Tasty! Cheap! Fast! Japanese food on St. Marks!

Oh! Taisho skewers

What’s your experience with Japanese cuisine? When asked, many people mention eating sushi at least once, ramen more than once, and some are even familiar with Hibachi, the practice of stylishly cooking a number of different foods in front of the customer for his or her immediate consumption. However, mention foods like yakitori and onigiri and most people are clueless about the tastes of these unique Japanese foods. Fortunately, there are many cheap and delicious places in the East Village to sample these cuisines. In this article I’ll introduce you to a few favorites of mine, all on the same block on St. Marks Place between 3rd Avenue and Astor Place.

First is a spot called Oh! Taisho at 9 St. Marks Place. Though usually crowded and quite noisy, the food is yummy, cheap, and just plain fun to eat. The yakitori, skewers of meat, fish, veggies or even eggs, are the big draw, and for the most part under $2. The chicken skin yakitori is great, but don’t think you have to stick with meat if you’re looking for flavor. The grilled green pepper and garlic skewers are just as good, as are the onigiri (rice balls) with savory fillings like pickled plum. The sweet and sour pork over rice, avocado, and tuna salad are great dishes as well, the former simply plated in a giant bowl while the latter is arranged beautifully on a square dish. Variety is the keyword at Oh! Taisho, and other typical Japanese foods like udon soup as well as side dishes like french fries with creamy sauce are available.

Udon West, a small restaurant named for it’s variety of soups with thick noodles, or “udon,” is right next door to Oh! Taisho at 11 St. Marks Place. Udon West is usually much quieter than most of the St. Marks eateries, and dining space is limited. However, this small shop usually has seats available, most of them stools right in front of where the chefs cook. The udon broth is flavorful and comes with a variety of different toppings, including vegetables, many of which are tempura-style (deep fried). The curry here, though, is my favorite. Thick and flavorful, the sauce is eaten with plain white rice using a spoon. The dish is very satisfying; the optional croquette, chicken katsu, or shrimp tempura on the side are welcome additions, but for me the curry is more than enough on its own. On more than one occasion, I’ve found myself riding into the city just to pick up some of Udon West’s amazing curry.

Kenka at night

Kenka is by far the most interesting restaurant on St. Marks and also the noisiest. The sign boasts delicious, cheap, and fast food, an awesome combo seemingly emphasized by the silly drawing to the left. Those who can’t read Japanese characters can spot this eatery by the giant tanuki, or racoon-dog, to the right of the shop’s doors. Also, Kenka usually has a large queue of people waiting outside for a seat on any night of the week. Don’t be deterred; Kenka’s seating is kind of uncomfortable so the turnover rate is pretty quick. What it lacks in comfort, though, Kenka makes up in decor and food. Entering the shop, you’d think you just walked onto the set of a low-budget yakuza flick, and the menu design matches the restaurant’s kitschy interior. Many of the items on the menu are fried, grilled, or come dressed with creamy mayo and tangy barbeque sauce. Sashimi is available here, but so are onigiri, a savory pancake-like dish called okanamiyaki, and more atypical dishes like skewered frog. Kenka also has much of what you’d find at Oh! Taisho, but if you’re looking for much larger selection, as well as sushi, visit Kenka. As a bonus, at the end of your meal your server will give you a small plastic cup filled with sugar to make your own cotton candy. The machine is outside the shop. Simply switch it on, pour in the sugar, and swirl a chopstick inside the basin to gather your candy. Fun way to end a meal, huh?

Don’t let your experience with Japanese cuisine end here, as there many places throughout the city offering a wide variety of traditional and modern Japanese food. Places like Monster sushi serve more familiar food, but in a fun atmosphere like Kenka.

Evelyn Oluwole

Image Credit: Clicktrips, mightysweet.com

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