Cafe Zaiya

Work is tough.  Work is not fun.  And quite frankly, I don’t understand why more people don’t use their lunch break to relax- or even better, have some fun!  Of course most people’s idea of fun is probably different from my idea of fun.  My idea of fun, is lunch at Cafe Zaiya- the funnest restaurant in Midtown! (As declared by me of course… I’m clearly a very strange person.)

Cafe Zaiya is Japanese- but not in the way that probably first comes to mind.  They are not a Ramen place, and they don’t specialize in sushi (although they do have sushi as an option).  It’s more of a Japanese bakery, that also has a nice variety of bento boxes (or Japanese boxed lunches).  Clearly their specialty is baked goods.  They have Cream Puffs (or beard papas as they’re known by some) made fresh and filled right before your eyes.  They also have Mochi Donuts, Yakimochi, Mont Blanc’s and other delicious looking Japanese Pastries and cakes.

Now for many of you, I’m sure delicious pastries is all you have to hear to make this place worthwhile.  Lord knows I’m all for eating pastries as a substitute for real lunch.  As a matter of fact, my dream lunch would be a dozen Krispy Kreme glazed donuts if I thought I could do it without dying (either from stomach ache or sugar coma).  But in reality, pastries and donuts a lunch does not make (did that make sense?).

Lucky for us, they sell a ton of savory lunch choices as well… mostly in the form of pre-packaged bento boxes,  ready to be paid for, and eaten as soon as you walk in the door. 

For the rest of the fun, pictures and the +/- keep reading, after the jump…

So now the fun.  Choosing what to eat.  So many things to pick from… and to make things even more interesting, there’s no menu, and no board (or website for that matter).  You just walk around, find something that looks good, and pick it up.  And even better, everything is pretty cheap, so if you choose properly, you can get a bunch of different things, and still keep your lunch under $10.  Each item has a sticker telling you what the item is.  Some are in English and easy to understand (Salmon Teriyaki)… some not so much.

One of the more unique, and most popular items are the Onigiri.  Seaweed wrapped rice balls with fillings like more seaweed, tuna, spicy tuna, shrimp tempura, and more.  At Cafe Zaiya, the tuna is actually cooked making it more like canned tuna fish- but if you know what you’re getting into, and you like tuna fish, it’s pretty tasty.  And at prices ranging from $1.25 to $1.75 you can get one or two of these in addition to one of the main dishes on the rack in the middle.  Get there early, or the best ones might be gone! (The tray on the right was filled when I first got there)

The main dishes are a little more hit or miss.  There’s a lot of choices, and most look really delicious… but they are pre-packaged, and you don’t know how long they’ve been sitting there.  The last thing you want is a cold bowl of chicken teriyaki.  My suggestion is to feel the tops of the different containers to see which ones are still warm, and choose that way.  Or just wait around for a few minutes and see what they bring out new and fresh.  If you can’t wait for that, they do have a microwave at the front of the store to heat up whatever you have bought.

The good things is there are plenty of choices… and most of them look pretty good.  There’s the Shogoyaki Bento ($4.50), Yakisoba ($4.50), Mahbo, Tonkatsu, Bulgogi and more.  I got the Chicken Katsu Don (it was the warmest one on the rack), a fried chicken cutlet covered in a delicious sweet sauce (with a nice kick), served over rice.  Much better then I expected. 

If bento boxes aren’t your thing there’s also a bunch of sandwiches, some of which look super delicious.  There’s ham and cheese on white bread, or you can spice it up with a delicious looking Curry Chicken Sandwich (with a hard boiled egg!?!) for only $3.00.  There’s also a whole counter of meals in the back like Teriyaki Salmon with potatoes and vegetables, if you’re not into the whole pre-packaged meal thing.

So, if like Asian food, you’re not afraid of trying new things, and love a place where variety is something more then choosing what 6 items are going into your salad on this day, Cafe Zaiya is the place for you.  The possibilities are endless… 3 onigiri, 2 onigiri + sandwich, 2 onigiri + bento box, 1 onigiri + bento box + pastry, or 3 pastries.  Whatever floats your boat…

If you’re interested in reading or seeing more of the pastries at Cafe Zaiya, I would recommend reading NYCNosh’s piece on the white bean Yakimochi  or checking out Roboppy’s Flickr Page of pictures from Cafe Zaiya.  Both are really great resources…

THE +

  • Quick.  Everything is pre-made and ready to buy and eat
  • Cheap.  Really cheap.
  • Selection.  So many different things to choose from (and the price makes it easy to get two or three and still keep your lunch under $10)
  • Fun.  Where else are you going to find food like this!

