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A guide to Philly’s Japanese food scene: Sushi, ramen, izakayas, omakase

From the area's first-ever sushi restaurant to the newest ramen shop on the block, here's your guide to Japanese food in Philly.

Steam rises as chef and co-owner Jesse Ito mixes vinegar into freshly cooked rice in a barrel at Royal Sushi and Izakaya in Philadelphia's Queen Village neighborhood on Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2018. TIM TAI / Staff Photographer
Steam rises as chef and co-owner Jesse Ito mixes vinegar into freshly cooked rice in a barrel at Royal Sushi and Izakaya in Philadelphia's Queen Village neighborhood on Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2018. TIM TAI / Staff PhotographerRead moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer / TIM TAI / Staff Photographer

A bite of luscious hamachi, brushed lightly with soy sauce and accompanied by a dab of freshly grated wasabi. A bowl of Iekei-style ramen with wavy egg noodles and fragrant garlic oil. A tangle of tender udon and shredded beef cooked in sweet mirin and savory dashi. Japanese food is popping up everywhere in Philadelphia — and it has come a long way.

“To a certain extent, the Japanese food scene became naturalized in Philadelphia,” said Linda Chance, associate professor of Japanese studies at the University of Pennsylvania and editor of Phila-Nipponica: An Historic Guide to Philadelphia & Japan.

Philadelphians were introduced to Japanese food at the 1876 Centennial Exposition, but it wasn’t until about a century later that it became mainstream via household hibachi grills, a popular gift in the 1960s. Japanese steak houses followed next — Benihana expanded to Philly by 1974, the same year the area’s first sushi restaurant, Sagami, opened in Collingswood.

At the time, Sagami’s offerings were wholly unfamiliar. “So many people came in, looked at the menu, and didn’t stay,” owner Chizuko Fukuyoshi told the Inquirer in 2018 (when Inquirer critic Craig LaBan called it “one of the region’s gold standards”).

Today there’s a sushi restaurant or ramen shop on almost every corner, Chance observed. “Japanese food is viewed as cosmopolitan,” she said. “People are very adventurous now ... so it has fit in quite neatly.”

As the Cherry Blossom Festival peaks at West Fairmount Park’s Shofuso Japanese House and Garden, we present a guide to Japanese food in Philadelphia. Happy eating!

Sushi: The perfect entry point

When Hiroyuki “Zama” Tanaka began making sushi in Center City in the 1990s, well before opening his eponymous restaurant in 2009, the main orders were California and spider rolls. “Now they’re asking me whether the sea urchin I have came from California or Japan. They’re ordering seasonal fish,” Tanaka said.

Tanaka serves customers from behind a wooden bar topped by shiny, fish-filled display cases. For sushi newcomers, he recommends starting off with cooked items like seared scallops and shrimp or lobster maki rolls; he’ll dress them up with ingredients like miso and yuzu-soy butter. He suggests moving to a spicy tuna or salmon rolls next before trying nigiri — raw fish on top of rice — and sashimi, plain slices of fish.

Noodles: Simple, approachable, filling

Philly’s selection of Japanese noodles is deep: You can find such specialties as chilled buckwheat soba served with a side of dipping sauce, thick udon accompanied with crispy tempura, and delicate somen dressed with ginger and scallions.

But most popular is ramen, a complete meal that’s made from many components besides the chewy, stretchy noodles: a seasoning blend (tare), broth (usually a combo of pork and chicken), and several toppings (braised pork belly, bamboo shoots, scallions, soft-boiled egg).

“Ramen is unique,” said Jesse Pryor, who opened Queen Village’s Neighborhood Ramen earlier this year along with partner Lindsay Steigerwald. “The individual components aren’t the most delicious things in the world but together, [they] make something incredible.”

The pair, Cheu Noodle Bar and Morimoto alums, modeled their no-frills storefront after ramen shops they visited in Japan and other American cities. “Ramen places are not really showy.” Steigerwald said. “All we have are the Japanese characters for ramen above our door.”

