How to Eat at Japan's Favorite Chain Restaurants Without Leaving the U.S.
In the blocks surrounding New York City's Bryant Park, you'll find the beginnings of a food trail — one that winds through an unremarkable stretch of Midtown Manhattan, with its business hotels and gray condominiums, and towards the East River. Here, some of Japan's favorite casual restaurant chains are setting up shop. For many, it's their first attempt to break into the city's famously tough restaurant scene.
Brothers Anan and Toi Sugeno, the team behind just-opened ramen spot Tonchin at 36th and 5th, felt drawn to the city for many reasons. “We found some similarities between Tokyo and New York,” said Anan. “For example, in both Tokyo and New York, people usually go out to eat by taking trains or walking.” It’s also a city that, much like Tokyo, loves its food — and sets high standards for restaurants.
“We knew that New York is the most competitive, toughest place to be in the restaurant business,” Sugeno said. “But we still wanted to share Tonchin’s ramen.”
Their father and uncle founded the first Tonchin restaurant in Tokyo back in 1992, and also own the Kaburaya izakaya brand and a chain of fish-market style restaurants called Marutomi Suisan. Over the past 25 years, the Tonchin locations have spread across Japan and into Shanghai and Taiwan. But New York, as any restaurateur knows, is a beast of its own. They were encouraged by the bevy of other Japanese chain restaurants making the leap to this most-challenging market.
“Seeing them opening and succeeding in New York made us want to give it a try,” said Sugeno. “We still believe that there is room for Japanese food culture to spread wider across New York City, and the world, because it’s about much more than just sushi.”
New Yorkers already have plenty of homegrown options for Japanese fare, with interest growing in regional cuisines and non-sushi options. This year’s Michelin Guide starred 16 Japanese restaurants — the most of any city outside of Japan — including one kaiseki spot, one serving shojin Buddhist cuisine, one focusing on tempura, and even a yakitori specialist. Beloved grocery group Sunrise Mart is even opening a 20,000-square-foot Japanese food hall in Brooklyn’s Industry City next year.
So how does a foreign chain make its foray into a city with high standards, especially one already spoiled by Japanese options? The Sugeno brothers knew that ramen itself wasn’t particularly groundbreaking; though they’ve won over their hometown audience, Anan acknowledges that in New York City, “ramen has for so long been spotlighted by people from all over the world.” To set the stateside Tonchin location apart, the brothers worked “in collaboration with a local project team, who are very active at the front lines of the New York restaurant and design scene.”
They’ll keep the ramen menu that made them famous — the Tokyo Tonkatsu, with a cloudy, fatty broth, is a signature item, but the nutty Spicy Tan Tan is an equally intoxicating option — while their custom staff uniforms, tableware, ceramics, and other design elements react to New York sensibilities. “We believe it’s going to be a place where locals can enjoy a new style of ramen restaurant,” said Sugeno. Wander the blocks around the restaurant, though, and you’ll notice that the historically dominant “Little Tokyo” section of the East Village has some competition.
Some have observed that Midtown East has been emerging as a small Japanese enclave, with restaurants and stores clustering in certain blocks. Perhaps the chains hope to cater to business travelers from back home, who would certainly be visiting the hotels and corporate headquarters in the area. The diplomatic significance of the neighborhood, home to the headquarters of the Japan Society and the Japanese Consulate-General, is also notable.
But of course, the chain restaurant diaspora isn’t constrained to Tonchin’s neighborhood. In Chelsea, there’s Naoki, a kaiseki spot from a huge Japanese restaurant group, and Zauo, the much-hyped fish-for-your-dinner theme restaurant opening its first U.S. location in February 2018.
The West Village saw the arrival of iekei-style ramen chain E.A.K. in May, and the East Village, already a Japanese food hub, recently debuted locations of several chains. Among them: Uogashi, an affordable sushi counter which opened in early 2017, and Dokodemo, a street food place known for its okonomiyaki and other griddled snacks that landed over the summer.
Brooklyn saw one of the hottest openings last year, with Japanese ramen chain Ichiran setting up a giant location in Bushwick; most of the buzz surrounded the proprietary “flavor concentration booths,” where individual diners are separated by partitions to let them slurp in silence.
Clearly, the bar is getting ever higher. “The more popular Japanese food becomes in the U.S., and the more new restaurants that open, the more American expectations of Japanese food will rise,” said Sugeno. New Yorkers, especially, “continue to explore Japanese cuisine, and can find new Japanese food that exceeds their expectations.”
Those looking to sample some of Japan’s favorite restaurants — no trans-Pacific plane ticket necessary — would do well to explore this increasingly delicious corner of Midtown East. Here’s a miniature food crawl of the other newcomers in the neighborhood:
One of the first and largest major Japanese chain restaurants to open in the States — they have over 100 locations in Tokyo alone — Ootoya followed up their 2012 Chelsea location with a second in Midtown soon after. This old standby lacks some of the bells and whistles of newer imports, garnering descriptions like "populist, Cracker Barrel-style chain” and “think Applebee's — with raw fish,” but it clearly set a standard for the chains that would continue to saturate the neighborhood over the years.
Ikinari Steak, with a 46th Street location planned for 2018, is most famous stateside for its quirky approach to seating: There isn't any. But customers, who flocked to its East Village location for the campy appeal of a standing-room-only steakhouse, found high quality meats within. You might even get to sit down soon.
Fukuoka-based chain Hide-Chan, which landed on 52nd Street back in 2010, expanded to a second location in Hell's Kitchen in September 2017. Owner Hideto Kawahara is a second-generation ramen master: His father founded Daruma Ramen in Fukuoka 50 years ago.
Growing steadily in Japan since its founding in 1985, ramen chain Ippudo first expanded internationally with its ever-popular East Village location, opened in 2008. A 5th Avenue location opened in October 2017, complementing the Midtown East outpost of their fast-casual Kuro-Obi concept, which has been slinging its special “takeaway ramen” in the UrbanSpace Vanderbilt food hall since early 2016.
Tokyo Ichiban Foods, which owns several brands in over 50 locations in Japan, made its foray into New York City last month with their refined izakaya concept. They're somehow serving affordable sushi and drinking fare, despite the fact that fish is flown in daily from the company's fish farm in Nagasaki. The bluefin tuna and king yellowtail you're eating were swimming in Japan mere hours earlier, but the blowfish raised in the same pools isn't available in Wokuni's New York location (yet).
Like many successful Japanese chains, this restaurant specializes in one food, and does it extremely well. In this case, udon, a robust subgenre of Japanese cuisine with less of a U.S. following than ramen or sushi. TsuruTonTan caught the city's eye when it took over the former Union Square Cafe space in August 2016, and a second location is coming to the Rockefeller Center area in April 2018.