“This is a tough sell for Americans who don’t understand Western Japan,” one hopper commented as she reviewed the Azasu menu at one of the izakaya’s many high tables. The casual sister restaurant of Yopparai, Azasu’s name is slang for arigato gozaimasu, or thank you in Japanese. “It’s to me even kind of shocking” the hopper continued, speaking of Western Japan. “More rugged and diverse, with greater influence from continental Asia. That’s the kind of food we find here.”
So we were ready for a serious night of deep fried delights to be washed down by glasses of frozen shochu-infused hoppie. And we were not disappointed.
Still largely dominated by sushi spots high and low, perception of Japanese food in New York remains largely stuck in the domain of “refined”, “sophisticated”, “clean”, and “healthy eating”. But the advent of the city’s izakya scene is helping to upend that narrow view and show the true depth of culinary experience Japan has to offer. “This place is deep fried,” a hopper from Tokyo offered. “It’s all comfort food, like American hush puppies and hash browns.”
For starters, we shared a plate of negidama, or the fried balls of oft-discarded odds and ends of meat, topped with kewpie mayo and bonito flakes that slowly waved with the exhale of the dish’s heat. The crunchy exterior gave way to savory, juicy insides of slow-cooked meat mixed with scallion and rolled in a flour-based batter. “This is what poorer people used to eat, cooked a long time to make it tender.” Is the whole of Japan, if not the world, waking up to the possibilities of this “lower class” cuisine now? The native Japanese hoppers at the table shook their heads with an emphatic yes.
“If you think about Kyoto as the sort of refined, culinary capital of Japan, it is like Manhattan,” another hopper explained, just as a platter of Nagoya-style fried chicken wings were deposited on the table. “Western Japan, from that point of view, is a kind of Brooklyn or Bronx to that refined Manhattan.”
We tucked into the chicken wings, redolent with cracked black pepper and bristling with succulent meat. “Nagoya is the home of Toyota,” a hopper pointed out. “It’s in the middle of Japan with this kind of savory, miso-based flavor you can taste on this chicken. It’s very different from the soy-based style of Kyoto or Tokyo– more spicy and feisty.”
The sumo matches playing on the big screen overhead were the perfect accompaniment to the arrival of the kushi-katsu, a rough-hewn platter of fried treats that matched perfectly with our ever-diminishing glasses of hoppie. Deep fried asparagus, yam, and crab meat croquettes showed off Azasu’s skill of capturing Western Japan’s chilled-out pub grub in a light, easy-eating way. We helped ourselves to the tamari soy bucket stationed at our table, spilling the sauce onto our skewers. “Some pubs in western Japan only serve kushi-katsu,” a hopper explained. “So they have signs up everywhere that say ‘No Dipping More Than Once!'” At Azasu, we took heed.
Next up were the hane gyoza, a platter of dumplings topped with the flat pancake of fried batter in which they were cooked. The thin cake yielded with each sharp, crunchy bite to a juicy dumpling interior highlighted by chili soy sauce. In time, the table grew quiet, consumed only by the act of consumption and staring blankly at the closing sumo ceremony.
“The whole thing about sumo is really mysterious,” one hopper finally said. “It’s related to the Shinto myth on which the imperial family is built. But now most of the best wrestlers are from Mongolia. I guess people still worship these guys because they are so big and we Japanese are so small and skinny,” she said, pondering her next fried dumpling.
Though we eschewed Azasu’s massive courses of chanko nabe, the protein-rich hot pot typical of the sumo’s “high power diet”, we sopped up the dredge of our night with a plate of yakisoba– pan fried ramen with beef entrails and fried egg– coupled with cups of “manly mountain” sake. Some friendly people at a neighboring table started telling us about their upcoming trip to Tokyo and everyone got hungry not for more food, but to jump into a cab to JFK.
“The Japanese yen is currently pretty weak,” a hopper said as we got up to leave. “It’s a good time to go.”
49 Clinton Street
New York, NY
Mon – Thurs, 6 pm – 11 pm
Fri – Sat, 6 pm – 1 am