Review for: Izakaya Tanuki
Reviewer: Tom W., New York, NY
Brace yourself, because this is going to be a long review. Like, recipe-on-a-mommy-blog long. But I can’t tell you what a relief it was to find this place!
Some backstory: my husband was born in the sixteenth century. Usually, he isn’t too particular about food—he’s not the kind of undead to complain about preservatives or anything—but every now and then, he gets wistful for some of the dishes he ate as a boy. Especially this New Year’s soup called ozoni.
Wikipedia tells me that ozoni was always considered lucky, so that’s how it eventually became a New Year’s food. But I think my husband’s longing for it goes deeper than just tradition. Though he talks fondly about living in New York during the turn of the twentieth century, he only left Japan because he was running out of places where folks didn’t know he was undead. I think there are days he really misses Japan. On those days, he talks a lot about how he ate ozoni with the samurai, when they would gather in the banquet hall where he was a servant boy. He never became a samurai—blood makes my husband queasy—but they treated him as one of their own. Probably because it was his job to refill the beer. They’d get drunk, swap ghost stories, and slip him beer and ozoni.
Not many restaurants serve it, so on New Year’s Day (when he absolutely has to have it), I make it at home. Let me tell you: I’ve tried a million recipes. I’ve ordered specialty daishi from Tokyo. I’ve made the mochi by hand (literally, I bought a big ol’ mochi hammer). I’ve even tried cooking it over charcoal on a special grill. He’s so grateful that I try, but I can tell from his deflated expression that there’s always something off.
I think the secret ingredient is memory, and I can’t exactly buy nostalgia at H-Mart.
Anyway, last week we went out dancing and drinking near Saint Mark’s. We were pretty tipsy (read: trashed), but my husband wanted just one more drink and maybe something starchy to soak up the booze. We saw a sign hawking $3 Kirin, so we thought we’d give Izakaya Tanuki a try.
Boy howdy, am I glad we did.
The inside isn’t much to look at. It’s a really narrow train-car style restaurant and all the chairs are mismatched. They don’t bother with decorations beyond copy-paper advertisements for their specials that they’ve thumb-tacked to the walls. Their roof was leaking when we came, so all the servers were rushing around with brooms and buckets, trying to sweep away the leak. The host suggested we eat in their courtyard area out back.
It was freezing cold outside, so we were hesitant, but I’m so glad we gave it a go. Their outside area was lovely. Paper lanterns everywhere. Whatever magic they cast over the courtyard made it warm and pleasant. I asked my husband if this was what izakaya booths were like in the seventeenth century, when he was newly undead. He said no, but there was something familiar about the place that he couldn’t describe. I guess I’m the one with all the words in this relationship. (Clearly!)
We opened up the menu (giant, laminated, diner-style) and my husband brightened instantly. I’ll never forget the look on his face when he said in this little-boy whisper, “Tom! They have ozoni!”
Of course, we ordered it along with okonomiyaki, chicken gizzard yakitori, karaage, and a pitcher of Kirin. The total came to $45, so the price alone made me love this place. And the waitress (shout-out to Keiko!) could see that my husband was really excited about the ozoni, so she promised to “make it special.”
Speaking of the service! They’re LGBTQ+ and undead-friendly, obviously, so that’s a plus. I hate to admit that other reviews are correct: the service here is glacial. But everyone was really nice, and it makes sense the food came out slow considering they were preoccupied with their leak. Honestly, I was glad for the chance to spend a few extra minutes in their gorgeous courtyard, so this is less of a complaint and more of a feature. New Yorkers need to slow down, anyway.
The food! The okonomiyaki was an absolute delight. The pancake was doughy, but not undercooked. And it came so hot that the squid flakes danced in the steam. The yakitori and karaage were a little gristly, but my husband said that cartilage is what makes street food good, so I trust him on that.
The soup came out last. Drum roll, please! Folks… my husband… loved it. He never cries (not even when his cousin decided to return to death, and he was really broken up about that), but I swear the moment he brought the bowl to his lips, he misted up.
It smelled incredible—like the ocean on a hot day—so I had to try some. It was a little sweeter than the broth I’d been making, which I’m told is the Nara Prefecture style of ozoni.
My husband isn’t much of a talker (I do enough of that), but he couldn’t stop raving about the ozoni. He went on and on about how it tasted exactly like the soup he had as a boy. How the mochi was the right shape and size: round, about as big as a fist. And how the carrots were sliced so thin they were nearly transparent (I could never get the carrots like that: they looked like little discs of stained glass). He explained that everything in the soup is circular (mochi, carrots, even the taro) to symbolize harmony. But I guess the real selling point was that Keiko brought out a little bowl of kinako (roasted soybean flour) for my husband to dip his mochi in before eating. I asked him why he didn’t tell me that’s how he used to have it, and he confessed that he didn’t remember until now.
I was touched, and I think he touched the staff too. Keiko is undead from Kyoto, so she and my husband exchanged stories about old Japan all night. I won’t share her stories in case she doesn’t want them on the Internet, but he told her about how every New Year, he and his cousin used to compete over who could eat more mochi to see who would have better luck in the coming year. He’s never told me any of this before. Maybe because, like the kinako, the memories were buried over time.
After that, Keiko brought him more and more soup, even though she only charged us for one. My husband ate eight mochi that night, a very auspicious number (I think)!
We’ve come back a million times, and it’s just as good every visit. You have to try the eel tofu, okonomiyaki, and ozoni (obviously). Thanks again, Keiko and all the servers at Izakaya Tanuki. You’ve really done something special.
Oh, just a heads-up: Izakaya Tanuki can be hard to find. I know their address is listed on their website, but it’s not always there when you go. Keiko told us that if we take the 6 train past Astor Place, get off at Union Square, then get on the 6 again and circle back, you’re more likely to find it. But to be honest, if you’re really drunk, Izakaya Tanuki is always there.