255 W 42nd St, New York, NY
Web Site: http://www.yoshinoyausa.com/
This Off The Broiler entry was written by Jonathan Lurie.
Every once in a while you sit in a restaurant you’ve eaten in a dozen times or more and never thought notable or particularly interesting and have an epiphany. Something sparks and suddenly you see it with new eyes.
During a recent lunch break at Yoshinoya, in Times Square, that very thing happened to me.
In this case it was one simple thought… “gee, it looks like I’m the only white guy here”.
Now that thought isn’t that unusual for a connoisseur of ethnic food. It’s not a negatively motivated racial thought–at least we hope its not–as much as an appreciation that well… the folks who know the food best seem to enjoy the place. Its a subtle stamp of approval you dare not make too big a deal about, or you’ll seem like a real boob, but it is normally a valuable piece of intelligence to collect about a restaurant.
Outside Yoshinoya, overlooking Port Authority.
What struck me particularly this time was the odd juxtaposition of being on what’s arguably the most famous street in America (Broadway is an Avenue, of course…) 42nd Street, and yet at the same time feeling a bit like I’d been transported elsewhere in the world simply by walking through that door. Sitting in Yoshinoya Times Square often feels like what I’d imagine sitting in some similar joint on the Ginza Strip in Tokyo feels like. And yet when you walk BACK out the door there you are again, in one of the most “American” of all locations.
Yoshinoya dining room.
New York is, of course, not a town without Japanese people. The notion of walking into a restaurant and seeing a room full of them isn’t all that shocking. Japanese culture, in New York as much as anywhere in the country, is well integrated and well familiar.
A bowl of gyudon at Yoshinoya.
The idea of Asian rice bowls, with vegetables and BBQ beef or chicken is also not unfamiliar to those of us in the U.S. Walk into almost any mall and you’ll see a place which does this. Its the little things at Yoshinoya which add up to its feel of being… elsewhere. The condiment station which is empty of everything except soy sauce, Japanese hot pepper and a bucket of Japanese ginger. The little sign which informs you that for an extra 90 cents you can have a raw egg to break over your bowl and into your lunch. The pay toilets with polite signs asking you to please insert a quarter to unlock the door. And of course, despite that this is indeed very cheap food, Japanese people have gone out of their way to come here from all over New York City.
Ordering at Yoshinoya is just like an American fast-food restaurant.
Questioning a patron or two, it seems that Yoshinoya may count as comfort food for the occasional homesick middle management-level Japanese employee on assignment in New York. Or the local professional who’s arrived from nearby Japanese dominated Fort Lee, New Jersey and who’s looking for a quick lunch before they head off for the nearby Port Authority Bus Terminal. Restaurants selling Beef Bowls– gyudon —just like this are SO ubiquitous in Japan, you can be assured of finding one not just in Tokyo, but around any corner in any town.
Yoshinoya is in fact a chain–one of the largest in Japan. Famous for going toe-to-toe with McDonalds and actually holding their share of the market, there’s still only one location in New York, and now also one in Las Vegas. But with 1200 or so locations in various parts of Asia, and DOZENS of locations in Southern California, maybe Yoshinoya’s move towards becoming as “American” as 42nd street is just a matter of time.
To be perfectly clear, from a food critics perspective, the food at Yoshinoya Times Square is at best identified as “good and filling” (even more-so if you buy that egg and break it into your bowl). Its not a place most of us would seek out, unless of course you are Japanese and looking for a little piece of home. But the rest of us, if you are passing by, its an interesting, albeit very temporary (and very cheap), doorway through which you can step and pretend you are elsewhere. In Tokyo. Or Osaka. Or Hong Kong. Or apparently, these days, Southern California.