For nearly a decade, a Japanese bodega named Yagura operated near the corner of Madison Avenue and 41st Street, on a block that runs directly east from the New York Public Library’s stone lions. In addition to groceries, a prepared-food operation in front with a raised seating area—like a cattle pen—became a lunchtime favorite of librarians and office workers. The menu extended to donburi, seaweed salads, ramen, broiled mackerel, homely yam dishes, and wonderful cream-squirting pastries baked by a crisply uniformed attendant.
Well, Yagura eventually inspired three newer and shinier Nipponese places, making the block christened Library Way into the city’s best Japanese fast-food strip. Most recently opened, Sunrise Mart (12 East 41st Street, 646-380-9280) is a branch of the long-running East Village favorite, boasting a substantial grocery display in the rear. Entering, you’ll see a small seating area; on the right, find a food-prep counter lively with the sound of sizzling fat. Small photocopied color placards hint at the vast range of dishes, most in an over-rice or hero-sandwich vein.
Many of the offerings are extremely oddball, proving Sunrise Mart one of the most ambitious innovators in East-West fusion Gotham has yet seen. This is not necessarily a commendable thing. A cheesesteak hero ($6.75) substituting lamb for beef and Swiss for American is not a bad idea, reminding me of the Weezer lyric from Maladroit, “Cheese smells so good/On a burnt piece of lamb.” But though the smell might entice, the meat is as tough as rhino hide. Another item that sounds good is the so-called rice burger. Unfortunately, only the bun is made of rice, and it falls apart when you take a bite. In addition to the standard beef patty, seven permutations include things like pork kimchi and teriyaki salmon.
But much of Sunrise’s food is great, especially when it stays close to convention. If you’re a fan of okonomiyaki—the gut-busting, mayo-squiggled pancake—the gigundo version here will be more than satisfying, stuffed with pork, shrimp, cabbage, and grated yam ($7.50). The place also excels at donburi, especially the one featuring fried shrimp, onions, and egg over rice. Another advantage at Sunrise is that you can grab a Japanese beer to wash your meal down—even at breakfast. For that meal, a separate counter slings tortured but tasty renditions of French pastries, including a chocolate croissant that also oozes banana.
Moving east, next is Mái Sushi (16 East 41st Street, 212-400-8880). Operating under the slogan “Mái Sushi, My Way,” it sports a full-blown sushi bar in the rear that’s now inactive, serving only as a seating area. However, the sushi pulled from the refrigerator cases is better than you’d expect. An 11-piece assortment that includes half of a tekkamaki roll will cost you only $6.50. But the co-strength of this pleasant spot, laid-back compared with the frenetic Sunrise Mart, lies in its handful of special hot dishes offered every day. These can run to simple assortments of steamed veggies, “hamburg” bento boxes, and, best of all, a pig-foot tonkotsu ramen ($9.50), beige and opaque. It falls only slightly short of Ippudo’s. Another time, there was a refreshingly light udon soup floating lily pads of sweet fried tofu.
Café Zaiya (18 East 41st Street, 212-779-0600), itself a branch of another East Village spot, sits next door to Mái Sushi. Check the signboard out front for daily specials, which can be mind-bogglingly cheap. Once there was a rice bowl topped with cubed bean curd in a ground-pork sauce (mahbo donburi) marked down from $5.49 to $4.49. On another occasion, a chili-shrimp donburi was reduced a similar amount. Note that the sushi sold here is not as pristine as Mái Sushi’s, but adequate nonetheless. The inside will remind you of a mini-food-court, with separate registers for sushi, pastries, and hot food. An airy seating area in the front window allows you to ogle passersby scurrying with their holiday packages.
The tiny Japantown on Library Way buzzes with activity from breakfast till late afternoon, after which it begins to slowly shut down, with kitchens closing around 6:30 p.m. A desiccated selection of leftovers remains available until a half-hour or so later. For supper or evening carryout, arrive early.
I visited all four spots on a daily basis for several weeks. On my last visit, I discovered that the lowliest and earliest, Yagura, had shuttered, perhaps as a result of competition from its newer neighbors. Which is sad, because with a buffet of fried things under heat lamps, cheap and fortifying noodle soups, and cream puffs stuffed as you watched, it was the quirkiest and most charming of all.