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Posts from the ‘International Intrigue’ Category

International Intrigue: Wagamama

We all have our biases. My ears prick up if I hear word about a Japanese chain coming to NYC, which means my ears have been pricking up a lot lately.

(And as an aside, it’s been a decade ago but I don’t recall that DaDong in Beijing was this upscale. I also doubt they will serve the black sesame sludge for dessert and crab apples with dramatic dry ice vapors rising between them. And because no one reads blogs anymore, I can say here that I’m baffled by the new sensitivity that has emerged surrounding anything derogatory said about food someone didn’t grow up eating, and if it’s not “othering” than it’s it’s liking it too much and being a cultural appropriator. Like Bon Appetit was called out the other day for saying matcha, turmeric, and spirulina tasted like dirt. Dried, powdered turmeric pretty much tastes like dirt, so I guess I’m a racist. Am I allowed to say black sesame pudding looks like sludge?

wagamama squid

UK chains? Not so much. Sure, I checked out YO! Sushi but I was only motivated to visit pan-Asian Wagamama when its newest branch opened recently in the former East Village Japanese convenience store, m2m, and they were giving away free meals to the general public.

The buns were nice, though the pork version was tastier than the beef, which is almost always the case unless you’re at a steakhouse or burger joint. And the fried squid was fine. The dipping sauce did have a little bite. 

wagamama ramen

The “ramens” weren’t so much ramen as noodle soup. And no, I’m not even sure now that I think about it what makes something a ramen. For me, it’s in the broth, and this version with duck was kind of wan and lacked the depth of even a simple shio ramen. At least they included a few fatty shreds of duck meat and skin for extra flavor.

The prices weren’t crazy, the dining room with lots of blonde wood communal tables was spacious for the East Village, and I imagine it will do well close to all of the NYU spillover. But it’s certainly not a destination, especially with all of the Japanese ramen in the neighborhood plus Little Tong, Yuan, and others. 

Wagamama * 55 Third Ave., New York, NY

 

 

International Intrigue: Kizuki Ramen & Izakaya

kizuki facadeRamen is all good and well, of course, though there is something to be said for the journey rather than the main event. Which is to say, there is practically nothing I love more than uncharted suburbs (and stumbling upon US chains abroad) and I’ve realized I miss driving through them. I’ve been away from Portland for nearly 20 years, and in my absence planned communities have sprung up from fields on the outskirts of town and people want to live there. (My first encounter with this boxy sprawl was in 2002 when I met my former library coworker at an Indian restaurant in the still-developing Orenco Station enclave.)

This visit 15 years later, I met a high school friend in a suburban strip mall on the westside because it was close to her office even though we both grew up in an eastside suburb where she still lives in the exact same house with her parents since the 1980s.

cedar hillsFirst, I had to find a Walgreens because I’d ran out of a prescription and ended up in some area called Bethany Village that seemed to consist of one giant earth-toned outdoor shopping center surrounded by new apartments, likely with vessel sinks and carpeted bedrooms. Or is Bethany a neighborhood? I don’t recognize fully half of neighborhood names in the Portland area and they are not inventions that nod to geography like South Slope or BoCoCa. No, they are confident, seemingly historical names like Arbor Lodge, Overlook, and Brentwood-Darlington that  materialized post-millennium and are now accepted as fact by new residents. If someone says a restaurant is in Cully, I have absolutely no idea where that is.

The young white woman who was working at the pharmacy had blue and magenta hair and she complimented me on my wallet, which only now I’m realizing was blue and magenta. I put a plastic bottle of Perrier in my purse and walked out without paying for it like an old shoplifter starved for attention.

