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.
About the author: Krista Garcia is a freelance writer and librarian (who does not work with books). Being obsessed with chain restaurants and Southeast Asian food, she would have no problem eating laska in Elmhurst and P.F. Chang's crab rangoon in New Jersey on the same day. She blogs at Goodies First.