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Feb 16, 2011 06:10 PM

Saburi – Interesting and Tasty Wafu Chuka (Japanese-Style Chinese Food)

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It seems like almost every culture has its’ own version of Chinese food. Wafu Chuka 味風中華 is Japan’s version of Chinese food and to my knowledge Saburi is New York’s only Wafu Chuka restaurant. While I’m generally not much of a fan of fusion food and I don’t really like American-Chinese food, for some reason I do like certain Japanese-Chinese, Korean-Chinese and Indian-Chinese food, so I was glad to find this place. I’ve actually been going here quite a bit because it’s close to my girlfriend’s apartment. At this point, I’ve probably tried around 60-70% for the menu, but this post is going to be about some of their better dishes.

The head chef and owner’s name is Jun Cui. He trained under Iron Chef Chen Kenichi in Japan and I believe he is ethnically Chinese. I haven’t met him, but some of the chefs are definitely ethnic Chinese who lived in Japan as I’ve heard them come out and speak to people in unaccented Mandarin and then turn around and talk to their staff in unaccented Japanese (quite impressive).

The restaurant is clean and has decent ambiance, but nothing to write home about. It has off-white walls with pictures of shadow puppets on the walls as the chef is a practitioner of this dying art ( and if you look around you’ll find a picture of Jun Cui and Chen Kenichi on the wall when they were both much younger. They also have a bar with various sakes, Chinese liquors and some very strong liquor that they infuse with various interesting things (herbs, berries and even snake).

On to the food:
- Kaori Chicken: This is probably my overall favorite dish here. The dish consists of sliced fried chicken over a bed of a salad with a light ponzu-type of sauce that has a lot of minced daikon in it. The chicken is beautifully fried, crispy on the outside, not oily or heavy at all. The sauce and salad complement it perfectly. This is definitely a must get dish here. 8/10
- “Peedan” Tofu: This is always on their special menu. It consists of diced pidan (Chinese preserved egg) over a very soft creamy tofu with a salty sesame oil sauce. I like this dish quite a bit as well. The pidan’s creamy flavor with the tofu and the saltiness of the sesame oil sauce complement each other really well. Another dish I definitely recommend getting here. 7.75/10
- Ban Ban Chicken: This is a cold sliced chicken dish in a thick sesame sauce. The chicken is surprisingly still quite tender and the sesame sauce is thick and flavorful. If you like thicker sesame sauces then you will like this dish. I think it’s pretty good although my GF is less of a fan of it. 6.75/10
- Gomoku Chahan: Chahan is fried rice and when done correctly, I think Japanese fried rice rivals any good Chinese fried rice. The wok flavor in Japanese fried rice is exceptional. Here they serve it with roasted pork and various diced vegetables with some pickled ginger on top. While it’s not the best version I’ve had, it’s certainly quite tasty and much better than most versions you get in NY. I highly recommend asking for some chili oil as I find that kicks it up a notch. 7.5/10
- Kani Tama: This is an egg omelet with crabmeat, mushrooms and some other vegetables in a light brown oyster sauce. It’s a light dish that goes really well with the fried rice as the flavors are quite subtle. You can taste the oyster sauce flavor but it is very light. 7.25/10

Overall, I like Saburi and there are some good dishes to be had here. However, you have to be careful as some of their dishes are not very good in particular I’d avoid their ramen. That said it’s definitely worth trying if you’re in the neighborhood or looking to try something new.

168 Lexington Ave, New York, NY 10016

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  1. I actually like Saburi, and went there a few times long ago. I'm always surprised it's still open because it's practically empty every time I walk past it.
    I actually liked the ramen there when I had it. But then again I'm apparently in the ramen minority because I dislike Ippudo.
    I suggest getting some of their menma and mixing it with the chahan. You get the chili oil (thats what they have their menma with) and the added texture of the bamboo shoots works really well with the fried rice.

    1 Reply
    1. You're coming around full circle on this one-

      I used to have an office nearby and ate at Saburi every once in a while for lunch. It's alright. Some of their stuff is oversauced compared to Wafu-chuka in Japan- perhaps to appeal to tastes locally here in the U.S.?.?. Banbanji, for example, is usually a small pile of steamed, then chilled white chicken breast meat with a modest dripping of sesame sauce. It's not usually served in a pool of sauce. And some of their "ankake" dishes are kind of overly gloopy as well. And their menu still doesn't list one of the most popular Wafu-chuka dishes- 回鍋肉, which in this cuisine, is made with miso believe or not. It's one of the most popular Wa-chu dishes, so kind of weird that they don't serve it. But maybe if you ask them, they will make it...I think "kaori chicken" is their own recipe though. That just means "fragrant chicken" and it's not a standard Wa-chu offering....The ramen sucks, but the hiyashi chuka in the summer is half-decent... This is probably the only shop in the city that is dedicated to this cuisine, but a lot of the dishes here and other Wafu-Chuka dishes are found on the izakaya menus around town- especially the mid-to-cheaper range ones....Intriguingly though, there is a bottle keep system at Saburi for 紹興酒. So somebody must be coming along and living the high life there. I wonder if they have a different late night menu.?.?....