To get to Kizuki (formerly Kukai, as it still reads on the facade, Kookai in Japan, but apparently the word means poop in Hawaiian?) my GPS steered me through ‘80s upscale neighborhoods anchored by a country club until I popped out in another development that looked like Bethany Village but without unified branding. These modern strip malls always seem higher-end but on closer examination this one contained a generic grocery store called Market of Choice and a Supercuts (though also a barre studio).

suburban cowboy

 

Even though these developments are meant to evoke small towns, there is no foot traffic, everyone drives. So a craggy man in a cowboy hat, maybe in his 50s, cigarette dangling out his mouth while taking a small dog for a walk seemed wildly out of place. I tried taking a few creepshots but he was too far away to capture all the detail. A woman my age with a grade school daughter glanced at my feet, either admonishing or admiring my grass green Swedish Hasbeens. I shot a glare at the back of her head to psychically signal that she couldn’t judge me because I’m not a Portland mom.

kizuki ramen

 

Will I get to the ramen? Maybe. I’m more ramen enthusiast (udon is more enticing, honestly) than expert. I ordered the gut bomb version, garlic tonkotsu shoyu ramen, with a photo in the middle of the menu, larger than the rest, which was pointed out to me when I asked the enthusiastic server what was most popular. I like a rich pork broth, though this was extra oily, with a whole soft-yolked egg, and lean cut of chashu. I’m a slow eater so my big bowls of noodle soup always cool down before I get to the bottom, which makes the fattiness more pronounced. I would try the yuzu shio next time to see how it compares to Afuri’s signature yuzu-spiked version.

I was surprised that my friend said she couldn’t use chopsticks, despite my knowing that Filipinos don’t traditionally use them, and yet unsurprised because there was something very Portland about this, like no matter your heritage or place of birth, each decade spent in Oregon diluted any evidence of being “ethnic” despite your appearance. Some go the other way as adults. I know non-religious black people who became Muslim and changed their names and Jews who I didn’t even know were Jewish move to the Upper West Side and become orthodox. But more typical are minorities who support Trump, which I discovered when I accepted a Facebook request from a middle school friend.

Upon arrival, I got the no seating incomplete parties story, which is unusual for the area, particularly since the restaurant was nearly empty. We overstayed our visit, lingering at our table for two that was blocked by a wall from the main dining room, and as we left, I noticed the restaurant was full with people waiting not just in the lobby but outside as well. Clearly, the suburban ramen chain has an audience.

Kizuki Ramen & Izakaya * 11830 NW Cedar Falls Dr, Portland, OR

 

International Intrigue: Tsurutontan

tsurutontan udon

Tsurutontan rode in on the wave of imports late last year that included Ichiran, Tim Ho Wan, and the promised Inkinari Steak that didn’t get off the ground until 2017. (I’m so mad they are going to add chairs in the US.) I meant to check one out when I was in Tokyo but put it off until my last night and I couldn’t get it together for the 9pm last order (I kind of appreciate the anal-ness of publishing last calls for food in Japan) but was dying for udon and couldn’t deal with the 10 person line outside of Shin Udon. I did end up getting a bowl of cold udon, which was maybe weird in December but it was on offer, at a restaurant up a flight of stairs with no English name. I finally was tough enough after two weeks to handle an all-Japanese language menu.

Tsurutontan, off Union Square, is no noodle hole-in-the-wall, with prices that are more akin to Ipuddo and beyond. Also, without the wait and counter seating. I liked the row-facing-row with a partition separating the sides for solo diners. Plus, the Japanese thing where you can order regular or large amount of noodles for the same price, thick and thin.

I chose thin for my summer special of cold dashi broth with uni. The broth was light but the sea urchin added creaminess, and a slight bitterness, plus shredded shiso that gave the dish more bite and held it just back from being too rich. This doesn’t look like a big portion (regular noodle fyi) but it was oddly filling. I let the little batter nuggets turn to sog and scooped them out with the giant metal spoon at the end, then slurped all of the remaining sesame-studded cloudy broth like fishy cereal milk.

