Cafe Zaiya’s Fried Noodle Sandwich and Other Weird Japanese Treats


Japanese people are excellent at taking an awesome idea and putting their own spin on it. Car engines, for instance, morphed from monstrous, gas-guzzling machines into streamlined, compact workhorses in the hands of Toyota and Honda. Curry, introduced to Japan by the British in the late 1800s, was reworked into a beef stew-like dish served with short grain rice that is now a staple of Japanese home-cooking.

Sandwiches, too, have been subjected to Japanification over time, which is occasionally deliciously delightful and sometimes weird and gross.

A strange day last week, when the high temperature was in the mid-’70s and a quick wind forced people to wear jackets, seemed like a better day than usual to look for some weirdness between bread. so I headed over to the Cooper Square location of Cafe Zaiya, where there awaited, I’d just learned, a cold fried noodle sandwich on a hot dog bun.

By the end of the day, Zaiya’s selection of pre-made sandwiches and treats was mostly picked over, but the yakisoba sandwich was still there, looking lonely, tightly wrapped in cellophane and begging to be eaten.

Yakisoba is typically served (sans bun, on a plate) piping hot off the grill. But this sandwich version is common in the convenience stores of Japan, where it can usually be found at all hours of the day, long after more choice items have disappeared from the shelves.

End-of-the-day bread stuffed with oily cold noodles with flecks of limp cabbage and onion is just as revolting as it is sad. Even sadder is eating it alone at home while sitting in your underwear and trying to write about it. And that the sandwich was made with spaghetti-like noodles instead of buckwheat soba was disappointing.

I’d picked up a second sandwich as a back-up, and since the bar was set low, it didn’t have much competition.

Like most pre-packaged Japanese convenience store hand-held foods, the potato salad sandwich was ingeniously wrapped in an easy-to-peel-apart packaging, the de-crusted wheat bread sliced precisely along the diagonal before being splayed out from center to reveal its contents to hungry shoppers.

Japanese potato salad is made with lightly pickled carrot and cucumber, so it has a sweet, vinegary taste that sets it apart from other varieties of potato salad. But as a sandwich, potato salad is difficult to understand. If you absolutely love eating carbs, then it is probably one of the best things you can put between two slices of bread. But if you prefer to keep a meal’s carbohydrate ratio somewhere close to your recommended daily allowance, then the sandwich makes no sense.

As a bonus, dessert also came in sandwich form as dorayaki, a lightly sweet red bean paste spread between two miniature pancakes. Traditional Japanese desserts, many of which are only slightly sweet and involve beans or rice, can be an acquired taste, but dorayaki is one of the most agreeable, its lightly sweetened bean paste enhanced by sugar incorporated into the pancake batter. The best way to eat a dorayaki, by the way, is to warm it in the toaster oven until slightly crisp.

That revived the day-old treat, though on the whole, the Zaiya sandwiches left much to be desired.