In search of good Asian food

I’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.

9 Comments to "In search of good Asian food"

  1. Lynda's Gravatar Lynda
    July 28, 2006 - 11:07 am | Permalink

    Hi Gil!

    We were at a sushi restaurant last night seated at a table next to the sushi bar where the ubiquitous white-clad sushi chefs were busily rolling rolls and yabbering in Korean … all of them. (I am Chinese, but I know language differences!)

    Did the food taste different after this revelation? Not really, the thought did stick in the back of my mind for the entire meal, so I mentioned it to my fiance on the way home. He used to work at a sushi restaurant and he said, ‘At least they were Asian’ because all the cooks he worked with were Latino.

    You know what I mean, you go get some chow mein and person who takes your order is Asian, but the cook is not, so authenticity just a face value.

    Plus I have a super secret Cuban place I frequent only to find out it’s Chinese-owned. Let’s face it, we can rock all cuisines!

    Come to LA and I’ll take you there – the guy says his name is ‘Mando’ but he’s Gary Wong!!!

  2. gil's Gravatar gil
    July 28, 2006 - 11:45 am | Permalink

    Hi Lynda, thanks for your thoughts. Yeah, I struggle with this idea of authenticity even while I also applaud and welcome diversity, even in dining. Cuisine mashups, as it were.

    I’m pretty conflicted about this, and I think it comes down to it bugs me when anyone of any ethnicity opens a lame Japanese restaurant just because it’s a fad cuisine.

    When I take “Asian” out of the equation, I’m actually even more of a purist when it comes to Italian, Mexican, Ukrainian or kosher delis. I’m not an absolutist about it, but I do feel it’s going to be more “real” if the people who are cooking the food are of that ethnicity.

  3. Paul M's Gravatar Paul M
    July 28, 2006 - 12:26 pm | Permalink

    Welcome to NJ Gil!

    Now you know what I went through when I first moved in from the west. Speaking of Asian food, there is a pretty good restaurant in Collingswood, NJ.

    37 Crescent Boulevard (Route 130)
    Collingswood, Camden County, New Jersey
    (856) 854-9773

    Unfortunately it looks like you are quite a bit north of Collingswood. But if you ever come down this way be sure to check it out.
    There is a market that might be a bit closer to you and also maybe more like the kind of Asian food store that you were used to in the west. There is a ramen place, tempura restaurant and two Japanese bakeries. My boys love to go here because of all the Japanese candies, drinks and snacks they sell.

    Mitsuwa Market Place
    595 River Rd EdgeWater NJ 07020

    Since you are pretty close to NYC, there is a listing of Japanese Markets at this website:

    You mentioned authenticity of the food in relation to who is preparing the food and I tend to agree with you there. However, it seems to me that you can also tell how authentic a restaurant is by also looking at the patrons. If a Japanese restaurant is full of Japanese customers, well then it probably is pretty authentic.

  4. July 29, 2006 - 9:49 am | Permalink

    That begs the question of what constitutes “authentic” cuisine. For one thing, good chefs (or merely good cooks) have always modified (hopefully, improving) recipies, making them their own. Food evolves, sometimes for the better; sometimes for the worse (i.e. fast-food hamburgers, etc.)

    So, the question is: when my mom made Italian food, was it less authentic becauyse she was Hugarian-Jewish-American than when the same dishes were made by Nita Testaverde, the Italian-American next door who taught my mom how to make the food and supplied the receipies? For that matter, was Nita’s creations (which were all wonderful) less authentic than her born-in-Italy mother who had taught them to her?

    When I lived in California (where you really can find no decent pizza, despite what the natives kept telling me), I often felt that the “designer pizzas” created by the likes of Wolfgang Puck, et. al (while perfectly delicious) ought to be called something other than “pizza.” But then natives of Chicago think that the thin-crust pizza we consume at the ubiquitous “Ray’s” here in NY is not “authentic” pizza either.

  5. Ed Suguro's Gravatar Ed Suguro
    August 2, 2006 - 2:00 am | Permalink

    I don’t mind if the restaurant food isn’t prepared or staffed by the ethnic group the restaurant represents. One Nikkei restauranteur once said that you can’t get Sansei or Yonsei to do this kind of work anymore–that is, being servers or cooks. As you mentioned, the cooks at Benihana are almost all Latino these days. I sometimes patronize teriyaki restaurants that are run by Koreans; and while they serve Japanese as well as Korean food, the Japanese foods have a Korean touch to it that doesn’t taste authentic Japanese, but I like it anyway. As long as the food tastes good, I don’t care what ethnic group prepared it.

  6. August 15, 2006 - 10:30 am | Permalink

    There is a korean resteraunt on westide avenue and fairfax, they also serve sushi.

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