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13 Japanese Chains Hitting It Big In the U.S.

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Custard-filled cream puffs, a standing steakhouse, and a restaurant where diners catch their own fish

Mensho Ramen Mensho Ramen

Recent years have seen a surge in American-born food brands expanding to Japan. Notable names like Blue Bottle, Shake Shack, and Cronut master Dominique Ansel have all planted their flags on Japanese soil, and that cultural exchange goes both ways: Many popular Japanese restaurants are now exporting their businesses to the U.S., growing their fervent followings in the process.

From the fascination with sushi conveyor belts that started in the early 2000s to the skyrocketing popularity of ramen, recent years have seen an increasingly prominent Japanese culinary presence across America. And while plenty of these restaurants are independently owned, right now there’s a tangible influx of Japan-born chain restaurants landing on U.S. shores.

From kaiseki-style tasting menus to cream puffs, ramen, and even a restaurant where diners fish for their own dinner, here are 13 Japanese restaurant brands making big moves in the States in the coming months.


Wagyumafia

First U.S. location: Opening in San Francisco, 2018
Locations in Japan: Three
Planned U.S. locations: One

Wagyumafia specializes in the preparation of Japanese Wagyu beef. At its American outpost, Wagyumafia will serve its signature Wagyu beef sandwich (beef on toasted white bread with soy and vinegar sauce). While there have been American offerings of Wagyu beef either sourced from purebred descendants of Japanese cows or cross-bred with Angus cattle, Wagyumafia will serve strictly Japanese beef. Its forthcoming San Francisco expansion, located in Design District luxury residential building One Henry Adams, will serve its infamously expensive $180 wagyu beef cutlet sandwich.


Ikinari Steak

First U.S. location: Opened in NYC, February 2017
Locations in Japan: 130-plus
Planned U.S. locations: Seven

This steakhouse is famous for both its mostly standing-room-only dining and its steaks, which are cut to order to customers’ preferred weight and served with an array of condiments such as wasabi and a house special sauce. Unlike American steakhouses, where cushioned chairs and a leisurely pace are expected, Japanese import Ikinari Steak ignores that standard with its utilitarian dining room (which yes, recently added a handful of chairs). Restaurants that serve high-quality food for a standing-only crowd are commonplace in Japan, but that concept is still a novelty in the U.S. The chain aims to open seven locations in New York City by the end of the year.


Ippudo

First U.S. location: Opened in NYC’s East Village, 2008
Locations in Japan: 130
Planned U.S. locations: 300 outside Japan by 2025

This prominent, Tokyo-based ramen chain launched its first U.S. outpost in 2008 and now has two locations in NYC (a third is set to open any day now in Midtown) and one in Berkeley, California. The restaurant is beloved for its pork-based tonkotsu ramen, which utilizes a thinner noodle with a lower water content to better complement its rich pork broth. Ippudo is aiming to have 300 locations outside of Japan by 2025, including a major push into the U.S. fueled by an IPO and a partnership with the restaurant group behind Panda Express. It’s currently focusing on opening additional New York stores as well as one in San Francisco.


Jimmy Poon/Flickr

Zauo

First U.S. location: Opening in NYC, exact date TBA
Locations in Japan: 13
Planned U.S. locations: One

Landing soon in Chelsea, Zauo’s biggest draw is its much-hyped “pond-to-table” dining option in which patrons can fish for their dinner via the in-house pond, then have it grilled, tempura-fried, or served raw as sushi. (Fishing for your dinner isn’t a requirement, but it is cheaper that way.)


Tentenyu Ramen

First U.S. location: Opened in LA, June 2016
Locations in Japan: One
Planned U.S. locations: Three

At Tentenyu’s three U.S. locations, chefs simmer 110 pounds of chicken bones for 10 hours, and only make 100 servings of their tonkotsu at a time. Tentenyu’s first location opened in LA in June 2016, and the chain recently expanded with a Culver City outpost. While other chains typically have a multitude of Japanese locations before international expansion, Tentenyu has just one in Japan.


Afuri Ramen

First U.S. location: Opened in Portland, Oregon, October 2016
Locations in Japan: 10
Planned U.S. locations: Two

With its first U.S. location now open in Portland and a second PDX restaurant in the works, Afuri stands out for its comparatively refreshing ramen broth that’s tinged with citrus juice. Interestingly, this broth is exactly what complicates the brand’s expansion: Its sensitivity to water hardness requires Afuri owners to be selective about locations for future expansion.


