (Monday to Friday, noon to 3pm), wherein a side—Japanese pickle on a stick, anyone?—is included in the price of a burger.