In America, the phrase chain restaurant doesn’t immediately inspire visions of a great meal. But across Asia, many chains are beloved institutions, with quality food, polished service, and legions of dedicated fans, such as those who stand in line for hours at Tim Ho Wan in Hong Kong for a taste of freshly baked pork buns.
In the past year, New York City has gotten its first taste of several of these famed Asian chains. Ichiran, an upmarket Japanese ramen operation famous for isolating diners in “flavor concentration booths,” opened in Bushwick in October; Ikinari Steak, a standing-only steakhouse in the East Village, followed in February. And TsuruTonTan, an udon chain that makes its own noodles, took over the former Union Square Café space last September. All were greeted with massive lines upon opening, of both international fans of their iterations in Japan and local foodies curious about the hype joining an established roster of Japanese chains that have already succeeded here, including the ramen chain Ippudo and set-menu specialists Ootoya.
Then there are the new arrivals from elsewhere in Asia: the “dim sum specialists” Tim Ho Wan, which spawned queues rivaling those in Hong Kong when it opened at Fourth Avenue and East 10th Street in December; Paik’s Noodle, a casual Korean noodle franchise in K-Town; PappaRich, a homestyle Malaysian chain that recently opened in Flushing; and the first American branch of Chinese restaurateur Zhu Rong’s Madam Zhu’s Kitchen, called Hao Noodle and Tea, in the West Village.
For many foreign restaurant groups, a successful New York outpost is considered a crown jewel, and every operation I spoke to reiterated some variation of the old if-you-can-make-it-here adage: “If you can succeed in New York City, everything else is downhill,” says Tony Chan, the general manager at Tim Ho Wan.
Why now? A combination of factors: The ramen boom a few years ago, fueled by the success of Ippudo, helped pave the way for more Asian chains to broach the American market, as has the increasing ease of travel between East and West. And American appetites have shifted, too, particularly in cosmopolitan cities like New York, where we’re now more willing to embrace, say, spicy or sour regional Chinese food in addition to the sweet-and-gloopy takeout stuff.
While many chains are expanding rapidly across Asia, most of the new arrivals spent years preparing to open here, studying the American market and navigating New York’s fickle commercial real estate landscape. The owners of Ichiran spent nearly nine years seeking the perfect space for their flagship restaurant and noodle factory before ending up on an industrial block in northwest Bushwick.
Some restaurateurs, like Zhu of Hao Noodle and Tea, developed an almost entirely new menu to appeal to Western tastes; others, like Tim Ho Wan, made subtle tweaks to their standard offerings, such as cutting the offal dishes and adding more vegetarian-friendly options. “We’ve noticed that New Yorkers like to order anything with uni or wagyu,” says Joji Uematsu, VP at Dining Innovation New York, the restaurant group that owns TsuruTonTan; the udon chain has adjusted its menus over time to cater to local palates, cutting back on cold udons, for example, which don’t sell as well in New York, and adding more spicy options, which do.
It remains to be seen which of these operations will ultimately thrive, but the ones that offer a unique experience are perhaps the most worthwhile for jaded New York diners who think they’ve seen it all. Here’s a quick guide to some of the most high-profile recent openings:
This Fukuoka-based chain specializes in one thing only: pork-based tonkotsu ramen, served to customers as they sit in individually partitioned “flavor concentration booths,” so diners can focus solely on the noodle soup in front of them, sans distraction. Taking specialization a step even further, the shop also allows patrons to specify how rich they’d like their broth and how firm they’d like their noodles. It might sound gimmicky, but the hyper-focus pays off: Ichiran’s ramen is heady, balanced, and deeply satisfying.
374 Johnson Avenue, Brooklyn
This steakhouse first opened in Tokyo just four years ago, and has since exploded to more than 120 locations throughout Japan, thanks to its premium meat and affordable prices: Diners order by weight from three cuts of beef, then their selections are grilled rare and delivered on sizzling cast-iron platters to booths where customers eat while standing; steaks run eight to eleven cents a gram, with a minimum of 200g per order. As at Ichiran, the shtick succeeds by delivering an undeniably high-quality finished product. The East Village location is virtually identical to the Japanese ones, and founder Kunio Ichinose has said he wants to open twenty more outlets in Manhattan in
the next five years.
90 East 10th Street, Manhattan
Billing itself as an “Udon Noodle Brasserie,” this upscale chain hopes to capitalize on ramen’s American success by introducing U.S. diners to thick, springy udon noodles (made in-house) with a variety of broths and toppings that goes way beyond your standard takeout joint. While there are well-executed traditional tempura and seafood options for udon newbies, TsuruTonTan really shines when playing with newfangled flavor combinations like mentaiko caviar and truffle creme with crab and mushroom. Skip the non-noodle offerings, though, which try too hard (tofu burrata?) and generally fall flat.
21 East 16th Street, Manhattan
TIM HO WAN
Billed as “the world’s cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant,” this Hong Kong dim sum import, with 45 locations around the world, landed in the East Village this winter to three-hour waits for their signature pork buns and steamed rice rolls. The menu is smaller and less adventurous than serious dim sum fans may be accustomed to, and Chinatown regulars won’t find much that justifies the wait. But dim sum beginners and out-of-town visitors may appreciate the accessible vibe: Diners order off a checklist (as opposed to from carts), and every dish is cooked to order.
85 Fourth Avenue, Manhattan
HAO NOODLE AND TEA BY MADAM ZHU’S KITCHEN
Zhu Rong runs successful Madam Zhu’s locations in several of China’s major cities, but found the Chinese food scene in New York lacking in cosmopolitan flair — restaurants here were either too downscale or too traditional, she felt, and so she built one that reflects a more modern, multicultural China. The menu at her artfully decorated West Village outpost is tailored to Western palates, but far from sterilized, with a mix of regional Chinese dishes and global influences. Standouts include silky-smooth handmade dan dan noodles slicked with chili oil and ground Sichuan peppercorn, and seared beef medallions (made from filet mignon) with candied walnuts and crispy garlic.
401 Sixth Avenue, Manhattan