The TAISHO–Real Japanese “PUB” Food!

December 12, 2007

There is Japanese food, and there is Japanese pub food. The former has cropped up all over the place, with sushi restaurants- and shady outfits masquerading as sushi restaurants-dotting the national dinning landscape. The latter, however, are as rare as an undernourished sumo wrestler.
But you don’t have to book a flight to Tokyo to enjoy pub food with a Japanese twist. Fortunately, there’s a worthy outpost in New York City. In rapidly urbanized St. Mark’s Square, Yakitori Taisho does a raucous, bustling business. It’s a smoky, roughhewn place carved into the bottom of a building that transports you light-years from Manhattan. For something truly unique, it’s well worth the journey. The pub has a rustic ambience so far moved from hip that it’s become hip. The staff is all Japanese- a rarity- and they yell something incoherent at you as soon as you walk in. The clientele is also mostly from the home country, always a good sign when eating at any ethnic restaurant. I adore this place and it’s my favorite restaurant in New York.
When you walk in, you instantly feel a rush of kinetic energy, as if you’re in a bustling yakitori house in Tokyo. There are guys yelling in Japanese, flinging hot oil around (they cook right behind the bar, which runs along the length of it) and handing dishes off to the servers. There are hooks mere inches from people’s heads for hanging coats. If you sit at the (very cramped) bar, you’re low to the ground on these little cow milking type of stools. If it’s too full and you have to sit at a table in the back, you feel like you’re being escorted into the storage room or back kitchen to the hidden extra space. It smells warm and delicious, the menus consist mostly of photographs of the food, and the prices are great.
While I haven’t actually had yakitori at this place, everything I have had is phenomenal. I’ve had all three types of pan fried noodle dishes, I regularly order the onigiri (usually with umeboshi), and the unagi with tamago and tofu is to die for – great portion sizes as well. Sometimes the service is a little slow, but I don’t even mind because the experience is fantastic.
The highlight of a meal at Yakitori Taisho is the amazing variety of skewers. The small kitchen is dominated by a long grill, where the short, bearded, bandanna-clad “taisho” and his acolytes slap skewers of chicken, beef, chicken wing, shrimp, shitake mushrooms, scallions, and various other meats and vegetables. The shining star of this show is the mouth-watering chicken meatballs, a must try for anyone who visits the pub. The skewers are served on a bed of raw cabbage leaves, which make for a crude but surprisingly good accompaniment. While you’d be sorely amiss not to sample at least one skewer, there are plenty of other dishes on the menu to tempt you.
Even on cold winter’s night, New Yorkers are happy to line up on the steps outside the restaurant or squeeze into the narrow entrance hall to wait for a table. The orange paper lantern outside is like a beacon for the hungry traveler…

Sae Na Park (Korea)

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