THE -

  • Everything is pre-made so your bento box might not be as fresh as you like (and it sucks to have to nuke anything)
  • The onigiri (sometimes called omusubi) might not be as good as another place in Midtown.  I recently read about a place called Oms/b that specializes in rice balls.  I haven’t had a chance to go, but my hunch is they are better (although they are more expensive).  Full review of that place, coming soon…
  • Different lines for different items… and during lunch they can get long.  If you want something from the pastry counter, and some cream puffs, you’re going to have to wait in two lines.  The onigiri, sushi and bento boxes from the center shelf, can be paid for anywhere…
  • The seating area up front is not that large and fills up quickly, so you might have to take your treats to go.  Lucky for you, Bryant Park is a block away…
  • Gets really crowded, and frantic during lunchtime, so if you want to browse for awhile it can get intimidating and annoying

Cafe Zaiya, 18 E. 41st St. (btw. 5th & Madison) 212-779-0600

31 Comments

  • best. lunchplace. ever.

  • OmsB is great, you must check it out! Also, JAS Mart has the best rice rolls, not onigiri, a roll that hasn’t been cut into the 6 or 8 pieces. They have the best spicy tuna and natto rolls!

  • Important things about cafe Zaiya, which I have been going to for years:

    1. The crispy red-bean donut is inhumanly good, but don’t expect to get any work done for the rest of the day after eating one

    2. Earlier this year, Zaiya was shut down for 1-2 days for health code violations.

    3. Try as I might, I cannot get them to make their delicious looking fried chicken sandwiches without them slathering it in mayo

    4. The chicken in the fried-chicken cutlet bento boxes is quite fatty

    5. I’ve seen Parker Posey eating there a number of times

  • “But in reality, pastries and donuts a lunch does not make (did that make sense?).”

    NOOO, YER WROOONG, NOOO!

    I mean…okay. Sometimes I want something non-sugar loaded. Which is why I love Cafe Zaiya; get something sweet and savory at the same time! Mmm, carbed. I like their mayo-ed sandwiches–they’re great for the price. And anything with red bean is tops on my list. The steamed red bean buns are especially nice since they’re stored in the steamy thing which keeps them warm and squishy.

  • Better than crack – you’ve done it again!

  • So, I went this morning on my way to work to pick up a mochi donut and I walked in and was totally disappointed. There were only a few muffins and croissants out. I can’t imagine that everything is sold out at 8:30am or do they not put out these delictables till lunch?? I was very bummed!

  • Dear Zach,

    I love/worship you.

  • What really surprised me — the carbonara is really good. Super-generous, and so cheap for what you get — I think it’s $6.50 for a BIG ol’ pile. I got it the first time I went there and have never gotten anything else.

  • I love their onigiris and sandwiches.. best place ever and in the winter months they have a nice soup selection.. chicken corn chowder is the best.. however you must get there early for that soup.. it gets sold out fast!

  • Dear world

    Zaiya (especially the midtown one) has the best onigiri in the city.

  • Went to Cafe Zaiya today. Was surprised at just how the inexpensive bento prices. It was a bit hectic but definitely worth it. They had a BLT with Egg Salad on it for $3.25, which I will definitely try next time. I had Seaweed Salad, and three onigiri. Spicy tuna and spicy tempura were good; not as good as Oms/b but still tasty. I will definitely return. Thanks!

  • If you enjoy delicious food for bargain prices look no further. Utter dominance in a can.

  • The Pizzas at the pastry counter aren’t bad, and are really cheap. Just don’t expect it to taste like pizza you normally eat. Got a scallion/chicken pizza and it was quite good. And only like a $1.50.

  • Great, cheap bento that has enough yummy stuff and nutritional stuff to make it a satisfying lunch, which you don’t really need to nuke in the micro in mid-summer. BTW love your blog. Absolute life saver.

  • They’ve got these pastries filled with Spicy Tuna on the pastry counter that are real big and filling, and a great option if you like Spicy Tuna filling more than the rice/nori you get on the Onigiri. At $1.50 its a really good deal.

  • The prices seem to have increased since the original posting. All three things i tried today were very tasty. The eel bowl was fresh with a very tasty sauce. The flavor one would expect after eating eel at sushi restaurants. The spicy chicken sandwich was excellent. A fried and breaded chicken cutlet that was not dry at all, with a tasty and mildly spicy sauce. The ume onigiri/omusubi was decent, but not as good as at Oms/b – just two not-homemade pickled plums placed in the center. Hard to beat as a late afternoon snack for $1.50, though.

  • i really wanted some steamed buns today… sadly they are only a winter item the nice lady behind the counter told me :(

  • YES!!! The onigiri at Zaiya are awesome (personally I prefer vegetarian onigiri) I like the kombu and the Ume (definitely not for people with un-adventurous palates) I also like the hand rolls there. They are pretty good (although not cone shaped like in a restaurant, these are DIY assembly required like the onigiri tube shapes) The mob inside can definitely get unruly and intimidating, but just picture yourself getting packed into a Tokyo rush hour train and try to view it as a mini-vacation and you might get through without losing it. YUM!!

  • OH Yes!!! One last thing, For some reason, this summer they chose not to offer the summer soba bento box. This saddens me a great deal as I am a HUGE fan of all the items in the summer soba bento;
    1-Soba (duh!)
    2-Tempura (even shrimp! Nice.)
    3-Japanese pickles (a really nice assortment too)
    :( Please bring back the summer soba bento!!!!

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