We launched our series of hyper-local neighborhood spotlights because we love checking out diverse communities like Chinatown, Harlem and Jackson Heights, and then sharing our discoveries with other families. However, some NYC neighborhoods are so small, we can do them in one post, like Little Tokyo, a tiny stretch of the East Village that's packed with Japanese businesses, mostly restaurants.
While there are certainly other places in New York City to experience Japanese culture—we've actually written multiple posts about Japanese happenings, including a roundup of annual Sakura Matsuri cherry blossom festivals—we've never explored Little Tokyo with kids... until now.
On a cold Saturday morning, my family and I visited the micro-hood, which runs from St. Mark's Place to East 10th Street between Second and Third Avenues. The main attraction in Little Tokyo is, without a doubt, the food. We arrived at Cha An Japanese Tea House (230 East 9th Street) around lunchtime with a hungry, screaming two-year-old only to be met with a 30-minute wait. A favorite spot of my foodie friends, Cha is up a flight of steep wooden stairs and has a Zen lantern-lit vibe so it's really better for older children (or date night). The best time to go with little kids is during its 30-minute tea ceremonies, which are held every first and third Sunday of the month between noon and 2pm. For $20 a piece, you get Japanese matcha (green tea) and sweets like black sesame crème brûlée or chocolate mochi (kind of like a chocolate rice dumpling). Email email@example.com for reservations.
Our daughter was much happier at Japadog (30 St. Marks Place), a casual Japanese hot dog joint. The atmosphere is counter-style fast food, with red plastic chairs and bright yellow walls detailing the history of the Japadog. We ordered the Tonkatsu, which arrived piled high with red and white cabbage, and drizzled with Japanese mayo. The deep-fried pork meat was tender, sweet and tangy. There are lots of other franks to choose from like the Terimayo (beef with teriyaki sauce, mayo and seaweed), Love Meat, (pork sausage with meat sauce and cheese) and the Croquette (pork sausage, fried cabbage and a mashed potato fried roll). Sides include "shaked fries" accompanied by shichimi (a common mix of Japanese spices including red chilli pepper) and garlic; curry; butter and shoyu (or soy sauce); aonori (powdered seaweed) or wasabi. There's even a hot dog-like dessert, the "Ice Age," fried buns with ice cream balls.
After lunch, we hit Toy Tokyo (91 Second Avenue). The front is filled with all kinds of inexpensive tchotchkes: sticker books, boxed candies, (from the likes of Hello Kitty, Pac-man and Betty Boop), figurines and bobbing heads, most under $10. The back is a serious collector's dream: aisles of action figures, from Marvel superheroes to Godzilla, safely tucked away in glass cabinets. One whole case was devoted to the Smurfs and various Snoopys, another to robots. And there were some really surprising novelty figures, like Benjamin Franklin, Moses and Jack Nicholson from The Shining. My daughter went nuts in here, especially as they had her favorite animal pencil erasers at the bargain price of .99 cents each.
While there are a ton of other Japanese restaurants to choose from, including fast food joints on St. Marks and fancy noodle spots on East 9th, for dinner we opted for Curry Ya (214 East 10th Street), which has bar-style seating around a stainless steel kitchen. The counter service was fast and courteous. My daughter downed the complimentary sweet pickled onions and red peppers, surprising as she hardly ever eats veggies without a fuss. The dishes are like Japanese Sloppy Joes with sauce over rice, so they're very kid-friendly. We all enjoyed the mild, thick curry soup served in a gravy boat. The beans were a bit stringy but interesting. Dessert was coffee Jell-O with cream for the adults and baked custard for the kid, a sweet end to an adventurous day.
As we headed for home, I gazed longingly at the Karaoke Sing Sing bar. Perhaps I'll visit another time, once my daughter's old enough to join in.