Just a few days ago, I had a question on a blog post from almost two years ago about where to get good Japanese eats here in NYC. Now, finding Japanese food in general is no trick - it's everywhere! But finding the good vegan stuff may not be so easy, precisely because there are so many places to choose from. And picking up a little something on the run is always a skill best gleaned from the locals.
Of course I can only speak from my personal experience, and given that I've been an office slave since I came to this funny little part of the country, I can speak pretty knowledgeably about Midtown East. As luck would have it, this happens to be a GREAT place to find Japanese vittles. As I mentioned in my post from way back when, 47th Street between 3rd Avenue and Lexington is a nice epicenter of all things Japanese.
On 51st between 3rd and 2nd Aves lives Tanaka, a place near and dear to my heart for two reasons. 1) It's the first place I ever experienced a peanut roll - yes, maki with peanuts as the filling, which is strangely delicious, especially when they also include avocado. 2) The wacky, 4 foot tall plastic Japanimation figure that stands outside the front door beckoning you to come inside! He never fails to put a smile on my face. Other standouts here include the sweet potato roll and the mango roll. (Trust me, after working in Midtown for five years, these things are exciting. Tanaka is a pretty small place, and if you show up during lunch with more than one other person, expect a long wait. At any other time of day, you'll waltz right in. But don't be surprised if you feel like you're sitting in the lap of the strangers at the next table.
I've only recently discovered Tanzen on 2nd Avenue near 53rd, a restaurant that is positively enormous for a Manhattan scale. It's lovely too, with a central sort of waterfall. It's a bit more expensive for the three roll special (that's what you get for a waterfall), but they are much better at handling large groups and are significantly less crowded. They too feature the beloved peanut avocado roll; mango's not on the menu, but my guess is they'd make it if you asked. It's a good place for an office birthday.
A few blocks south (45th between 3rd Ave and Lex) there is now a rice ball place called Oms/b. It's tiny, and mostly caters to the Midtown lunch crowd, so if you stop in on a weekday between 12 and 2:30 pm, don't plan on sitting down. They generally have at least three or four all-vegetable and/or tofu varieties of omusubi (also known as onigiri) on hand. Don't get the soup combo deal though: when last I checked, all of their soups were made with a fish base. (This makes me shake my fist at the sky demanding, "but why? WHY?!?" in frustration.)
Are there Japanese places further south (like, below 14th Street)? Sure! Plenty! But once I'm down there I tend to go to the actual vegan restaurants... though I am still waiting for the day that someone realizes there should be a vegan Japanese place. I will be up in there like white on rice.
OK, so that's all fine for sit-down, service meals, but what about grab-and-go food? Well, there is no shortage of Japanese markets. I'm a sucker for these places for one main reason: DAIFUKU! I adore anything that's made of rice flour dough. Fill it with sweet red bean paste and cover it with sesame seeds, and I'm like putty in your hands. Japanese markets never fail me for these sweet treats, that somehow pack a ridiculous amount of sugar (often around 60 grams). Dainobu on 47th Street is really a full blown, if small, grocery store, and it does not disappoint in the daifuku department. Or in any other department, for that matter. There are many prepared meals here, but careful label reading is required.
There is a great little Japanese market much further downtown, not far from Astor Place, called Sunrise Mart - though it's a little tricky to find. It's upstairs, so you have to take an elevator! It's above St. Mark's Bookstore. Though it's well known among the neighborhood college students and hipsers, and everyone else for that matter, the majority of other shoppers that I usually see there are Asian family types going about their shopping for dinner. Make sure to check the far back corner - it's a hectic array of merchandise, and you might just find yourself a pretty little tea pot.
Not far from that up by 10th Street there's a much bigger place called M2M (Morning 2 Midnight). This place is predominately, though less specifically, Japanese, and has a more pan-Asian feel to it. There's a tiny seating area up in the front corner, if you want to sit down for five minutes to wolf down your avocado roll. Just around the corner really, at 2nd Ave and St. Mark's (8th Street), you'll find JAS Mart, which has two other locations as well - on 23rd just East of the Flatiron building, and on Broadway above 110th in Harlem.
For any newbies out there, packaged foods are pretty easy. But in restaurants, some things to watch out for: miso can be made with fish stock, bonito flakes are made of fish (but can often just be left off), and tempura batter is sometimes made with egg. Kani is crab, so that's a no go. But oshinko is pickled cabbage, daikon is radish, and ume or umeboshi are pickled plums. And while natto is technically vegan, you really might not want to go there...
So there you go. Be safe, have fun... peanut avocado rolls for everyone! :D