Beyond Sushi: The Best Japanese Restaurants in NYC

Most Americans have no clue what good Japanese food is.

How would they? Your average Japanese restaurant in the U.S. serves food you don’t even see in Japan: teriyaki chicken and sushi rolls, for example. American inventions. And they’re not great cuisine items either.

People frequently ask me about sushi in Japan. Like I spent my entire childhood eating nothing but sushi. That’s like saying Americans eat nothing but steak, or the French subsist on croissants.

There’s a whole ocean of Japanese food that goes beyond sushi, much of which is unavailable at your typical Japanese restaurant in the United States. Japanese style hamburger-steaks, gyu-don (beef over rice), and sōmen noodles are popular everyday meals.  There’s a whole world of pickles, from radish to alliums. Dishes also include okonomiyaki (Japanese pancake made with cabbage, usually eaten for lunch/dinner), sukiyaki (beef hotpot cooked with sugar), and hayashi rice (Western-style stew and rice with red wine and tomato sauce).

For those who live in or are visiting NYC – fear not! This bicultural International Relations Consultant is here to recommend you some of my favorite Japanese restaurants in the city. These establishments not only serve good food, but they’re authentic, frequented by many from the Japanese community in NYC and beyond.

 

Riki – Izakaya Style Restaurant

Riki is an Izakaya, or a Japanese tapas restaurant, located on 45th St. between 3rd and Lex. I frequented this establishment when I was the U.N. reporter for The Yomiuri Shimbun – I would take my journalist colleagues and diplomat sources here for an authentic Japanese culinary experience.

Izakaya are a common style of restaurant in Japan. The idea is you go with a group, order a few beers (or sake and shochu, Japanese-style vodka) with an assortment of small plate meals. Riki’s menu is…long. Multiple pages, with a long list of selections on every page. You would have to visit Riki multiple times before you tried every item, and they’re always switching it up. They have everything from okonomiyaki to goya-chample (an Okinawan style fry dish with tofu and the vegetable goya) to an assortment of skewers, noodles, and stir-fry dishes, all exceptional and authentic. My favorites there include tako-wasa (raw octopus pieces marinated with wasabi), goya-chample, and buta-bara (pork belly skewers), among many others.

Riki is frequently packed so I recommend getting a reservation.

And yes, they have excellent sushi, if you must! Prices are affordable here also.

 

Misoya – Ramen

You can’t talk food in Japan without talking ramen, Chinese noodles Japanese style. Misoya is excellent at, you guessed it, miso broth ramen. Located on 129 2nd Ave, and a favorite haunt of mine. My good Japanese friend Taka swears by this place, and I agree: it’s one of the best ramen shops in the city.

Ramen is the working person’s dish in Japan – you eat it on the run during lunch, for example. Drinking with your colleagues is a big part of life in Japan, and if you go out all night with your work buddies for beers and songs at karaoke, you usually end up stopping by a ramen place around 4:00 am (then you hit the office!). 

No need for a reservation here, and ramen you could enjoy alone or with a group. Try their chicken karaage (deep-fried chicken Japanese style) and other assortment of small dishes available here – all great to eat.

 

Hakubai – Kaiseki Cuisine

For those who want to splurge on high class Japanese food, this is your spot. Located in the basement of Kitano Hotel on 66 Park Ave, in terms of quality, Hakubai offers the best Japanese food I’ve had in NYC. Prices here are higher than the first two restaurants I introduced – and for good reason. Expect to spend at least $100 minimum per person for their multicourse meals, but more likely it will be $150-$200.

Hakubai serves Kaiseki Ryori, or Japanese haute cuisine. This establishment lives up to the highest expectations.

And it’s not just the food – it’s the experience. Kaiseki Ryori is about the ambiance and superb service, Japan style.  The décor matches the elegance of the cuisine, and both are carefully chosen to reflect the season. Hakubai will allow you to savor an authentic culinary cultural experience far removed from the ordinary.

Reservation recommended, and their dress code is “elegant casual.”

There are other notable Japanese restaurants in NYC – feel free to contact me for further recommendations!