NEW YORK – In a land fabled — albeit with a touch of hyperbole — as the mecca of restaurants, Shuho Yagi has found a cozy new niche.
After arriving as a penniless immigrant from Japan three decades ago, Yagi has opened 11 Japanese restaurants in Manhattan that challenge the American palate with such Japanese staples as “tako-yaki” octopus dumplings, miso ramen and “soba” buckwheat noodles.
“I intend to live here permanently,” Yagi said. “That is why I’m making the sort of stuff I want to eat myself.
“I love to eat,” he added while explaining his idea of how to turn a no-frills restaurant into a genuine ethnic gastronomic experience.
The business of eating and feeding himself, perhaps, lies at the root of Yagi’s 31-year saga — from dropping out of college in Japan to becoming a moderately successful entrepreneur who has earned kudos from restaurant critics at The New York Times.
A native of Hasaki in Ibaraki Prefecture, Yagi embarked on his U.S. adventure in 1968 at age 21 after giving up plans to complete a college education. He came to America by ship, sailing third-class on a passenger liner.
Once in America, he settled in a largely black neighborhood in Philadelphia, where — in order to feed himself — he held a job at a local restaurant as a dishwasher and waiter.
“I thought if I worked at a restaurant I would at least earn enough to get three meals a day,” he said.
Besides the meals, Yagi also learned the fundamentals of the restaurant business.
He made his big move in 1976 and traveled to New York to open a vegetable stand in Manhattan’s East Village. That was the start of his entrepreneurial career.
Today, as the proud purveyor of folksy Japanese food, Yagi has developed a business strategy that has caught the fancy of the New York dinner set: give your customers the real stuff, nothing fancy.
He called the soba restaurant he set up on 9th Street in East Village simply Soba-ya, or Noodle Shop.
The interior of Soba-ya is authentic Japanese, plain and unpretentious, which seems to appeal to the mainly young clientele. And the dishes they order — “zaru soba” (cold noodles served on a bamboo basket), “tempura soba” (noodles topped with tempura) — show they are not first timers to the shop.
“The stuff we serve here really is nothing fancy,” Yagi said. He vows the noodles at Soba-ya are freshly made at the shop each morning.
Yagi also insists he has not changed his soba recipe to meet American tastes.
“If we did that, soba wouldn’t be soba,” he said.
Yagi has applied the same philosophy to his tako-yaki takeout restaurant, which consists of a fast-food counter just 2 meters wide.
Apart from tako-yaki, the menu includes “okonomi-yaki” pancakes with mixed toppings and “yaki-soba” fried noodles.
“I want my customers to know the taste of Japan,” Yagi said.
At Yagi’s new ramen restaurant, the menu is keyed to variations of miso ramen, a simple yet popular dish.
Yagi detests artificial flavoring. “Taste, mood and service — these are the things that draw customers back,” he said.
While he is no chef, Yagi obviously has plenty of ideas on how to stay on top in New York’s fiercely competitive restaurant market.
He said his next project is to open a restaurant that offers a gastronomic trip of the fabled Silk Road.
“What’s important is to open a novel restaurant, something that you have never seen in New York.
“If I were better at borrowing money, my business would grow a lot faster,” he said.
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