In The Midnight Hour: Sake Bar Hagi
Open Until: 3:00 am, 7 days
Drinking Until: 3:00 am, 7 days
Food Until: 2:00am, weeknights; 2:30am, Friday and Saturday
With its diminutive subterranean confines and nightly 3:00 am closing time, Midtown's Sake Bar Hagi is a real find in a neighborhood known more for Toys "R" Us than Tokyo—and a place that's as hard to find as it is to forget. Operating since 2003, the underground izakaya's hefty plates and flowing suds attract everyone from Japanese tourists and expats to Midtown office drones downing pitchers of Asahi to quell their work woes.
Located next to venerable ramen shop Sapporo and steps from the 49th street N-R-W entrance, Hagi's only street presence is a nondescript doorway. Those looking for neon signs and bright awnings will most likely walk right past it—but should you find yourself descending the narrow staircase, know that you're in for one of Times Square's best low-key drinking spots.
We arrived shortly past 1:00 am and were greeted by a chunky-haired woman sporting serious ear jewelry who turned out to be our server. The tables were mostly filled with Japanese, though a few gaijin sat scattered about. Seated along the wall at a blonde wood banquet, we enjoyed strained conversation with our neighbors—a couple from Osaka who'd just spent four days in Jamaica before leaving its sunny environs for a dose of winter chill, courtesy of the The Big Apple.
Hagi's broad menu covers a wide range of Japanese pub-style grub, known for being heavy on smoke and a generous use of the deep fryer. That said, the crisply fried baby sardines crowning a daikon salad ($7.50) had a lightness that matched the subtle dressing tossed with the radish slices. Bolstered by patches of seaweed, it was our favorite dish of the night. The portion easily feeds two.
A plate of assorted pickles ($5), unfortunately, curb-stomped the enthusiasm that started with the sardine salad for their sponginess, scarcity, and price tag.
From the yakitori section, we found that the chicken skin ($2/skewer) retained a pleasant char, but the tsukune (a type of chicken meatball) were almost mushy.
Takoyaki ($6.50) are one of Japan's great snack foods, executed well at Otafuku in the East Village where they're bathed in all manner of condiments. Hagi opts for a more refined presentation, flanked by a mound of grated daikon and ginger, and paired with a watery dipping sauce that was gentle on the palate. Bonito flakes were nowhere to be found, a disappointment for sure, but less so than the actual balls themselves, which clearly needed a few more minutes in their frying oil.
One of the kitschiest dishes in the city, the Neapolitan spaghetti ($9) arrived as a tangle of noodles, bacon, green peppers and onions in a ketchup-based sauce. Its taste is something like Memphis cult favorite barbecue spaghetti, and if it weren't for the unrendered pieces of bacon, it would've been a standout plate. In true kitsch fashion, the dish comes with a hulking tower of Kraft parmesan cheese and a bottle of tabasco sauce.
As its name suggests, Hagi's sake list is extensive; we found a bottle of Sho Chiku Bai (a nigori, unfiltered sake that's creamy-white as milk and studded with sediment) a bargain at $6 for the bottle.
Whether you're drinking in a group or sitting down for casual meal at the bar, Sake Bar Hagi offers a truly unique experience—a slice of the rising sun to be enjoyed before the sun rises. Even if the food isn't uniformly well-executed, it's still a spot to remember and a great Midtown find.
Sake Bar Hagi
152 West 49th Street, New York NY 10020 ()