The strip of St. Marks Place between 3rd and 2nd Avenue has become a little Tokyo, crowded with Izakaya bars and Asian eateries. Oh! Taisho and its sister bar, Yakitori Taisho three doors down, were two of the first Japanese restaurants on this strip. Both places have huge menus of Yakitori, Robata, rice balls, Ramen, and sauteed noodle dishes, almost all of which are excellent – the pork belly skewer and the El Hira (skate wing) are must orders, and both places serve huge pitchers of Kirin and Sapporo draft beer. These are pretty much perfect joints to spend an evening hanging out, drinking and sampling a wide range of small plates of food.
The Dumplings: Oh! Taisho serves shrimp shumai, gyoza, chikuwa with cheese and takoyaki. I have been on a takoyaki kick lately. These dumplings have a unique texture; a soft, doughy pancake like outer wrapper within which is nestled a slightly chewy nugget of octopus tentacle.
Takoyaki – Like delicate kelp fronds waving in warm ocean currents, the strands of slivered bonito that adorn these dumplings should wave and undulate in the convection currents of heat that waft off freshly cooked takoyaki. Because the shaved bonito flakes used by Oh! Taisho are heavier wide Chow Fun size sheets rather than long slivers, the bonito on the takoyaki served on our recent visit to Oh! Taisho did not wave to use in welcome. These takoyaki also didn’t come drizzled with tangy Japanese mayo, but instead were served with a side of mayo. While not hitting all the marks for the perfect plate of takoyaki, they were nevertheless delicious with the sweet tang of the Worcestershire sauce and the brininess of the bonito flakes.
Gyoza – Oh! Taisho’s gyoza were aggressively seared on the bottom, just the right side of charred, on the bottom, while the tops of the dumplings were steamed to supple perfection. This perfect preparation delivered a crispy crunch and soft noodle texture simultaneously in each bite. The pork and chive filling was well seasoned and tasty.
Chikuwa with Cheese – It is not exactly clear to me if chikuwa count as dumpling, but they do have some very dumpling like qualities. Chikuwa are hollow tubes made by steaming or broiling a batter made of fish paste, salt, sugar, starch and egg white that has been wrapped around a bamboo stick or a metal rod. After removing the bamboo or rod the resulting tubes are then stuffed with a variety of fillings. Oh! Taisho serves a batter dipped and fried chikuwa stuffed with a mild, soft cheese. The chikuwa had a texture like a slightly rubbery stuffed squid body, so as I bit into it, the tube squeezed inwards and squirted hot cheese into my mouth. Sort of an eating a soup dumpling rookie mistake, so let these cool a little before you try and eat them. Overall the taste was fairly mild and they could have used some spicy or tangy sauce to dip them in.
Dipping Sauce: The gyoza dipping sauce was heavy on the vinegar to the point of being an overpowering and one note experience, the gyoza were better eaten without the sauce. Takoyaki usually come with Japanese mayo drizzled on top of them, but at Oh! Taisho the mayo comes on the side as a dipping sauce. Japanese mayo is thinner than U.S. mayo and is usually sold in squeeze bottles. It is typically made with MSG and apple cider vinegar or rice vinegar rather than distilled vinegar, so it tastes tangier and more savory than U.S. mayo. For me the mayo is an integral part of the takoyaki, so if you order them at Oh! Taisho make sure you dunk them in the mayo.
The Location: Oh! Taisho is on St. Mark’s place (east 8th street) in the East Village of New York City, which along with east 9th street is becoming a center for casual Japanese dining in New York City.