Editor's note: In "Fast Food International," Krista Garcia will take us around New York to the many international fast food chains that have landed in the five boroughs.
Country of origin: Japan
Locations worldwide: Over 1,400 in ten countries including Australia, Indonesia, and the US
NYC locations: One, in Times Square
Even with a history dating back to 1899, Japan's Yoshinoya serves fast food in the modern sense of the phrase: quickly, cheaply, with less than appetizing results. However, that doesn't put a damper on the Times Square hordes testing the limits of the orange-and-white chain's 82-person-capacity. On a chilly Saturday evening, tourists were jockeying for seats and resorting to sharing plastic booths with strangers as if they were eating dim sum in Chinatown.
I wish they were serving shrimp dumplings and pork buns, but settled for what Yoshinoya was founded on, the beef bowl ($5.49). Thin, slightly fatty slices of meat are stewed with onions in a sauce sweet from sugar and mirin and served atop a heaping portion of rice. The one-dish meal is filling, while veering into airplane food territory—it's hard to warm to the steamed cabbage, carrot coins and broccoli. Little slivers of pink pickled ginger and a shake of chile powder can help perk up the contents of the Styrofoam bowl. Teriyaki-sauced chicken cutlets ($5.09) are an alternative.
The list of sides is short--really, there's no reason to stray from the rice bowls--and includes the peculiar "non-dairy milk" clam chowder, flan, and inoffensive sesame wings ($4.09) coated in a light, sweet glaze.
A hip-high refrigerated case of sushi sits across from the counter of cash registers. The spicy tuna rolls ($3.89) are odd even by pre-packaged standards. No one expects Masa level quality for under five bucks, but the flaked fish is more like what you'd find in a can of StarKist to be mixed with mayonnaise, American tuna sandwich-style. It's cross-cultural sushi, to be sure.
Like many of the pure fast food transplants--Jollibee also comes to mind--Yoshinoya's core audience is clearly people who grew up with the brand. Americans may appreciate some of the quirks, but without the history nostalgia can't trump taste.