      5 Replies
      1. re: Silverjay

        well i dont know if i am coming full circle on this one, i came here a couple of times a while ago and thought it was good then my gf moved to the area and we started coming here alot, they changed their menu a bit and i had a few mishaps on the food (such as the ramen) before i figured out which dishes i liked, but i still overall like this place and i still go here quite a bit (like i usually eat dinner here on sundays)

        they do have 回鍋肉 (the online menu is dated) except it is actually one of the dishes i haven't tried, im not sure why i haven't tried it and making it with miso sounds so weird, but ill try it. i've had their hiyashi chuka, it was a decent, but i didn't love it (just as you said) and i do love hiyashi chuka done right (probably one of my all-time favorite japanese noodle dishes actually). they do have some more typical wafu chuka dishes like subuta and chili ebi, but i've been less enthralled by them (i'm not the expert at wafu chuka food, but i believe these are more typical)

        i didn't realize they have a bottle keeping system for their 紹興酒 that's kind of interesting, but at night i noticed the bulk of their customers are japanese (at least for dinner). completely off topic, but i actually saw that family that runs (or ran) Lotus of Siam that weekend we ate at LOS come in here

        haha btw that's kind of a funny idea of chinese food meant to cater to japanese that is adjusted to cater to americans (although entirely plausible). although i dont think so as most of their customers are japanese as i said before

        also they are open pretty late now, so i think you might be right about them having a slightly different late night offering

        1. re: Lau

          Yeah check out the 回鍋肉, which in Japanese is pronounced "hoi-kouro"- similar or same as Chinese, right?..It should still be a tasty dish, just a bit of a departure from its' Szechuan origins...

          ....BTW, just noticed at the top of your post- So in Japanese, "Wafu-Chuku (cuisine)" is written like this: "和風中華( 料理)". The character "味" usually just means taste.
          "和" usually is used to refer to Japan or things Japanese.....Also, as someone who has spent many years living as an expat, the presence of patrons of any particular nationalities as a validation for the goodness or authenticity of the cuisine, is a fallacy. Trust me. The case is different for locals in the ethnic community of course. But for expats, like most Japanese here are, you make do.

          1. re: Silverjay

            interesting about 和 not 味 b/c in chinese that would literally mean breeze (和風). also phonetically i figured wei feng (味風) would work for wa fu b/c the other one translates to he feng (和風) which phonetically doesn't really sound like wa fu. anyhow, it basically means the same thing, in chinese it translates to wei feng zhong hua which would just mean chinese local taste kind of thing. although in chinese you'd probably write it 中華風味

            yah in chinese it's pronounced hui guo rou (hwaay gwo row), ill give it a try next time im there

            also i don't disagree with your point that the presence of a particular nationality doesnt't necessarily mean that its good although the lack of those people is also a sign that it might be really bad more often than not.

            my point was not that the presence of japanese people means that its good, but rather that it's likely not catering to americans whole-heartedly, but i could be wrong with that as you'd have to talk to the chef to see how he views it

            1. re: Lau

              "和" is one of the most significant characters in Japanese, as it has historical, cultural, as well as social nuances.

              For dining, anytime you see it on a Japanese menu, it is pronounced "wa" and means "Japanese" style, usually in relation to Western or Chinese styles. Well it will be "和風"- "wafu"...More often than not, it refers something that is shoyu flavored- like "wafu salad dressing" or sometimes "wafu chicken"... Actually, once I learned these kanji, it exponentially improved my menu comprehension..LOL...

              1. re: Silverjay

                haha yah actually the reason i learned to read basic chinese characters was so that i could read food better b/c it was getting annoying having to ask the waiter what the specials were etc

      2. This is really cool! We had our first San Francisco Bay Area Japanese Chinese restaurant open up late last year, called Yu-Raku 日本の中華屋さん 遊楽 (in San Mateo) of which that thread is here

        and so this is probably the 2nd restaurant doing Wafu Chuka / Chuka Ryori that I know of in the USA.