Tsurutontan * 21 E. 16th St., New York, NY

International Intrigue: O’Tacos

franchise-o-tacos-depuis-2007-210716(1)

I was recently made aware of a French chain in Crown Heights called O’Tacos that, yes, serves tacos. Yet from the looks of these burrito-panini hybrids, I’m not sure the French know what a taco is.

otaco menu

There appears to be 50 locations of this restaurant, and the Brooklyn branch is the only one outside of France. This is more baffling to me than the bastardized taco. The website is only in French, which is very French. It’s easily discernible that fillings include chicken breast, ground beef, nuggets, tenders, merguez, and cordon bleu. I don’t see that they explain that french fries are sometimes stuffed in these tacos. There are are 12 less discernible sauces including Algerian, samurai, and giga.

I am curious about this taco, and might be blessed to live in the same city as the only foreign outpost, but not so curious that I’m eager to spend 1 hour, 9 minutes on two subways to try one.

 

International Intrigue: The Holy Crab

IMG_3248

I did not eat at The Holy Crab because I already have a Chinese-run Cajun seafood restaurant on my block with a better name (Oceanic Boil), but am mentioning it it is an Indonesian chain serving Cajun seafood in Canada, and that’s all sorts of layers to dissect.

There also appears to be a knock-off in White Plains.

International Intrigue: Yo! Sushi

yo sushi beltI don’t generally get excited about U.K. imports that interpret Asian cuisine. I still haven’t been to Wagamama, though I do frequent Wasabi at least once a week because it’s a block from my office and they have passable ready-made poke bowls–and just added bizarrely flavored popcorn to their repertoire. (This routine made me recently think about lifestyle creep. When I started my job–jesus, ten years ago–I wouldn’t spend more than $5 on lunch and now don’t blink at $12. I’m still too cheap to spend that daily, though. I only go to the office two to three times per week so it’s justifiable.)

yo sushi menu

But Yo! Sushi? I can stand a little novelty. Conveyor belt sushi has never really thrived in NYC and, sure, it’s not the highest quality or the best value in the city. You could do worse, though, for entertainment while dining, and you’re not restricted to what whizzes past you. You can order both sushi and non-sushi items from the menu.

yo sushi collage

When I first showed up at 6pm, there were only a few plates passing by but by 6:30pm the rotating display was much fuller. Seven plate colors dictate prices: from a $3.50 green to an $8 yellow. I think I spent around $35 with a cup sake and a few beers but I by no means consumed a lot of food. There were some shrimp tempura rolls in there, off-belt scallop nigiri, tuna carpaccio, all shared.

yo sushi fruit salad

 

You could pay $4.50 for fruit salad, if you’re that kind of monster.

Despite this branch being touted as the first US location, that’s completely untrue. Just like Uniqlo when it first came to America, Yo! Sushi originally tested the waters in a few New Jersey malls and then shuttered so quietly no one seemed to notice it coming or going. There are now also locations in Boston, Sarasota, Florida, and at Westbury Commons. 

Yo! Sushi * 23 W. 23rd St., New York, NY

 

International Intrigue: BB.Q Chicken

bbq chicken facade

It was over a decade ago that BonChon first showed up in NYC and made a splash with the novel concept of Korean fried chicken. With Kyedong (now Kono), Kyochon, Turntable, and Unidentified Flying Chicken, among others, it’s different landscape now.

bbq chicken downstairs

In Manhattan’s Koreatown, Kyochon fizzled a few months ago and a flashy bi-level flagship BB.Q Chicken might be here to reclaim Korean fried chicken’s former glory. (There were two previous incarnations in Manhattan and still one in Flushing, I think.) Despite the unremarkable name (it stands for Best of the Best Quality) the word has traveled fast. Early on a Friday night, a line started forming for the subterranean table service space and wound up the stairs.

bbq chicken

I tried a sampler of the four primary styles. The simplest version, maybe the calling card, is fried in olive oil and supposedly is the product of a two-day marinating and coating process. It’s very good, juicy, super crisp (rice flour is no joke) and just the right batter to meat ratio. A honey glazed version was like candy, which I loved, though people who don’t like monte cristo sandwiches, bisteeya, or just Chinese-American sweet and sour nuggets should steer clear. Gang-jeong was lightly sweet, garlicky, and spicy, and similar to the non-hot style at BonChon.

