Gil Asakawa's Nikkei View | In search of good Asian food
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In search of good Asian food

badsushi.jpgI’ve been looking for Asian restaurants in my area of Jersey City, and only having limited luck. Part of Jersey City is becoming “Hobokenized,” which is to say, the yuppies are overflowing from Manhattan and settling in parts of New Jersey that are closest to New York. But my part of Jersey City, which is close to where I work in Journal Square, has not been Hobokenized. And it probably won’t happen anytime soon.

Anyway, the one Asian cuisine I found right away was Indian food. There’s a concentrated South Asian community here and a stretch of Newark Avenue just off Journal Square is dotted with Indian restaurants. I’ve eaten at a couple of them so far, and they’re great.

I’ve also found a Vietnamese restaurant that’s a bit of a walk from the office, thanks to a co-worker’s recommendation. It’s not the greatest Vietnamese food I’ve ever had, but it’s a start. (I’ve also dined at a Vietnamese eatery closer to the yuppified part of town, and it was fine but still not up to my favorite Vietnamese places in Denver.)

The Korean owner of the Sunflower Deli, a sandwich and hot foods shop next door to my office, recommended a Korean restaurant not too far from my apartment but I haven’t gone yet.

I haven’t found a Chinese restaurant I want to try. I’ve seen some questionable-looking take-out joints, but those are bound to be American Chinese food: chop suey and sweet-and-sour pork. Not interested.

And, I came across one Japanese restaurant, not far from my apartment, New Ashiya.

I stopped by one day and picked up a menu. Not bad looking… it had sushi which I don’t judge a Japanese restaurant by, but it serves udon (the fat Japanese noodles in soup) and negimaki (thin sliced beef wrapped around green onions), which are good sign that the food is authentic. They also had tonkatsu (breaded pork cutlet), the one dish I always order on first visits.

I went back the other day and ordered a combination meal with negimaki and tonkatsu.

The rice was woefully undercooked,a bad sign right away. The negimaki was all right, but the tonkatsu was a sad sight. It was a decent size but only because the meat had been pounded paper-thin.

And the funniest sight was was the five pitiful pieces of California roll that came with the bento box. I ate two before I took a photo. The didn’t look like rolls. They looked like mis-shapen blobs that had been squeezed like Play-Doh.

The meal was a pale imitation of Japanese food.

As it turns out, the owners and staff of the restaurant are Chinese. This made me think about a topic I ponder from time to time: Is ethnic food more “authentic” when it’s made by a cook of that ethnicity?

Dyske Suematsu, the author of this article, thinks so when it comes to Japanese restaurants. I don’t know that I agree with his whole argument — he walks pretty wobbly along the line of racism (the guy who wrote the response at the end make some good points) — but I think his point is worth discussion.

Not that an Asian can’t make a good burrito (I wrote about two Chinese women who cook up some righteous burritos). And let’s face it, Latinos are far and away the ones who come to your teppan-yaki table at Benihana these days.

But as a general rule, I would wonder if I saw Asians running an Italian restaurant, or Caucasians running a Mexican restaurant. The food might be good, but I’d question its authenticity.

There’s a part of me that wants to blame the lame food at New Ashiya on the fact that the place is run by non-Japanese (the fact that they’re Chinese doesn’t matter, they could have been Caucasian) who are only serving Japanese food because it’s popular and most diners (in this place, they were almost all Caucasian or Latino) wouldn’t know the difference in quality, quantity or presentation.

That’s the aspect of Suematsu’s argument that I agree with. I think sometimes people open Japanese restaurants simply because it’s a popular cuisine right now, and they don’t really care about it. The Tokyo Joe’s chain — I don’t know if they’re available on the east coast — is awful, and most of the staff I’ve ever seen at their outlets is not Asian, never mind Japanese. Japanese food can be sold as healthy and hip. Tokyo Joe’s feels exploitative to me.

Now, I definitely know that Japanese can make some lame food too. I’ve been in Japanese restaurants owned and staffed by Japanese that I wouldn’t return to. But I do make that snap judgement — is it racist? — when I walk into a Japanese restaurant and don’t see Japanese behind the counter.Share your thoughts and help me think about this issue.