        Yu-raku has a somewhat similar menu to Saburi, minus the peedan tofu and unagi over rice (per the Yelp pics of Saburi), also has ban ban chicken and ja ja men (not to be confused with Ja Ja Binks).

        With these kinds of restaurants, it takes a trained and experienced chef to execute well, either Chinese living/working in Japan, or Japanese expat in China (in the case of Yu-Raku's chef owner, worked in Shanghai, married a Shanghainese, and has family business in Chuka Ryori restaurants). The problem as already discussed is that people think, oh wow this place has ramen, suddenly flock there expecting the level of greatness like the best in town, and leave disappointed, when the strengths are in the other cooked and stir fried dishes. The food is more pedestrian in nature, somewhat familiar but different comfort food, not fancy by any means, but depending on how it is seen, pricier than going to a run of the mill Cantonese or non Cantonese Chinese joint (as in the case of Yu-Raku).

        18 Replies
        1. re: K K

          Hmm, well, I think you are overselling Wafu-Chuka cuisine in terms of training and experience. It's really a fairly simple comfort cuisine. Most of the time in Japan, it's just Japanese guys with no overseas experience whatsoever, doing the cooking. A lot of this stuff, people just make at home as well. It's not really an elevated, highly respected genre- not that it can't be souped up with nice ingredients and better technique. It really is kind of a comfort food if it is dedicated to Wafu Chuka. Obviously, some places crossover into ethnic Chinese cuisine and have superior training, chefs from China, etc.... Saburi at least, maintains a focus on the "Wafu" element, which definitely makes it distinct here in NY.

          1. re: Silverjay

            True, although we're lucky to have the only place in town with an experienced chef, so the crowds keep coming despite the high price tag. In addition to being comfort food, it also goes well with beer (e.g. Yebisu). Last time I ate with a buddy, a couple walked in, sat down at the table behind us, asked the waitress if they served sushi. When they were told "no", they got up and left.

            1. re: Silverjay

              K K -i agree with you that having a large section of your menu dedicated to something that is a) not your specialty and b) not very good is a great way to get people to not go to your restaurant based off people walking in, not knowing much about the food and then ordering the section of the menu that has well-known dishes (which are not good). as i've said many times i think chinese restaurants in NY suffer badly from this. Saburi is def an interesting restaurant though and something quite different than most things in NY (its a welcome addition)

              Silverjay is more of an expert than I in all things Japanese so i defer to him, but I'd generally agree with him all chinese-fusion foods i've come across are basically comfort type cuisines that are reasonably priced to downright cheap and not always run by ethnic chinese (in fact in alot of cases usually not run by chinese). that said doesn't mean it's not delicious while i certainly like high-end cuisine at the end of the day comfort foods are generally my favorite foods

              some examples are:

              Korean-chinese: the dishes are based on various northern chinese and more often than not most of the ones ive been to are run by koreans with no chinese background although i have been to ones run by ethnic chinese or koreans who are from china.

              Indian-chinese: originally started by Hakka chinese who moved to India, but i don't think there are many of them still (especially relative to india's population), so all of the ones ive been to in the US and in India are run by indians with no chinese whatsoever

              also the reason i believe that you don't see the higher end of chinese cuisine in most chinatown or chinese-fusion type places is b/c the chinese who moved to X country were mostly poor immigrants and therefore the food they are cooking is not high end cuisine. the only exceptions would be in vancouver (lots of rich cantonese and taiwanese) and a handful of places in LA (LA has some rich chinese neighborhoods). i think alot of people in the US would be quite shocked if they went into some high end restaurants in hong kong or taipei etc and found out how different high end chinese cuisine is

              1. re: Lau

                LOL...This thread is actually making me (adopted) homesick for Japan. I used to eat this type of food so much my first few years when I lived there. Literally had it everyday for lunch at one point. We still make some dishes at home quite frequently......BTW, Saburi's menu says the gyoza are homemade and E.Eto gave them high marks in the above, albet 5-year-old, link that I posted.

                1. re: Silverjay

                  hmm i think i mightve gotten them a long time ago, but i will def try them when i eat there again (so probably within the next week or so)

                2. re: Lau

                  Have you been to Tangra Masala in Elmhurst or its newer, larger location Tangra in Sunnyside for Indian Chinese? The people who run it are ethnic Chinese from Kolkata, I believe.

                  1. re: E Eto

                    actually i have been there, but that is actually the only place ive eaten where there are ethnic chinese

                  2. re: Lau

                    Ha.. your description about what you will find in the US vs HK or Taipei is so true! For some of us who have the opportunities to go back often it's kind of surprising to see/taste some of the Chinese food that's available in Manhattan!

