On a late July evening in New York City, it’s 93 degrees and 100 percent humidity, the air the consistency of pea soup. Mayor de Blasio has warned residents to stay inside during the heat wave, but we at Village Yokocho have chosen to ignore him. And why shouldn’t we? There’s no better joint to devour sautéed lotus root and fried quail eggs on a stick, spiky chargrilled yellowtail collar and sizzling skillets of okonomiyaki at this late hour.
Located at the funny diagonal intersection of Stuyvesant Street, East 9th Street and Third Avenue that anchors the neighborhood’s Little Tokyo, Village Yokocho opened in 1995, billing itself as the East Village’s first izakaya. It’s on the second floor of a complex that houses the bakery Panya, the Sunrise Mart market and Angel’s Share (one of the city’s first hidden cocktail bars, accessible only from Yokocho itself). Its low prices and late hours appeal to homesick Japanese expats, local weirdos and a steady stream of NYU students.
When I moved from Chicago to attend NYU and discovered the clandestine, low-ceilinged restaurant strung with paper lanterns and filled with smoky fried smells, it felt like all of my feverish visions of a bohemian late-night New York had been realized. The ramshackle room, with its U-shaped bar, cramped tables and bandanna-clad yakitori cooks yelling in Japanese was a trove, as was its seemingly endless menu, filled with drinking food like raw salted octopus and beverage options beyond simply sake, warm or cold.
Fifteen years later, I live half a block from Yokocho. I’m not a regular, but I’m there often enough to see that the handwritten specials are always the same. And so, in the midst of the heat wave, when I climb the stairs and emerge into Yokocho’s glow, the scene is familiar: a Sapporo poster featuring smiling Japanese women in bathing suits, a bar strewn with sake carafes and empty beer pitchers, a couple munching on raw shrimp and their deep-fried heads, a table full of heavily tattooed Japanese hipsters wearing beanies, hip-hop blaring from tinny speakers, peeling yellow paint.
At the counter, I order a sake and raise it in a low-key salute to two men surrounded by eight empty glasses. The younger of the two, Matt, an aspiring sculptor from Seattle, has just met his drinking buddy, Hiro, in a local hostel, even though Hiro lives in New York. “Sake, beer, shochu!” says Hiro, pointing at the glasses in front of him and then pantomiming falling asleep. While the people sidling in and out of Angel’s Share’s inconspicuous door are there for fancy cocktails, Yokocho is a cheap beer-and-sake kind of place—a place you end up after a night on the town.
Further down the counter, a couple from the Upper East Side is painting the East Village red for the first time since having a baby. “We haven’t been here in years, but it looks exactly the same,” says the husband. “We don’t want to go home!” the wife exclaims, ordering another pitcher of beer. “Every time I go out with them, I get so drunk,” says their friend, barely looking up from a furious bout of texting. They begin to argue over how long it’s been since their last visit, and in that moment I am relieved to not have children; there is comfort in knowing this late-night alterna-universe is available to me at any given moment.
As last call rolls around, cooks plastic-wrap skewers of quail eggs and raw beef. A faint smell of bleach floats above the paper lanterns. Buzzed, tired, I amble downstairs. The cluster of hipsters is standing outside, using phones to illuminate a compatriot’s bare torso, which is covered in an intricate geometric pattern. I pause to admire the craftsmanship on this half-naked stranger, and one of the hipsters tells me they’re all in town for a tattoo convention at the Hilton. “You should come!”
I thank them for the offer and turn to go. Next month, I’ll be moving, leaving New York for the West Coast. In my bones, I know this will be the last time I make the long half-block trek home from Village Yokocho.