SUNSET PARK — In Japanese, the phrase “Wakuwaku” denotes fun and excitement– it describes the fluttery feeling of anticipation someone gets when looking forward to something especially good. It’s also the name of Erina and Tony Yoshida’s new izakaya, or Japanese gastropub, that opened at the end of January at Sunset Park’s Japan Village. Wakuwaku is designed to instill patrons with the giddy warmth that comes from a perfect marriage of great food, strong drinks, and excellent company.
Erina is a native New Yorker who has spent extensive time in Japan since childhood, even attending college there. The Yoshidas — which also include Erina’s brother Takuya and father Tony, from Niigata, Japan — are the family behind Japan Village in its entirety, as well as some of the most important staples of Little Tokyo, a Japanese neighborhood in Manhattan’s East Village. One of these is the grocery store chain Sunrise Mart, as well as an izakaya, Village Yokocho. Wakuwaku was built in a similar vein as Village Yokocho, with an extensive drink menu complementing a selection of excellent, traditional Japanese plates.
Erina feels that New Yorkers have become especially attuned to how much work goes into Japanese food since its popularity has risen.
“It’s nice that people are seeing how the craft is being done,” Erina said. “it’s always been about craftsmanship in Japan.”
Wakuwaku’s dinner program is still in the works – Erina said that they’ll be rolling it out in early March at the latest. Once it hits, patrons can expect share-friendly appetizers, like grilled and fried skewers, called yakitori and kushiage respectively, and fresh sashimi. They plan to offer chicken ramen as well, using broth made in-house. The dessert menu will lean playful, from a tall ice cream parfait festooned with Pocky sticks, to a green tea tiramisu.
For now, anyone who rolls up at lunchtime can tuck into a neatly portioned spread of small dishes called a teishoku, or set meal for $15-$21. It comes with rice and soup alongside proteins like grilled saba (mackerel), pork cutlet, and tempura. Chicken and salmon teriyaki get a lift from a housemade sauce of soy sauce, mirin, sake, and ginger.
Unadon, a delicacy consisting of glazed, charcoal-grilled eel (unagi) over rice, also joined the menu recently. Served in a specialized lacquerware box, or jubako, it comes with a side of the Japanese pepper-like spice called sanshō. In addition, a single, carefully-conceived vegan dish of fried tofu in a mushroom sauce, thickened by kudzu root starch and flavored with kelp, is available too.
For younger diners, the okosama (kid) meal is $7-$9 and whimsically served in a hollowed-out Japanese bullet train and consists of foods like onigiri (rice ball), edamame, and a hot dog made to look like an octopus, the way that Japanese mothers often make it for their children’s bento boxes. Adding to the cuteness is a plastic cup of flan-like Japanese pudding, called Purin.
It wouldn’t be an izakaya without booze, though. Lemon-Chuhai, a shochu cocktail that Erina compares to a lemon sour, will be served DIY-style to patrons: they’ll juice their own lemons at the table, adding it to a glass of shochu on ice and topping it off with soda. Erina remembers “just having SO many of them,” in college, she said, laughing.
The rest of the cocktail menu will lean heavily on shochu, a Japanese spirit distilled from barley or rice, which Erina feels is still gaining traction in New York. It will be served by the carafe as well as by the glass. There will, of course, be sake and beer, and the restaurant will offer a bottle keep, where regulars can store their unfinished bottles. The alcohol menu will be available when the dinner program starts.
Above all, Wakuwaku is a place to take time off from the city. “We wanted to make it a spot where people can just gather,” Erina said. It will be the first full-service restaurant in Japan Village, a complement to the more casual lunch stalls in the complex’s main hall.
Her father built the interior from a mixture of different warm-toned woods, with several tatami rooms offering hiding space within the spacious restaurant. Tony is also the master behind much of the art at Wakuwaku, including the hanging wood panels above the bar, which he’s painted with red or black kanji, or Japanese characters.
Wakuwaku is currently open for lunch from Wednesday to Sunday, noon to 3 p.m., with last call for orders at 2:30 p.m. Wakuwaku is located around the corner from Japan Village’s main entrance, at 269 36th Street between 2nd and 3rd Avenues, across from Industry City’s Food Hall.