                    1. re: bearmi

                      oh definitely, chinese food in manhattan is like a throw back to the 80s

                      i wish they had the type of food that is in HK, taipei, shanghai etc. i think it would totally change people's views on chinese....i dont think the breadth of chinese food is showcased at all in NY

                      1. re: Lau

                        Can you be more specific about this? Perhaps in a thread dedicated to this topic. Not because I doubt you, but because I want to know.

                        Has Chinese food in China evolved, while Chinese food in the U.S. is stuck in the past? Are there not classic dishes made the same way for a hundred years? How are they made in China compared to how they are made in the U.S.?

                        I'm a fan of your posts and have seen you give high marks to some dishes in some places. On the same scale what would you give the best dishes in China?

                        I ask because I'm particularly interested in Indian food in the U.S. and I rate it very poorly. On an absolute scale, I'd give the best savory Indian dishes I've had in the U.S. no more than a 6, and there are probably only 5 such dishes I've had in 30 years. In this case it's not so much that Indian food in the U.S. has not kept up with the inventiveness of Indian food in India today. It's that it has not matched the quality of Indian food in India from 20 or 30 years ago. So I'm curious what your take is on Chinese food in the U.S. (as I said perhaps in another thread).

                          1. re: FoodDabbler

                            well I need to surf the web a little bit to show some examples (pictures will do it alot more justice), so i will post another comment on this later.

                            But, to answer your questions:
                            1) "Has Chinese food in China evolved, while Chinese food in the U.S. is stuck in the past?" Yes, I would say this particularly so in hong kong, taiwan and singapore b/c China was very poor for a long time and economic growth came to them later than in HK, TW and singapore although food there is certainly evolving there as well. To give an example of why there is a dictomy imagine what food was like in the 80s in America and what if all of the sudden a whole bunch of americans moved away to somewhere far far away and created their own community in a foreign country and didn't go back often, you would certainly find large differences in the cuisine if you compared the two 30 years later. It's sort of the same thing, while certainly you will find many of the dishes here over there, you would notice large differences in the cuisine. But, that is only part of what I am saying, there is only a portion of chinese cuisine that is available here. Alot of high end or specialty restaurant cuisine is simply not available here and I think that is largely due to the demographics of the immigrants who are here (generally not all that well off and generally older now); i think people would be completely dumbfounded in some cases b/c its just not what they imagine in chinese food. I mean the types of restaurants i'm talking about would not do well here, not b/c people wouldn't like the food, but it would be very hard to get a regular customer base as it would be expensive in some cases or i'm just not sure you could get the type of volume you need to support such a restaurant.

                            2) "Are there not classic dishes made the same way for a hundred years?" Yes, there certainly are and you will find them here and there, those have not necessarily gone away, but they have changed overtime and not all young people like them. Although you have to realize that while there are old traditional dishes, dishes are being invented all the time, no different than in the US or Europe etc.

                            3) "How are they made in China compared to how they are made in the U.S.?" Well generally I find the food quality to be much higher not only in preparation, but also in using higher quality and fresher ingredients. I think alot of people would find the food to be lighter, less oily and just generally better. For example, I have a friend who thinks chinese food is too greasy and oily and always declines to eat chinese food here, but when he went to shanghai and HK he was like the food there is really good and i had no issues with it at all, its totally different. Part of this is b/c the competition is just so much stiffer there (if you put out bad product you're out of business fast). I think another part of this (and i don't mean to offend anyone on this) is that food culture is a little different there; in the US I think you can put up a nice restaurant with good service and so so food and do well (look at the meatpacking district). In asia, the food is generally #1 if you don't put out good food, no one will go to your restaurant, so I think the focus on food is first, so I generally think it leads to alot of good restaurants. I also think so much of family life revolves around food much more so than in America, I mean the majority of my memories as a kid were eating dinner with my family (i used to get so excited b/c the food was so good), so to a certain degree i think there is just a higher emphasis on food growing up. That said, i think there is a positive trend in the US about exploring food more driven by shows like anthony bourdain etc. It's funny b/c i have a bunch of friends from home who i don't think ever thought about food except that its sustinance and now all of the sudden they got into one of these shows and they want me to take them to all types of restaurants (it's a pleasant change)

                            4) "I'm a fan of your posts and have seen you give high marks to some dishes in some places. On the same scale what would you give the best dishes in China?" If I was writing on restaurants in Asia, you'd find me giving alot more ratings in the 8s and 9s. For example, if i had been rating each dish the way i am now i literally would have given the cha siu at fu sing in hk a 9.5-9.75 (if you check my blog, go to hong kong and you can see if). I'm admittedly biased toward asian food and admittedly biased toward certain types of chinese food as I like it more and over there you will find the best of the best. To put into more context, the very best places i talk about in NY would generally be "ok" to "good" in asia with their best dishes probably considered to just be "good". You would be hard pressed to find chinese dishes in NY that would be considered "really good" or "amazing".

