Needless to say, I was interested in little that wasn’t edible. A number of Japanese restaurants had set up booths on both sides of the street, selling bite sized samples of their full course press. Aside from a thrilling demonstration on how mochi would be made by the Hammer Bros., the most eye catching displays were the ones conducting some fine summer grilling. Gyu-Kaku‘s kobe harami, essentially a Korean style short rib sourced from kobe beef and soaked in a miso marinade, and Hakata Ton Ton‘s fatty grilled pork (which tastes exactly like it sounds), scorched their peers with small but powerful doses of fire, flavor, fat and flesh.
In the end, however, meat was not the order of the day. Tucked unassumingly between two merch peddlers, Cafe Zaiya was the only vendor whose Japan Fair booth immediately convinced me to visit its storefront on E. 41st St. Since then I’ve become obsessed with is glorious offerings.
This post is the first record of that obsession. Cafe Zaiya is a Japanese cafeteria of sorts, housing several counters and a dazzling spread of sushi, bento, sandwiches, breads, pastries and other snacks for Midtown Manhattan’s mix-and-matching pleasure. Many of the items here are priced at $3 or less, making any given trip to Zaiya a futile struggle not to walk out with thirteen pieces of dessert for lunch.
Cafe Zaiya’s assorted onigiri are definitely at the lower end of its awesome spectrum, but starting at $1.50 a pop and pre-wrapped in the most practically frustrating yet aesthetically whimsical of Japanese forms, they’re impossible to resist. Plus, can you really turn down an excuse to eat more dried seaweed? No. The answer is no.
Moving up along the savory scale at Zaiya also involves moving up along the deep fried scale. Case in point: the Cafe’s crunchy/fluffy croquettes, a breaded and fried patty of mashed potato and vegetable that is one-upped only by the neighboring curry pan, which wraps up a beef-and-vegetable curry filling in a thin, chewy, mochi-like roll, then breads the entire thing with panko and throws it in the deep fryer for $2 of textural brilliance.
While Cafe Zaiya’s savory options abound, pastries are its most obvious muse. Yakimochi takes on a particularly beautiful form: Zaiya’s bakers fill a puck of mochi with slightly sweet, semi-whole red bean filling, garnish with black sesame, then grill for a texture that is simultaneously crunchy, flaky and chewy. The bakery’s classically fried and sugar crusted red bean doughnut represents the other side of the pastry fold just as well; both treats are delicate and satisfying without being too sweet.
Shockingly, they don’t take the cake. Slyly eclipsing its red bean cousins, the peach danish is a gorgeous take on a pastry that, when cheaply made, is little more than a hyper-sweet, artificially rendered chew toy. Zaiya’s danish is a diamond of toasty, flaky croissant that encases a mild layer of light custard and half of a canned peach. Baked at the intersection of dainty and crack, it puts the entire factory assembled pastry industry to sugar frosted shame.
Still, even a freshly made danish isn’t my first choice at the baker’s counter. for $1.50, I can grab the halo of fried dough nirvana that is Cafe Zaiya’s chocolate mochi donut. Intertwining the dessert orders of two worlds – soft, chewy mochi flour and the structure of a Western cruller – is a simple desire turned incredible feat by virtue of Zaiya’s execution. Regular mochi doughnuts are also available, but hardly needed when there’s a fresh tray of these on the table.
Having made only a few visits to Cafe Zaiya so far, I have yet to plumb the full bounty of its menu. Seeing how the remainder of its choices includes a variety of puddings and custards, green tea steamed buns, black sesame ice cream, omusoba and about 3.4 billion other delicious and recession priced eats, I’m not sure I ever will. All the better, I suppose; an obsession this bite sized deserves to unfold two bucks at a time. Hopefully, by the time the next Japan Street Fair rolls around, I’ll actually stick around to try the rest of its samples.
18 E. 41st St.
New York, NY 10017