Review by SuSu
Photos by Runt Ekwesh
At it's healthiest, it might be a bar or a restaurant which features titbits of native fare and a place for people to get together and moan about life in their new habitat. They'd refresh themselves and be able to go on carving out their new lives. These are commonly called "ex-pat clubs," for those who consider themselves to be ex-patriots of a much-missed homeland. Harry's Bar in Paris and Raffles in Singapore are two famous examples.
An unexpected ex-pat gathering place for a transient Japanese short-term residents of NYC is Yagura. It's a surprise because unlike other ethnicities, these people are here for the short-term, sent by workplaces, for school, or just to get away from the parents for a year or two. And Yagura is in midtown Manhattan, in the midst of advertising, banking and other businesses, down the block from Grand Central Station The Japanese who come here don't live nearby -- they can't afford to because there simply isn't much in the way of housing here. And the people who do come here are a curious mix of people you wouldn't expect to see if you thought about this nationality: young families with one child and punk hairdos, gaggles of fashionably dressed Lolitas, young girls with half-breed children (obviously trying for a green card through marriage!) and no husband in sight. It's really an escape from the weirdness (to them) of America, rather than a place to meet friends or look cool.
With the advent of such shows as Iron Chef, the increase in wealth of the Japanese population, and the general rising popularity of some Japanese specialty foods like sushi, one would think that Japanese people eat exotic things, think exotic thoughts, and are comfortable in their superiority anywhere they go. But it really isn't so, and Yagura is a good place to dispell this stereotype of the Japanese.
There is a take-out bar with inexpensive, authentic Japanese food. There is sushi in pre-packed take-out boxes for about $6, as well as udon and soba (thick wheat noodles and thin buckwheat noodles) in soup, topped with "mountain vegetables" (carrots, burdock, that sort of thing), or perhaps some slices of pork or chicken, or even tempura shrimp or vegetables. The same may be had over rice, or baked in a sort of savory egg custard also over rice (called "donn" for "bowls" -- thus tonkatsu donn is a "fried pork cutlet baked over rice and custard in a bowl"). They all cost about $5, and they do have a daily special -- usually of vegetable donn or udon or soba soup -- for $3.50. They also have onigiri -- the rice balls (they call them "rice sticks") wrapped in seaweed paper called nori, and stuffed with a bit of sour or salty plums, seaweed, tuna, etc. Try one, it costs $1 apiece! It's a Japanese staple, equivalent to sandwiches in America in that leftovers can be utilized in a neat package to eat on the go later.
You place your order at the counter to the chubby Japanese women who dress and speak just like farmers who are running a noodle shop on the side in some Japanese suburb, but they do speak English very well and do understand you. They just know most of their trade is with homesick Japanese, so they speak Japanese first. Of course, this place is very popular with the business lunch crowd, and for them, the women with switch from Japanese to English as facilely as Montrealites do from French to English.
You get a number and you wait for your food. There is a little kitchen in back and things move efficiently. I have never experienced these people making a mistake with any order. In addition to the kitchen churning out lunch specials, they will also grill fish you bring to them to order for a mere 50 cents per small fish! Where do you get the fish? There is a grocery store in the back of the shop, and you can wander around there while you wait for your number to be called.
The grocery store has many popular Japanese ingredients -- stuff like Panko breadcrumbs, riceball seaweed sprinkles and wraps, candies, teas, and many frozen items like broiled eels and dumplings. There are also fresh items like meat, which is cut into portions that a native Japanese person would recognize. For example, I learned that in Japan, people rarely see a whole chicken -- it's too expensive and not in the normal diet of the people to eat something like a whole roasted bird. They don't normally see things like chicken backs, wings, etc. So if you are feeling overwhelmed by even the American supermarket offerings, you can come to Yagura and get the cut you know how to cook! The grocery also sells saké, appliances like pump-thermoses which boil water, rice cookers, 20 lb sacks of rice, hair gel, sponges, pastries, pickles and specialty vegetables ("tokyo scallions," shirataki noodles made from yams, gobo, herbs, etc.), and even those matts to roll sushi with at home.
When the business crowd has gone home, Yagura plays television videos from "home" on the television facing the dining area. There are often people here during these otherwise quiet hours, slurping their noodles and looking up at the news and variety shows. They likely forget they are far from home, and they do look content. Newspapers and magazine can be read here too, and Japanese-based companies offer contests and sample products in Japanese to the clientele here. Also, the food is often offered "buffet style" where you take what you want and pay by weight.
Everyone needs a place like this to call home; it shows that food is more than simply nutrition or "presentation." Yagura is also a good, inexpensive place to have authentic Japanese fare that the people of Japan would eat daily, the equivalent of a sort of diner here, I suppose. It will really change your concept of what type of people the Japanese actually are!
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