As in Japan, where ramen is more of a lunch or late-night meal, Neighborhood Ramen customers order and pay first, then receive their noodles a few minutes later. Their most popular style is shoyu, or soy sauce-based ramen, which Pryor described as more delicate, flavor-wise — like drinking a crisp wine rather than a hazy IPA. Other styles include mild shio (salt-based) and rich tonkotsu (pork bone-based) ramen.

Izakayas: A different kind of tavern

With moody lighting and an often-raucous atmosphere, izakayas are Japan’s answer to the tavern. They’re frequented by families, groups of friends, and coworkers alike.

Many izakayas have sprawling menus of small plates — grilled skewers, fried bites, pickles, and salads — that are meant to be shared.

“When I was living in Japan, izakayas were my go-to after work with friends,” said Michael Schulson, the owner of Double Knot, a coffee bar by day and subterranean izakaya by night. Spicy and savory dishes like Double Knot’s barbecued prawns and sweet broiled eel are meant to be paired with beer or sake.

That’s because an izakaya’s real focus is sake. Made from fermented rice, sake (sa-KEH) is brewed more like beer, has alcohol content similar to wine, and tastes entirely different than either. Its flavor can be fruity, floral, or nutty.

Depending on one’s preference, sake is served chilled or warm, often in masu cups — small square wooden boxes that infuse the sake with a fresh, woody scent. The host places a small glass inside the box and pours sake until it overflows. After finishing the contents of the glass, you can pour what remains in the box into your glass.

Omakase: Trusting your chef

Compared to the informal vibe of an izakaya, omakase is far more refined; the word omakase (OH-mah-kah-SAY) means “leaving it up to the chef.”

“We’re essentially saying that we, as the chef, know what we do best,” said Jesse Ito, chef-owner of Royal Sushi and Izakaya. “You just have to trust us. We’ll guide you through it.”

In Japan, chefs prepare tempura, yakitori and even shabu-shabu (Japanese hot pot) omakases. But sushi omakase has taken Philly by storm. At $130 per person, Ito’s four-bell, 18-course, reservation-only omakase — made with imported fish like bluefin tuna and king salmon, as well as rare finds like golden threadfin bream and Japanese thornyhead — will cost you a pretty penny. But there’s also a selection of “budget” omakases, like DK Sushi ($35) in University City or Sakana ($58) in Queen Village.

At Royal Sushi and Izakaya, diners are greeted with a hot towel to clean their hands, which they’re encouraged to use to handle the sushi; chopsticks can break apart the delicate grains of rice. Ito introduces each piece of sushi, to be eaten in one bite and within 30 seconds (to maintain the rice’s temperature). Diners don’t get soy sauce for dipping — Ito brushes on his own sauce.

Between pieces, guests can nibble on pickled ginger to cleanse the palate. “But you’re not supposed to eat it like a salad,” Ito said with a laugh. “Anything in excess is bad for you.”

Japanese comfort food

For everyday Japanese food — the kind home cooks make — head to Maido Japanese Market on Lancaster Avenue in Ardmore. Owned by Osaka-area native Seiko Dailey, the store has a small restaurant offering rice bowls topped with fried pork cutlets or chicken glazed in soy sauce, mirin, sugar, and sake (a mixture better known as teriyaki).

“We sell what I consider Japanese soul food,” Dailey said. “[It] should make you very comfortable, like being at home.”

As you dine, you can watch the chefs in Maido’s open kitchen; they might be preparing okonomiyaki, a pancake made with shredded cabbage, scallions, and pickled ginger, or takoyaki, a crispy sphere of savory batter and chopped octopus. If you’d like to try your hand at making any of the food Maido sells, it carries all the ingredients needed.

“Japanese people cook with what’s in season,” Dailey said. “In the springtime, when there’s a lot of hanami — or flower-viewing events — people often bring their own lunches in bento boxes, made with their own recipes. It keeps things interesting.”