I was actually impressed with the “cheesling” style (top right) first for cute name and novelty (mascarpone and cheddar?), but then for flavor. It was totally like cheese popcorn, maybe specifically Smartfood, but meaty. I like the modern Korean taste for adding cheese where it doesn’t belong. The first sit-down thing I ate in Seoul were kimchi fries and there are similar snacky dishes on this menu like bulgogi nachos and cheese fries. 

bbq chicken upstairs

Counter service and to-go are on the main floor. (There was a suspicious lack of cheesling on the shelves). There were an impressive range of alcoholic beverages like canned Pampelonne rosé lime wine and a handful of German beers in addition to the OB, Hite, and fruity shoju. 

bbq chicken uni

Chicken University!

BB.Q Chicken * 25 W. 32nd St., New York, NY

 

International Intrigue: Uogashi

It’s getting harder to keep up with all of the Japanese (and Roman, and Korean, and Malaysian) imports lately. I could be more on top of things. Sometimes I’m just not very inspired.

uogashi room

 

I went to Uogashi at least a month ago, but I haven’t written anything about it because it didn’t make me feel anything one way or the other. It’s my own fault. I was a walk-in and was seated at a table–I like the curtains though–rather than the counter.

uogashi duo

 

As I’ve come to learn, omakase just isn’t the same when it’s presented all at once on a plate. It goes too fast and I like a deliberate procession. You enjoy each piece of nigiri more when it’s assembled in front of you, and you wait in anticipation of what’s next. I didn’t even attempt to take in the rattled off descriptions of my $45 Uogashi Sushi Moriawase set, though obviously there is salmon, big eye tuna, medium fatty tuna, and shrimp.

uogashi sushi

 

The value and quality is there, though. And I’m fairly certain the $38 and $45 sets, two sushi, two sashimi options, are served in one go regardless of where you are seated. I’m glad we’re getting more sushi options in that hazy middle between utilitarian and waiting-for-a-promotion precious. I could be convinced to go again.

Uogashi * 188 First Ave., New York, NY 

International Intrigue: Ikinari Steak NYC vs. Tokyo

 

ikinari steak interior duo

Tokyo vs. NYC

Unlike the first US outpost of Afuri, the Ikinari Steak that popped-up near St. Marks in that international chain mini-district held down by Ippudo and Tim Ho Wan, was almost identical to the one I visited in Shibuya, just swapping Japanese staff for locals. Oh, and also that it was at capacity while the similarly sized Tokyo branch was maybe one-third full also around 6pm on a Friday night. A line started to form at the cutting and weighing counter and a good-natured staff member who was acting as ring-master, shouted a few times, “Stand close to the wall as you can!” which definitely wouldn’t happen in Japan, though no one seemed to mind.

ikinari steak cutting

Four cuts of steak were offered in Japan: rib-eye, tenderloin, US Angus beef sirloin, and Japanese beef sirloin. Hamburg was also an option–hamburg steak is rampant in Japan–but maybe that doesn’t translate to the US. I chose the latter, 200 grams, and the most expensive at 10 yen per gram. The US is also using grams (though they provide a handy conversion table on the menu) and lists rib-eye, filet, sirloin, and a combo of scraps. I went with the cheapest cut, sirloin at 8 cents a gram, also 200 grams.  I paid roughly the same price: $17 in Tokyo and $16 in NYC but clearly the US’s prices are higher. Both are non-tipping restaurants, though, which I love.

