For most, the corner of Third Avenue and Ninth Street is an odd little intersection with St. Marks Bookstore and some pizza shops. It's easy to miss the block-and-a-half-long Stuyvesant Street, and more, to miss the open door, wedged up behind the bookstore, with its hard-to-see-in-sunlight red neon sign. But: walk through those doors and up one story in a small elevator, and you'll find yourself in Sunrise Mart, a gem of Japanese market—tucked away in plain sight.
Mr. Ishida has been the Sunrise Mart's manager since it opened in 1995. Back then, he told me, most of his customers were Japanese. Today, "the American customers are going up. They started cooking, and they needed soup stock, dashi, kombu. Now they are more than half, 60%." More American customers are good for business: seven years ago, Sunrise expanded to Soho (at 494 Broome Street); two years ago, they added a third outpost at 12 East 41st street, in midtown.
Sunrise Mart's layout seems not to have caught up with its English speaking clientele: most of the products, as they are imports, are in Japanese, and precious few have been labeled for non-speakers. Fortunately, the friendly staff is ready to step in should you have any questions. And anyways: you don't need to speak Japanese to see why many claim Sunrise Mart is their favorite spot to pick up Japanese goods in Manhattan.
The best thing about Sunrise Mart is its extensive and well-priced selection of fresh produce, sushi-grade fish, and meats. (Japanese pantry staples like soy sauce and rice wine vinegar may be ubiquitous these days, but fresh ingredients make a world of difference, too.) The first thing to catch the eye as you walk into the sunlit second story is the produce section, stocked with fruits and vegetables you definitely won't find at your corner supermarket. There are bunches of gobo, or burdock root, from Taiwan, bright yellow yuzu, radish sprouts, skinny Japanese eggplant, Korean peppers, and shiso leaves for spicing up a salad or decorating sashimi.
You'll also find a hearty collection of roots: daikon, renkon (lotus root), nagaimo, satoimo, and wasabi—as well as bags of fresh mushrooms, nashi (Asian pear), and Tokyo negi (similar to a green onion, and so named for its prevalence in Tokyo cooking).
The fresh fish selection is particularly impressive. One section is given over to pinks and oranges: tuna for sashimi, Hamachi for sushi, and salmon for sushi, as well as some extra-special delicacies, tobiko¸ bright orange flying fish roe, and tarako, a salted roe, in green and red. Then there is the silver and white: flounder, hokke, fluke, shishamo (literally, "Willow Leaf Fish," and similar to smelts), tiny sanma (Pacificy Saury, similar to mackerel), salmon and salted salmon, as well as several versions of "hiraki," which refers to fish that's been gutted, butterflied, and half-dried in the shade. There's purple octopus tentacles, regally curled, and for meat eaters there's razor thin slices of pork belly, butt and loin.
If you're not looking to cook, the second best thing about Sunrise Mart is its extensive selection of prepared foods, made daily in the kitchen on the premises. (Sunrise has been named among these pages as a great spot for lunch.) Colorful stacks of takeout containers are arranged neatly along the back wall, offering up Japanese (and some Korean) staples: salted squid, lotus root, blue crabmeat salad, radish salad, salted sesame leaves, marinated cucumbers, mushrooms and bean sprouts, and beef or black bean jo rim. There's sushi and onigiri (salmon, tuna, kombua, and vegetable) too, and at lunchtime you'll find bento boxes, omelets, and udon for take-out.
If you're just looking to stock your pantry, you won't be disappointed. Sunrise is surprisingly large for its location, with not an inch wasted. As Mr. Ishida put it, "we have a lot of items, and more than that, we have varieties of the same item. Like, many kinds of flours, not just one kind."
He's right: there are seven types of flour on hand for every possible application, eight types of miso, uncountable kinds of green tea (including elegant bags of matcha powder and tins of milk tea), and tofu, including the popular otokomae. There's seaweed (for soup and sushi), fresh and dried udon and soba noodles, panko, frozen gyoza and sauces, oils and vinegars to last a lifetime. There are bags of dried mushrooms and shrimp, for making your own dashi (soup base), as well most imaginable kinds of ready-to-make curry and ramen.
A corner carved out for sweets offers mochi ice cream, red bean cakes and (refrigerated) baumkuchen along with Pocky, marshmallows and gummies, and the requisite shrimp chips and rice crackers. There's even a small refrigerator dedicated to Japanese energy drinks (and another one for Asian beers.)
Beyond the food, Sunrise is something of a Japanese community center: a stack of newspapers greets you at the first floor elevator entrance; the elevator opens onto a small lobby that doubles as a bulletin board for announcements about town. The fresh produce shares wall spaces with more magazines and in the back there's a largish room lined with narrow shelves of pottery, rice cookers, beauty products and Japanese-language DVDs.
I asked Mr. Ishida what his favorite product is. He waved me away. "No question: tuna! My wife, she makes sushi."
4 Stuyvesant Street, 2nd Floor, New York, NY 10003 212-598-3040