Editor's note: Izakayas are down-to-earth drinking joints in Japan that also serve food—as in, more than just snacks. They've become more and more prominent in the New York City landscape, and nobody here at Serious Eats knows them better than our izakaya bureau chief, Tam Ngo. She recently reported on Ariyoshi, and she's back with her third izakaya review.
In the quest for the city's best izakaya, no other izakaya has presented the kind of ethical dilemma Rockmeisha has. By revealing its soulful appeal, there's the danger that what we enjoy about it—its quietude, its bonhomie, everything from the Sun Records soundtrack to the stellar, rustic menu—will go the way of the dodo.
But if any izakaya ever deserved success, it is Rockmeisha. This humble bar serves robustly flavored specialties from the island of Kyushu, a focus that's evident in even the smallest details: fresh yuzu kosho; thin, muscular Hakata noodles; mentaiko insinuated everywhere.
In describing the food at Rockmeisha, we use the adjectives salted and spiced as opposed to salty and spicy because the seasoning here is almost faultless. Present yet unobtrusive, the salt and chili enhance rather than dominate.
Do you love chicken? Do you love wings? Skip the karaage and stick with this. The juices gush the mouth like a hot chicken geyser.
The skin on the grilled mentai-rubbed wings is salted with the chili tingle of mentaiko. Mentaiko is pollack roe, sometimes fermented in a mix of chili, kombu, yuzu and sake. It's a food that originated in Korea and has since become a trademark flavor in Kyushu cooking.
At Rockmeisha, mentaiko is the ideal foil to scorched meat. The wings here had even the vegetarian among us licking his chicken-soaked fingers.
For the meat-shy, Rockmeisha offers a number of pleasing alternatives.
Croquettes are mashed potato patties breaded in Panko crumbs and deep-fried. They're often studded with vegetables but the elephant garlic croquette here is a sweet, savory surprise.
The tofu and mushroom steak is made with fresh Nakamuta tofu, pan-seared and topped with a shiitake mushroom, dashi, and sake glaze. The result is voluptuous and umami-rich.
The custard-like yakko is also made with silken Nakamuta tofu. It offers a nice reprieve from the meat fry and is served here with a thumb-smudge of yuzu kosho.
The orange version of yuzu kosho is made of yellow yuzu macerated with red togarashi chili and salt. Yuzu is a peppery kind of citrus that tastes like a cross between grapefruit and lime. Zested, the piquant, rough paste pairs well with tofu, grilled meats, and fried foods.
With tubed, bottled, and jarred versions of commercial yuzu kosho, the taste of citrus is faint at best. But the potency of Rockmeisha's paste rocketed us back to the memory of tasting yuzu kosho for the first time — home-made in Kyushu. Needless to say, Rockmeisha's is utterly AWESOME.
The tonsoku (or grilled pig toe) is a chewy and slightly sticky collagen. The roasted skin's not quite as salted or as crispy as at Hakata Tonton, but the tonsoku here is almost as good. Note again the yuzu kosho.
Rockmeisha's toothsome purple rice is a nice alternative to the white rice offered everywhere else.
Served with bouncy snap, the fun of eating tako-butsu is for texture more than taste. Rockmeisha serves this dish with freshly grated wasabi.
Miso Brussels sounds promising, but the sprouts lack caramelization.
The halibut yakisoba is most enjoyed for the toasty burn of the noodle crust, pried from its cast iron plate. The halibut could stand to be fresher, however.
The interior of the karaage yields juicy, dark-meat chicken, but the crust lacks crisp and suffers from over-breading.
Porkberry, daikon, and tasted salt is a pork belly dish that could use more braising. Its meaty fibers are a tough chew.
The takobo is fine but only slightly memorable.
Rockmeisha offers a small selection of sake as well as Sapporo on draft. Though the Yatsushika sake is a fair bargain, it's a bit sweet for our tastes. The Sumiyoshi, on the other hand, is a crisp sake that better complements Rockmeisha's rich and salted offerings.
Not every dish will make the Izakaya Hall of Fame, but dishes range from decent to excellent. Though service is sweet and occasionally addled, this lends the place an added charm.
So, go on. Soothe yourself with the dulcet tones of Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash, and enjoy the soul food of Japan. Rock your bad self at Rockmeisha.
11 Barrow Street, New York NY 10014 (b/n W 4th Street and 7th Avenue; map)