Now that American diners have digested the rituals of the sushi bar and learned to drink their sake chilled, several more styles of casual Asian dining are poised to enter the mainstream and expand the comfort-food universe.
Modern (and often Westernized) noodle bars, izakaya taverns and pan-Asian small-plates eateries are beginning to pop up around the country. Some are branches of popular Asian eateries from Tokyo and London, while others are brands launched by American restaurant franchisers. Still others have won prestigious national culinary honors and critical acclaim.
With America's Asian population continuing to grow and a wave of young food-savvy diners embracing low-priced casual dining and exotic flavors, the time may be right for an Asian renaissance.
"There is such a fervor for it, a whole culture behind it," says David Chang, chef/owner of Momofuku Noodle Bar and Momofuku Ssäm Bar in New York. "People are appreciating it more, and they understand it's not just sushi."
The genre received a major boost last year at the James Beard awards when the Korean-American Chang was named rising star chef and his Momofuku Ssäm Bar was nominated for best new restaurant. Chang had built his reputation over the past four years with the tiny and sleek Noodle Bar, which serves bowls of ramen noodles in broth topped with high-quality organic ingredients.
In 2006, he opened the cafeteria-style Ssäm Bar (ssäm is Korean for "anything wrapped") to showcase dishes of meat and rice encased in flour pancakes. This spring, he plans to open Momofuku KO, a 14-seat restaurant also in New York that will serve creative "vaguely Asian" dishes, but "is really food without borders."
"Our goals from day one have never changed: Let's make something that's delicious regardless of authenticity," says Chang. "But let's be respectful of food, where it comes from, and make it with good technique. And make it affordable."
On a larger scale, two noodle-bar chains are staking their claims along the coasts.
Last year, the first two stateside versions of London's Wagamama chain opened in the Boston area, and more are planned for the East Coast. Wagamama, with 80 eateries in a dozen countries, features edgy decors, communal seating, multiple noodle options and entrees costing $9 to $14.
"The appeal of noodles is universal, no doubt about it," says Paul O'Farrell, chief operating officer. "We do a great family business because kids love noodles. Parents are becoming more conscious of what their kids are eating and are steering them clear of fast food. We have a kids' menu, but it's not patronizing —just smaller portions."
The Zao Noodle Bar chain, founded in Palo Alto, Calif., a decade ago, now has six locations in the Pacific Northwest, and further expansion is planned. The original concept prominently featured Japanese-style noodles, but those have been dropped in favor of Westernized Asian street-food dishes with Thai, Vietnamese and Chinese influences. Top sellers: ginger-garlic chile chicken and prawns and Vietnamese rice noodles with protein toppings.
"The spice and aromatics are a little dumbed-down compared to what you would find in Asia," says CEO Matthew Baizer. "But we're fresh. We take the essences of Asian flavors and add them to reasonably priced American dishes, and it has worked."
Another concept on the horizon is the Japanese izakaya. These rustic neighborhood taverns feature wide selections of beers, sakes and shochus (a vodka-like spirit), and small plates of food that range from steamed edamame and other bar snacks to sushi, tempura and grilled-meat skewers. Most dishes are designed to be shared, and prices generally are lower than those in more formal Japanese restaurants.
"Izakaya dining is an adventure in which you design your meal as the evening progresses, ordering dishes as the mood takes you," says Tokyo resident Mark Robinson, author of Izakaya: The Japanese Pub Cookbook due out in May in the USA. "It can sometimes be hit and miss, but the overall experience is deeply satisfying, and the misses don't really cost anything; in fact they add to your learning."
Casual, independently owned versions already have strong footholds in areas with large Japanese populations, such as New York and the San Francisco Bay Area, but chain versions with more varied and upscale food options may not be far off: Two successful izakaya franchises in Japan have opened versions in Seattle (Wann Izakaya) and Los Angeles (Torafuku).
More significantly, the U.S. company that created the national chain of P.F. Chang's China Bistro restaurants has tested the waters in Scottsdale, Ariz., with an izakaya-inspired concept called Taneko Japanese Tavern. The menu, which incorporates organic and seasonal ingredients, embraces several Japanese cooking styles and East-West hybrid dishes such as Kobe beef burgers and tempura fish and chips.
"The idea was to take the comfort aspects of American taverns and Japanese taverns and produce an izakaya," says Rick Federico, CEO of P.F. Chang's China Bistro. Though Federico says Taneko has been successful during its two-year run, it hasn't generated the high-volume business the company requires to launch it as a national chain. P.F. Chang's is selling a majority of its stake in Taneko back to the founding parties, who may try to tweak the approach.
"Taneko may have been a little early into the marketplace, but these types of restaurants will become increasingly popular," says Federico. "They offer new and interesting flavor profiles, and U.S. consumers are much more adventuresome than they were 10 years ago."