ikinari steak duo

Tokyo vs. NYC

You’ll get the same corn on the side, browned garlic and butter on top, and onions underneath, which get great char as they mingle with the juices. This is not dry-aged prime steak, though it’s not quite the Tad’s (r.i.p.) of Japan either. The sirloin was not supermarket steak bland, picking up smoke from the grill, and the little rim of fat adding extra lushness (if you prefer lean, just ask the butcher to remove it). You can add garlicky soy-based “J-sauce,” garlic paste, mustard, and wasabi, which are stationed at the standing tables. I don’t recall that it was recommended you order your steak rare in Japan–there are lots of signs stating this in NYC–I ordered medium rare both times. Rice and salad (radish or green) are extra. I skipped salad this time because I don’t care about roughage, but they are selling bottled dressing at the register so I guess someone likes it.

ikinari steak basket

I also love the foldable baskets for storing your coat and bag, found at Japanese restaurants everywhere, some taking the form of little hammocks adhered to the bottoms of bar stools,  though there was only one allotted for my face-to-face solo standing table, and the gentleman before me had commandeered it. (I’m also in love with the current season of Baskets, just FYI. Louie Anderson is genius as Christine.)

ikinari steak order

You verbally tell the meat cutter what you want here while you brought a little wipe-off card, filled out by a server, to the counter in Japan. This wouldn’t be a bad idea in NYC since I had to repeat myself a few times and with the crowds, the staff has high potential to become overwhelmed. 

They really think of everything.

They really think of everything

ikinari steak facade duo

Tokyo vs. NYC

I did not eat at this Bunkyo branch (there are over 100  locations in Japan) but I only just noticed the same style basket outside with what I assume to be clothing freshener. The East Village facade is more minimal, no menus out front, though there is a photo, out of frame, of the same executive chef.  

I haven’t even mentioned the standing concept yet because it’s not really that weird, though Americans prefer to sit even for tapas. There’s no one rushing you, and you can have your steak re-heated if it gets cold. Of course, it’s not leisurely either, and supposedly the price reflects the high turnover. This also reminds me that the Japanese Michelin-quality standing restaurant that was promised for Manhattan in 2013 never came to fruition. Perhaps the seeming success of Inkinari Steak may pave the way for similar concepts.

Ikinari Steak * 90 E. 10th St., New York, NY

International Intrigue: Afuri Portland

It recently dawned on me that I’ve become a townie.

This development is surprising since I didn’t grow up in a college town or go to school in a college town, which were one and the same, so that label has never had any resonance. But I’ve come to recognize the provincial symptoms: nostalgia for the bad old days, suspicion of the new, disdain for outsiders with seemingly more money than sense.

I wasn’t shocked that a bowl of ramen at the new(ish) Afuri in Portland cost twice as much as in Tokyo because like most modern humans I look at online menus before I dine at restaurants. And I’m not outraged. Objectively, it’s a really good bowl of ramen. I’m not saying it’s not worth $16 (even though Manhattan-priced Ippudo is $15). But food doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and this is as good as any example what’s weird with the New Portland.

Afuri is located in an area that now some like to call the Central Eastside Industrial District, three blocks from dive, My Father’s Place, that I used to call lovingly, “Cum on the Grill,” and just up the street from a friend’s $2,000/month design studio, which will triple in rent in a few short years.

franz

People in Portland are living in tents like it’s no big thing. Maybe everyone is too stoned to care? (Though the city, because it was traditionally do-goody, has always had a disproportionate amount of homeless.) I vaped nice and legal anxiety-quashing high CBC/low THC weed 75% of the days I was there (I was never a stoner in my youth, which is a feat in the NW) and still think there are way too many dispensaries and billboards advertising cannabis. Even local white bread Franz Bakery (that employed a delivery driver who rear-ended and totaled my parked Chevette in the late ‘90s—I will never forgive them) has cutely illustrated vans now saying “Get Portland Baked.”