E.A.K. Ramen

First U.S. location: Opened in LA, November 2016
Locations in Japan: 400
Planned U.S. locations: Two, with a third potentially in the works

E.A.K. is known for its iekei-style ramen. Iekei combines the thicker, creamy tonkotsu-style broth with the soy sauce-based shoyu style, then adds a thicker noodle and trades the usual topping of green onions for spinach. The chain has approximately 400 locations in Japan and opened its first U.S. location in Los Angeles last fall. After opening a second location in New York City, E.A.K. is now reportedly scouting Detroit as its next location.


Mensho Ramen Courtesy of Mensho Ramen

Mensho Ramen

First U.S. location: Opened in San Francisco, February 2016
Locations in Japan: Seven
Planned U.S. locations: One

Mensho is a big name in the world of ramen, and it landed stateside last year with an outpost in SF’s Tenderloin neighborhood. Well-known in Japan for its rich pork broth, Mensho focuses on nailing the fundamentals of traditional ramen while also serving some more unusual varieties like a chocolate lamb ramen and a vegan ramen. Lines stretched to two hours at the SF grand opening, and it’s been packed ever since, despite the fact that a bowl of ramen clocks in at $18.


Beard Papa’s

First U.S. location: Opened in NYC, 2004
Locations in Japan: 180
Planned U.S. locations: 23 current locations

Long before opening its flagship U.S. location in Manhattan back in 2004, Beard Papa’s was well-known across Japan for its range of confections like eclairs and fondant cakes, but its most popular item is the cream puff. The baked pastry puffs can be filled with vanilla, chocolate, or green tea custard and have proven to be popular Instagram fodder.


Hokkaido Ramen Santouka

First (standalone) U.S. location: Opened in Bellevue, Washington, April 2014
Locations in Japan: 19
Planned U.S. locations: 14

After establishing its first standalone location in Washington state in 2014 (stands inside food courts started popping up in the Los Angeles area in the early 2000s), Hokkaido Ramen Santouka set off on an expansion path across the U.S., including stores in Chicago, New Jersey, Texas, and Boston. The chain offers several flavors of ramen broth including shio (salt), shoyu (soy sauce), and miso. Bowls are finished with a heap of wavy noodles and garnishes like dried fish, kelp, and pickled red plums. Its signature dish is toroniku ramen, a bowl of rich tonkotsu broth and noodles served with roasted pork cheeks on the side.


Naoki Photo by Nick Solares

Naoki

First U.S. location: Opened in New York City, July 2017
Locations in Japan: Restaurant group has 800-plus restaurants across Japan and Asia
Planned U.S. locations: One

Located in NYC’s Chelsea neighborhood, Naoki serves kaiseki cuisine, a traditional, seasonal Japanese tasting menu featuring sushi as well as cooked meat and fish. While Naoki isn’t a chain, parent company Create Restaurants Holdings has more than 800 other restaurants across Japan and other parts of Asia, including ramen shops and izakayas as well as Italian restaurants. The restaurant, which features a zen garden, is Create’s first U.S. project and serves as a sort of testing ground for potential future stateside expansion.


Marugame

First U.S. location: Opened in LA, September 2017
Locations in Japan: 778; 186 additional stores across 13 other countries
Planned U.S. locations: One

The cafeteria-style restaurant Marugame has a massive presence in Japan and specializes in Sanuki udon, which is more flat and square than its more traditional round sibling. The restaurant features a high-tech Japanese-made noodle machine tasked with pulling, cutting, and dry-aging noodles for daily use. Beyond bowls of udon, it also serves a variety of tempura for $1 per piece.


Renderings for Harajuku Taproom | Facebook

Harajuku Taproom

First U.S. location: Opening in LA, 2017
Locations in Japan: Five
Planned U.S. locations: One

This Tokyo-based taproom and izakaya is known for small plates and pouring a steady supply of seasonal craft beers from Japanese brewer Baird Beer. While Baird has other taprooms throughout Japan, Harajuku Taproom is the first brand to make an appearance stateside, with a location set to land in Culver City sometime this year.

Editor: Whitney Filloon

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