New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

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The must-try Japanese street foods from Japan Fes

From fluffy pancakes to takoyaki, Japan Fes offered an impressive range of classics and novelties. Here’s where you can find some in the city.
Lauren Ng
(Lauren Ng for WSN)

The Manhattan food scene is already diverse and delicious, but throw in a Japanese food festival and the food frenzy spreads like wildfire. On Oct. 28, Japan Fes New York held its final day of street vendors, located closest to NYU since the festival’s first iteration in March.

Japan Fes transformed Astor Place into a bustling block of hungry customers with more than 50 vendors, complete with a Times Square-level of crowds and unexpectedly sunny weather. While the festival won’t return until next year, here are some of the highlights from Japan Fes — some even with locations you can visit year-round. 

Oconomi: The flavor bomb

An okonomiyaki, a Japanese pancake, placed on white plate with a white utensil. Red fabric with the Oconomi logo in the background.
An okonomiyaki pancake from Oconomi. (Lauren Ng for WSN)

It’s only fitting to begin with a street food as iconic as okonomiyaki. This dish hails from the Japanese cities of Osaka and Hiroshima, and the word’s two parts — okonomi and yaki — translate to “as you like” and “grilled” respectively. This shredded cabbage pancake is layered with flavor. At Japan Fes, Oconomi topped their Osaka-style okonomiyaki in a traditional fashion with Japanese mayonnaise, bonito flakes and a substantial amount of umami-filled okonomiyaki sauce — an essential aspect of this popular street food. Both crispy and moist yet sweet and salty, the pancake was one of the most flavorful bites of the festival. Oconomi also offered a version of okonomiyaki served with yakisoba — stir-fried Japanese noodles — comprising a modern combination of two beloved street foods.

Craving okonomiyaki close to campus now that Japan Fes is over? Kenka and Otafuku are two delicious options.

Softbite: The dessert for your Instagram feed — and your sweet tooth

Two Japanese cheesecakes with a green syrup and marshmallows on them in a white square container.
Japanese pancakes from Softbite. (Lauren Ng for WSN)

More typically a Japanese bakery dessert than a street food, fluffy Japanese cheesecakes and pancakes have jiggled their way to internet fame. Their online popularity was certainly reflected by the long line of customers waiting for the souffle pancakes from Softbite — a quaint Japanese brunch and dessert spot in Long Island City, roughly a half-hour train ride from NYU. 

While the signature cloud-like pancakes were easily one of the most aesthetic foods at Japan Fes, I enjoyed them beyond their presentation. The pancakes were charmingly spongy and fluffy as promised. I also appreciated the reserved level of sweetness in the “Very Matcha” pancake — a necessary balance for the accompanying sugary matcha glaze and bits of soft mochi.

Oh! Dango: The iconic sweet or savory treat

Two skewers of mochi, with five pieces on each skewer, are placed in a red-and-white-patterned rectangle holder. The two skewers are separated by a piece of seaweed.
A serving of mochi from Oh! Dango. (Lauren Ng for WSN)

You may already be familiar with mochi, the sticky Japanese rice cake often stuffed with ice cream — or offered in bite-sized pieces as a frozen yogurt topping. Beyond this, mochi takes on a multitude of forms in Japanese cuisine.

A trademark Japanese street food, dango refers to boiled or grilled skewered mochi balls that can be either sweet or savory. At Japan Fes, the street vendor Oh! Dango offered three flavors of grilled dango. I sampled two skewers, one sweet and one savory. One was sprinkled with kinako roasted soybean flour and brown sugar syrup, and the other was served with a piece of nori and a savory soy sauce. Together, I was met with a mouthwatering combination of salty and sugary flavors — a true testament to dango’s versatility. The dango’s crispy, grilled exterior and its soft, sticky mochi goodness offered a refreshingly well-rounded textural profile. While Oh! Dango doesn’t have a brick-and-mortar store, you can find sweet, boiled dango at mochii in the East Village.

KARLSBALLS: The street food classic

Six pieces of takoyaki placed in a white container.
A serving of Takoyaki from KARLSBALLS. (Lauren Ng for WSN)

While they might be covered by a mountain of bonito flakes, don’t let takoyaki’s concealed appearance fool you. These dough balls are a must-try of Japanese street food, traditionally filled with pieces of octopus, scallions and bits of tempura batter. Like okonomiyaki, takoyaki is usually topped with a substantial drizzling of Japanese mayonnaise and seaweed flakes. 

KARLSBALLS’s takoyaki was delightfully chewy and salty, quickly becoming a Japan Fes fan-favorite. Like other festival-goers, I was captivated by KARLSBALLS’ traditional takoyaki-making process. The vendor utilized a special pan of molded spheres, which allowed for consistent shape and bulk preparation. You can find the vendor primarily at New York City pop-ups and festivals, but for a sit-down experience, try DokoDemo’s takoyaki in the East Village. 

Kraken: The showstopper

Large rectangular Japanese cracker with an octopus inside it.
A rice cracker from Kraken Senbei. (Lauren Ng for WSN)

Yes, that cracker is probably larger than your head. And yes, there is a whole octopus inside of it. 

The first thing that struck me about Kraken was the line for its stand. Perhaps the most sought-after item of Japan Fes, their enormous rice crackers each embedded with an entire baby octopus were the talk of the town. With an octopus cracker in hand, I was stopped by several attendees asking where they could find the showstopping snack. 

These tako senbei, a type of Japanese rice cracker, are prepared in a large, square-shaped press. First, a ladle of batter is placed on the griddle, instantly followed by the octopus. Together, they are pressed and cranked into a crispy, airy, enormous cracker. Similar in flavor and texture to the shrimp crackers found in Asian grocery stores, the tako senbei were simultaneously familiar and novel. While the octopus itself was too hard to chew, the small independent vendor proved to be both a spectacle and a culinary delight.

Contact Lauren Ng at [email protected].

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