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. She blogs at goodiesfirst.com.
Country of origin: Japan
Locations worldwide: About 680 in Indonesia, Japan, Singapore, Taiwan, and the US
NYC locations: One in the East Village and one in Midtown
Yakiniku, a Japanese take on Korean barbecue, is as elemental as meat and fire, and Gyu-Kaku has streamlined the experience for Americans in a few select cities. New York City has two branches of the anti-Benihana grill-it-yourself chain.
The Cooper Square location is spacious; each table is roomy with a built-in grill. Dim lighting and dark wood help create a sense of seclusion even when the restaurant is crowded.
While there are a number of offerings to slap on the burner, the majority are varieties of beef, from revered Kobe to humble cow's tongue. The focus is on accessible and crowdpleasing cuts, not intestines, tripe, or even the octopus that you'll find on the menu in their Asian locations. Consequently, the plates (and prices) can start to add up, especially considering the dainty portions. It's worth noting that Gyu-Kaku has happy hours on the early side, 5 to 6 p.m. and after 9:30, with discounted beer and food.
Premium kalbi short ribs ($13) are chunky and well-marbled with a pleasant chewiness, while the thin negi-tan ($9)—tongue served with lemon slices and chopped green onions—is minerally and a bit less tender.
Two sauces, a sweet and spicy dip and a ponzu, are provided for dunking, but they aren't really necessarily since the meat has been marinated and is quite flavorful on its own. There are supposedly six marinades ranging from teriyaki to pesto. I didn't voice a preference and suspect that the kalbi got the standard sweetened soy and mirin treatment.
The asparagus ($5) arrives tucked into a foil packet, which essentially steams it when put into contact with heat. But there's no reason why you can't take the spears out and place them on the grill individually so that you can get a little sear on them.
In hindsight, ahi tuna ($10) was an odd choice since the cubes are better as sashimi than cooked. A sturdier fish like the sea bass might be a better option for the grill.
Kurobuta sausages ($6) were the wild card of the items we ordered. Cut to curl when grilled, they were fun and German-esque with a dab of mustard on the side.
The reason for Gyu-Kaku's popularity is clear: it's tasty Japanese barbecue for beginners. The staff is attentive and helpful (though they'll prod you to over-order) the menu is illustrated with lots of photos and doesn't stray into exotica, but once you've mastered this concept you could move on to the advanced level at Yakiniku West or Takashi.
Gyu-Kaku 34 Cooper Square, New York, NY 10003 (map) (212) 475-2989
805 Third Avenue, 2nd Floor, New York, NY 10022 (map) (212) 702-8816
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