Post-college, I lived on $425 a month, which my step-dude leaked to my Oregonian boyfriend a few weeks ago coupled with the advice,”Don’t ever apologize for being working class,” and the year I moved, 1998, I made roughly $14,000, the result of an $11 an hour, full-benefits, part-time (by choice) government job. (Library pages at NYPL in 2017 make $11 an hour.) Twenty years later, and practically no one I know, friends and family, makes over $40,000 a year in Oregon. (Though I haven’t a clue how much clothing design brings in, and I’m aware of an NYC transplant frenemy who earns $70,000, likely a step down salary-wise, and pays $1,800 for a studio apartment.)

content

Why should I care? I have a well-paying job, low overhead, no dependents, and most importantly, I don’t even live in Portland. It offends me that studio apartments in my hometown cost more than my mortgage and maintenance in Queens. And yes, Queens is still NYC. It offends me that job searches using “content” as a keyword turn up grocery store clerk positions.

Ok, back to the food. Nomad.PDX just morphed from pop-up to permanency with a $160 tasting menu, which Eater defended thusly “But remember, 20 courses for $160 is still peanuts when compared with most prices in other cities.” Not really. Sure, I wouldn’t even give it a thought in NYC. I still think that’s aggressive pricing in Portland. I once let my guard down and tried the $125 Nodoguro “Hardcore Omakase” and I can’t remember anything about it. Everyone I’ve encountered in the restaurant industry is nice, the staff are always very earnest, but there’s a lot of pretense. I almost laughed at a recent dinner when a server asked if I wanted the short or long explanation of the Venica “Talis” Pinot Bianco he was pairing with the mushroom larb. Short, please. And for what it’s worth, the $80 tasting at Langbaan is a great value.

afuri-trio

Tokyo style

 

Ok, now back to Afuri. The Portland branch shares the ramen in common with the Tokyo original but that’s where all resemblances end. Afuri, at least in Harajuku, isn’t a hole in the wall. There’s an upscale feel but there are only counter seats, you place your order by feeding change to a vending machine and handing the ticket to the host/cook, and there’s very little to contemplate beyond ramen or tsukemen.

afuri dining

The Portland restaurant is vast, with a separate bar, counter seating, and at least twenty tables, freestanding and along the wall of windows. There was more than one party that consisted of grown children accompanied by confused parents, very similar to Williamsburg. There is a wine list, cocktails, the menu has a callout box featuring five ramen on the upper right side, and the rest is devoted to hot and cold appetizers, robata offerings (St. Helens Farm beef tongue, Jacobsen salt, black pepper, scallion, sesame oil, lemon, anyone?) and sushi and sashimi. It would almost make sense for the US restaurant to use that strange SE Asian naming affectation and call it something like Yuzu by Afuri indicating its lineage but broadcasting a different concept.

afuri ramen portland

Same bowl, same ladle spoon, extra metal plate.

 

I wasn’t asked if I wanted the standard chu-yu (chicken oil) in my yuzu ratanmen or the extra oil. It came with a marked sheen on the surface and was definitely heavier than the Japanese version. The magic of Afuri’s ramen is that it is extremely rich and concentrated but still manages to be light. I hate to use the word “clean” to describe food, though I almost felt energized the first time I ate it. This bowl still had the nice citrus tones that complemented the spice, but there was no way I could eat a pancake soufflé afterwards like I did in Tokyo. Nonetheless, I greatly enjoyed my quick Sunday afternoon meal.

But maybe I wouldn’t have if I lived there. That’s the rub. I’ve been toying with moving back to Portland, I guess for love, but I just can’t justify it when there are scant professional jobs there and my cost of living is less in NYC. I never thought I’d have much in common with rent-stabilized natives of Bushwick, yet now I’ve been gentrified out of my hometown and it’s still kind of a shithole. Keep Portland weird, you guys!

P.S. If rumors are to believed, Afuri is going gangbusters in Portland. A second downtown branch is supposedly already in the works.

Afuri * 923 S.E. 7th Ave., Portland, OR