                            1. re: Lau

                              Thank you. There's a lot to think about here.

                              1. re: FoodDabbler

                                FoodDabbler - here's some examples of some of the types of places and food i'm talking about

                                - here's some pics from sun tong lok in TST (a highly rated and expensive cantonese restaurant), pic 1: is a house specialty that is a type of roast suckling pig, pic 2: abalone, pic 3: bird's nest tart

                                Here's a skewer place, this is one of those places that is more of a specialty restaurant:

                                Here's a places that specializes in chili crab that is an HK creation (not singaporean chili crab), so this would be an example of a HK type creation:

                                here's manor a good cantonese restaurant:

                                there are way more examples like this, but this will give u a little bit of an idea of what im talking about. scroll through the pics

                                1. re: Lau

                                  Thanks again. You stick to ideas. That's a trait I admire and appreciate. Of course, this will mean more questions from me down the road...

                                  1. re: FoodDabbler

                                    haha thanks, ask away as you please

                              2. re: Lau

                                Great, informative post with helpful perspective.

                                1. re: Lau

                                  While it's true that Chinese food in Hong Kong, China, Taiwan etc. has progressed far beyond what we get in the United States, the comment that New York Chinese food is stuck in the 1980s or 1990s is just a valid statement when comparing Chinese food in New York to that in other North American outposts including Vancouver, Toronto, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Indeed I only travel to Asia once every 5 years or so, which makes my only real experience the Chinese food over here. Clearly, the influences from overseas have affected Chinese food in these places, and clearly the same influence has bypassed New York. I mean it's a shame when the best Chinese restaurant in Manhattan, Chinatown Brasserie, is not located in a Chinese community, nor does it seem to particularly target Chinese clientele. Reasons? Best guess is the lack of presence of Hong Kong chefs who are busy working the other cities, but are not to be found in New York.

                    2. Great post. The only request I have is could you give a bit of a per head estimate of how much a meal here would be?

                      Lau, your blog has really shot right to the top of my daily food reading. It's pretty much in competition with Dave Cook's one at this point. Keep up the good work.

                      2 Replies
                      1. re: JFores


                        i'd generally say i spend about $25 / person with tax and tip (no alcohol, maybe a soda), but i only go with my gf usually...i think you could lower it to say $20 / person if you had more people b/c you could share more easily and most of the food is conducive to sharing

                        actually they have a slightly dated menu on menupages (doesn't have all the dishes and doesn't have the specials menu)

                      2. There are a small number of unheralded Japanese style Chinese restaurants in LA, and at least in Los Angeles I've noticed a major difference between Japanese-Chinese and Korean-Chinese and Indian-Chinese. In the latter two there seem to be a lot of commonly found Chinese dishes (in American terms) cooked with a Korean or Indian flair, which made these in my mind merely a subcategory of Americanized Chinese food. In the Japanese -Chinese restaurants I've been to, the dishes themselves are different. Is this true in your experience?

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: Chandavkl

                          no they are all quite a bit different actually in taste from american chinese food although in spirit most of them except indian chinese are just that country's take on chinese food

                          japanese: this tends to the japanese take on chinese food from all over china (cantonese, sichuan, shanghainese, northern etc), i generally find the flavors to be more muted than the actual dishes

                          korean: this tends to be the korean take on some mainly northern chinese dishes, in fact there are some restaurants in the SGV that are run by northern chinese that have a menu that reads like a korean-chinese restaurant (i'm blanking on the name, but i found them years ago), but its the actual chinese version of the dish. i find the dishes can somewhat look similar but taste way different than the original versions. i think korean-chinese is probably the closest to american chinese, but i like it much more

                          indian: i'd say indian is the most divergent from the original dishes b/c their food bears almost no resemblance to any chinese food i'm aware of and given the fact that most of the chinese people in india are hakka, its even further away b/c none of their dishes remotely resemble any hakka food i'm aware of. weird side note when i was in india i was reading an article an apparently in calcutta (where most of the chinese are located) they're known for being dentists and some huge disproportionate % of the dentists are chinese

                          wikipedia has pretty good articles on all of them: