Every hour of every day, shuttles are taking off from Manhattan, transporting food lovers to the culinary hub of Edgewater, New Jersey. Gladly crossing state lines for the sake of their pantries, they make the journey for Mitsuwa, a gigantic Japanese food mall.
The term “food mall” is not really in common use at this point, but I would heartily advocate its spread. Mitsuwa is a national Japanese supermarket chain that rents small counter spaces to Asian restaurants and bakeries. Mall-goers purchase snacks and eat them in a sprawling, cafeteria-like seating area with neon lighting and flat views of the river. A market surrounded by a food court? It’s a dream come true for those of us who habitually shop hungry.
My strategy was to eat first, then do the shopping. Oh, and then eat again—twice. I started with broiled squid skewers (yakitori sans grill), and fried octopus balls (takoyaki-battered octopus chunks showered with bonito flakes and sweet sauce). The food easily surpasses the average New Jersey food court—this is a far smaller production—but it is fast food, so texture problems are inevitable.
Fortified with room temperature grease, I took to the long, wide aisles to find some familiar foods—many that one could buy in Manhattan—but in much greater variety, and with better deals. Yes, you can get natto (delightfully snot-like fermented soy beans) at Sunrise Mart, but you will not have the pleasure of perusing an entire natto section. The same goes for miso, nori, rice, all kinds of sauces, and undreamed of instant ramen flavors (spicy cuttlefish, curry). There is an abundant selection of meat, especially paper-thin slices of beef for shabu-shabu (meaning “swish-swish,” it is cooked briefly in hot water at the table), and a variety of sushi-grade fish in perfect slabs, ready for the slicing.
There are also a few truly rare items at Mitsuwa. Whole, fresh wasabi root is extremely hard to find (and not cheap when you do). What we are accustomed to eating in restaurants is a paste made from powder and water. The real thing is wetter, grainier, and more floral, still spicy but with less nasal-burn. (Sushi Samba serves fresh-grated wasabi with their sushi.) Mitsuwa also has bamboo shoots in the produce section, not quite whole but cut into a few large pieces. Fresh, they are extremely pale—almost white—and, to my surprise, have a rippled texture like seashells. Generally, one only finds them cut up and canned.
After giddily purchasing a bottle of sochu (a spirit distilled most often from barley), a bag of spicy nori chips, and some roasted brown rice tea, I sampled some adequate sushi. Then it was time for dessert. There are a few stalls specializing in mochi (chewy sweets made from steamed glutinous rice), but stumbling upon an amazing red bean sandwich, I had to investigate.
The women behind the counter were using a waffle-esque batter to fill fish-shaped molds in a hot griddle. When the batter was almost cooked, they spooned lumpy red bean paste onto half of the fishes. Then they lifted a knob to hoist one side of the griddle on top of the other, forming a sandwich, perfectly browned on the outsides and just barely sweet. This is not to be missed.
When you’re ready to work it off—or top it off—two buildings flanking the food mall house a Japanese steak house and a Japanese shop focusing on house-wares, especially table settings, and stationary, and an anime-heavy bookstore.