Where to Find Manga for Your Kid, Fugu for Your Daredevil Spouse and Ramen for the Whole Family
(Without leaving New York)
It’s hard to come down to earth after the otherworldly thrill of a trip to Tokyo. Giant towers filled with secret stores press up against Shinto temples, with their lit paper lanterns and prayer letters. Rock star wannabe schoolgirls, complete with uniforms and pink hair, clutter the otherwise orderly sidewalks.
Instead of watching the movie “Lost in Translation” on an endless loop, try Manhattan’s East Village neighborhood instead. It’s home to some of the most authentic Japanese establishments you could ever hope to find outside of Harajuku.
Forbidden Planet NYC
Forbidden Planet is an introverted teen’s dream come true. Manga, the animation books or films made in Japan, crowd the shelves of this slightly creepy store. If you can get up the gumption to ask one of the goth-looking salespeople, they’ll be happy to help you find a copy of manga classics geared toward your demographic.
840 Broadway (corner of 13th Street)
Lighten up at Toy Tokyo. You’ll feel like godzilla in this tiny place — a sensation many Westerners have in Japan because everything seems to be Lilliputian-sized. Shelves and cases hold figurines, collectibles and of course, manga. Kid Robot figurines or plain old action figures are all here. Just be careful not to knock anything over, Gulliver.
121 Second Avenue, 2nd floor (between St. Marks Place and 7th Street)
Bamn! looks like a glowing pink neon UFO that landed on the street. It’s set up like an oversized vending machine and serves small bites and flavored ices. Feed your money into the slot next to the item you want, and order ices at the counter. There’s a dearth of 7-11 stores in Manhattan, so Bamn! fills in nicely with classic flavors like cherry and cola. But it also offers treats with a Japanese twist, like mini teriyaki burgers. It wouldn’t be hard to envision Bamn! on a Tokyo side street, in all of its Bladerunner-esque glory.
37 St. Marks Place (corner of Second Avenue)
Who would have thought that a storefront snack shop selling mainly octopus-filled fried dough balls would be a success? A traditional nibble in Japan, the main attraction here are these takoyaki. You can also get them plain, or with cheese filling. The other few items on the look-and-point menu are okonomiyaki (a fried egg and cabbage pancake that plays host to seafood, meat or corn toppings) and yakisoba, seafood fried noodles. The takoyaki are served in packs of six, but there isn’t any place to eat them inside. Hope for a sunny day or breezy evening and plop down on the bench provided outside. The line can get extremely long and the orders take awhile, since everything is made to order. For whatever reason — perhaps because everyone is hungry? — the line proceeds silently. It would be ill-advised to chat on your cell phone. Stick to text messaging and hope your octopus ball six-pack arrives quickly.
236 E. 9th Street (between Second and Third Avenues)
Decibel Sake Bar & Restaurant
A visit to Decibel is a real trip, and not just to Japan. You’re likely to take a spill on the mini staircase to this basement sake bar, especially after you’ve sampled these offerings. And what offerings! Decibel serves over 50 types of sake, the fermented rice wine that’s Japan’s national drink. Some sakes are heady and wine-like. Some are sweet and mild. Some, like the fugu hire, are possibly lethal. Decibel serves a roasted blowfish fin, or fugu, in hot sake. Fugu is known for causing hallucinations from its poison, and people who eat it usually get sick. However, it is considered a delicacy in Japan — and where else are you going to find hallucinogenic fish sake in New York?
240 E. 9th Street, between Third and Second Avenues
After the “how to order sushi like a CEO” skit on Saturday Night Live back in 2006, raw fish lost some of its cool. Now it’s associated with snobbish yuppies, and tycoons who don’t care that they’re overpaying for undercooked fish.
Here are two authentic cooked options, usually packed with Japanese expats — definitely a good sign. Plus, you won’t have to worry about anyone mocking your entrée.
What a revelation: Japanese people will wait not only for octopus balls, but grilled meats on a stick too! Half the fun of Yakitori Taisho is waiting outside for the staff to “creatively” pronounce whatever English name you’ve given the Maitre D’ , and people-watching on St. Mark’s Place. Punks, businessmen, creative types and a ton of homesick Japanese people mill around on the sidewalk. Taisho also has an outpost in Tokyo, gratifyingly called “New York Taisho.” Are they playing it both ways to accumulate street cred in both cities? No way to tell, but after a few pitchers of Kirin with some tasty yakitori, you won’t care.
Once you’ve settled into the dungeon-like space, order a pitcher of beer. That’s an essential part of the meal, because it enhances the sweet-smoky flavor of the grilled meats, and provides the carbs to fill you up in this super-Atkins-friendly restaurant.
The best items are the chicken meatballs (balls again, yes, but they taste great). The grilled rice triangles, called onigiri, made atop the grill after the meats, have been cooked, so they absorb the flavor. The ramen is also good for sharing. It’s served in a large bowl with extra crockery and spoons — so your fellow diners can take as much as they want from the pot.
5 St. Marks Place (between Third and Second Avenues)
Minca Ramen Factory
The noodle soups served at this ramen shop the size of your thumbnail (notice a trend here?) are not meant to be shared. No worries: you’ll want to hog your own bowl of tastiness. The most popular, according to a server, is the “plain” ramen. But “plain” is actually a flavorful pork-based broth and noodles, with pork and other toppings like seaweed, egg and various legumes. There is an excellent vegetarian option, made of miso broth and topped with tofu and corn. It sounds odd, but with a sprinkling of red pepper available on request, it’s very filling and warming. Minca also offers at least one “experimental” ramen each night.
There are a couple of side dishes too, like pan-fried gyoza, or dumplings, which are fantastically fresh and crisp in all the right places. But the radish salad is just a ton of radishes julienned and piled into a bowl, suitable only for those who really, really love radishes.
Be aware that watching the chefs will stop all conversation between you and your dining companions (you’ll be transfixed and start asking yourself what those brown things are). But it’s a distinct pleasure to see these noodle artists at work — don’t miss the experience.
536 E. 5th Street (between Avenues A & B)