If you’re struck with a craving for crisp chicken wings or grilled smelts while in midtown, no matter what time of the day or night, hurry through the bustle of West 32nd Street, up a flight of stairs, and into a world of fashionably spiky-haired twentysomethings grazing on shared snacks while pouring each other endless rounds of sake. Packs of Marlboros and bottles of booze clutter the tables. Pots of brick-red soup bubble, plates of tempura and tonkatsu crunch. A band that must be the Backstreet Boys of Japan emotes loudly over the sound system, drowned out only by increasingly cacophonous laughter as the evening wears on — and on and on. Izakaya Moku is open for lunch and closes at 6 a.m. on weekends. Technically, you could go there for breakfast.
Izakayas, or Japanese pubs serving a wide range of foods, were once a small part of the dining scene in New York, but in the past few years they’ve popped up everywhere, from the low-key, excellent Qoo Robata Bar in Williamsburg to the ultra-expensive circus that is Inakaya in the Times Building. Izakaya Moku is actually the second such spot to emerge on the Koreatown strip in the past few months, joining recent addition Haru Hana. Moku is a loud, lively emporium of yakitori, sashimi, noodles, tempura, and tonkatsu, plus a few Korean preparations. As you might expect of a pub, some offerings are more junky-good (squirts of mayo and ketchup abound) than good-good, but the menu is so extensive that there’s enough of both kinds to go around.
For the best results at Moku, do as the regulars do: Bring a big group and stay a while. On my first visit, I made the mistake of showing up with only one other person and ordering a bunch of items, as one usually does at an izakaya. But here, the dishes are enormous — each one as big as a super-size main, so we found ourselves surrounded by a platter of rice cakes, a mountain of chicken wings, an entire grilled mackerel, and an octopus salad. Our server had to bring another table over to accommodate it all. A gaggle of four or so works perfectly for the portions and price: Plates average $14, so it’s easy to stay well under $20 per eater.
But now, what to drink? The simplest and cheapest thing is beer. All the usual suspects are here: Sapporo on draft, and Asahi, OB, Bud, Coors Light, and Heineken in bottles. The Japanese sakes are much more interesting — 11 types are available, including a sparkling version. Alternatively, choose soju, a Korean spirit often distilled from rice, sweet potatoes, potatoes, or barley. It tastes a bit like vodka, although the alcohol content is generally lower than 80 proof. Then there are the Korean wines, variously fermented from black raspberries, plums, or rice. We particularly enjoyed the bekseju, a Korean rice wine aged with ginseng and other herbs, making it reminiscent of apple juice and Sauvignon Blanc. The name translates to “100-year-old wine,” because it’s meant to help you live to be a centenarian. At least it’s more fun than kale and cardio.
You’ll want some yakitori, sizzled over a grill behind the bar. A 10-piece variety set costs $16.95, and saves your tablemates from squabbling about which ones to choose. But request the chicken gizzards — agreeably chewy, dark nubs — and the enoki mushrooms wrapped in bacon, a simple but delicious combination. Ginkgo nuts are also a smart pick, lined up on a stick like whitish lima beans, as are the whole smelts sporting blackened, crisp skin and harboring a mess of tiny eggs inside their fat bellies.
Moku’s specialty dishes are a grab bag of Japanese preparations such as tataki, Japanese omelet, and teriyaki pork neck, and Korean plates like tofu with kimchi and dukbokki (rice cakes in chile sauce). Try the okonomiyaki: The savory pancake is the size of a hubcap and covered in a thick blanket of bonito flakes that look disconcertingly alive as they wiggle gently under the slightest breath of air. It’s pleasantly goopy, and benefits from the crunch and salt of green-bean sprouts and bonito.
A few guidelines to help sort through Izakaya Moku’s lengthy menu: 1) Tuna shows up everywhere, and should probably be avoided, given overfishing; 2) If it’s fried, chances are it’s great; 3) Salads are best skipped, unless they involve fried stuff, in which case defer to rule number two; 4) Yes to noodles, yes to grilled fish; and 5) If it says “cheese,” it means the crazy-orange viscous kind — which is not necessarily a bad thing, but you want to be prepared.
A tale of two salads illustrates rules two and three. The first, a sad plate of greens from a bag, gloppy white dressing, and slices of octopus that were still frozen in the center; the second, an excellently crisp tonkatsu (fried pork cutlet) massed with a verdant tangle of scallions, chives, peppers, and chopped peanuts, in a simple vinaigrette. And as for grilled fish, perhaps the best dish on the entire menu is the mackerel with charred skin and moist, sweet flesh.
One night, we sat and drank our way through some soju and then a carafe of ginseng rice wine while a vat of budae tang bubbled away in the middle of the table. We ladled it out into each of our four bowls, finding in its depths beans, slices of hot-dog-like sausage, kimchi, and something that looked an awful lot like Spam. It was perfect for the moment, and we slurped up the jiggly mung bean noodles that sponged the spicy broth.
This soup, it turns out, has its roots in deprivation, like so many of the word’s great dishes. After the Korean War, people had little to eat, so they used what they could scrounge — surplus hot dogs and canned beans from U.S. Army bases. And, yes, Spam. They simmered these things into a Korean stew of chilies and kimchi. The concoction is also called Johnson tang, for LBJ: in tribute or indictment? Unclear, but having a Spam-based namesake beats being remembered for the Vietnam War and pulling beagles’ ears.