A Food Porn Guide to Navigating Your Way Through Cafe Zaiya

Is it possible to love something so much, you end up kind of hating it? That might be the way I feel about Cafe Zaiya. Yes, I’m talking about that Cafe Zaiya (on 41st. btw. Mad+5th), the Japanese fast food place that specializes in bento boxes and rice balls and amazing Japanese baked goods. The place that won best Japanese Fast Food in the Midtown Lunch Readers’ poll. That Cafe Zaiya. The simple fact is, I will step foot in that place and not be able to decide what to get. Everything just looks so damn good. In fact, there have been times where I have spent 15 minutes looking, browsing, picking something up, putting it down, picking another thing up, waiting in line for a baked good, get out of line, contemplate the sushi, put the thing I picked up down… and so forth… until I become so crazed, I just leave and eat somewhere else. I have no excuses. Love will sometimes do crazy things to a man.

What I’m saying is, I could never compile a post like this. It would require too many visits… choosing too many things… making too many decisions. I just don’t have that willpower. I would probably just end up buying one of those little fried chicken sandwiches and a rice ball every single time. Damn you Zaiya! Luckily, Kathy YL Chan, author of the blog A Passion for Food, and our resident Hawaiian food expert, doesn’t have my issues. And she was happy enough to put together this massive look at some of the best things Cafe Zaiya has to offer. Sure it’s nothing groundbreakingly new here on Midtown Lunch… but who would complain about looking at a ton of amazing food porn from one of the best lunch places in Midtown.

Cafe Zaiya, Midtown, NYC

Of all the places to eat lunch in Midtown, Café Zaiya is my safe haven. Reliable, cheap, and most importantly, very tasty. Most days I veer straight towards the bakery counter and select two baked goods. That fills you up just about right for less than $5. You’d be hard pressed to find a better deal.

The café is divided into five major sections. The bakery area on the left side of the shop, bento and sandwiches in the middle, a hot food station in the back, a cold food area to the right (sushi, salads, and cold sandwiches) and Bead Papa’s upfront. I find the hot food at Zaiya to be simply passable and nothing more. Same goes for the sushi. Divert your attention to the bakery.

Here you’ll find wonders (most priced under $2) of the sweet and savory sort, either baked, steamed, or deep fried. Below are a few of my favorites.

The yakimochi is perhaps what Café Zaiya is best known for. A crisp, baked exterior, followed by a chewy inside mochi layer, and then a center of azuki bean paste. It’s no single element, but rather the textural combination of all three that make this exciting to eat.

The Sweet Cheese Dome is a fun one- a billowy baked bun stuffed with whipped cream cheese. I like to warm this in the oven toaster at work ’til the outside gets crispy and the innards, all molten and creamy.

The Sakura Yakimochi comes and goes, though I have not spotted it recently. The baked bun (similar to the Sweet Cheese Dome) is filled with a sweetly scented white bean paste.

On days I know I’ll be working late, I like to bring back a few extra Mushipans – sweet steamed cakes. They have a bunch of different flavors, including chocolate and matcha, but the sweet potato is best.

Corn & Tuna sits heavy on your stomach, but it’s worth the once a week indulgence. The soft bun is stuffed with a mayo-dense tuna salad, and then slathered with MORE mayo and a smattering of corn. You’ll need a cleansing mug of hot tea with this.

A slightly lighter route takes you to the Spicy Tuna Bun, with the tuna encased in a shell noticeably harder/crisper than most of the other buns. This too, becomes quickly addicting.

Sometimes I leave for work extra early just so that I can stop in before breakfast. Because only in the morning have I ever been lucky enough to get a warm Curry Pan. And I swear to god, few things are more blissful than hot fried bread stuffed with curry first thing in the morning. Come in the afternoon and the curry pan is room temperature. Nothing wrong with that, but once you have it hot, it’s hard to turn back.

I’ve been able to get the Croquettes warm at lunchtime though, so that is nice. Make sure you ask for the little packet of katsu sauce with the croquette, it makes a huge difference.

If you want to make your meal complete with something fried, savory, and sweet, follow it up with one of Zaiya’s doughnuts. Mochi Doughnut, Twist Doughnut, or the one I often lean to: the An Doughnut. Why have plain doughnuts when you can have them sugar-dusted and stuffed with red bean paste?

On the matter of fried foods, I strongly believe the onion and ground beef stuffed Piroshiki would taste awesome if fried (as it is traditionally done.) Perhaps I will mail in a suggestion letter to Café Zaiya. “Please fry the piroshiki.”

Newest to the bakery counter is a selection of steamed buns in trio of flavours: beef curry, red bean, and pork. The steamed buns are the only bakery section product always served warm, which is just right for those chilly days. I had the beef curry one the other day, and it was a plush warm bun with a fair amount of filling (shredded beef, carrots, and onions), hinging on the sweeter side.


Mapo Tofu Bowl

If the bakery section doesn’t appeal to you, head to the middle and feast on sandwiches, onigiri and rice bowls.


Honey Chicken Sandwich


Chicken Curry Sandwich

After eating my way though nearly every single sandwich, I must say that I prefer the chilled white bread sandwiches (especially the spicy tuna one) over the hot dog and hamburger stuffed sandwiches. I’ll make an occasional exception for the Curry Chicken Sandwich, greasy and overwhelming, though nonetheless satisfying.

Cafe Zaiya’s onigiri don’t stand really stand out from the ones served at the other Japanese delis in this area. As said before, Zaiya’s strength lay with their baked goods.

As you know, at the beginning of the year Zaiya rolled out a $5 lunch special, which after a few visits, turns out to be not that special considering that one can easily compose a solid meal here for under $5. Nonetheless, the $5 meal includes any one of the bentos labeled “Zaiya Meal” and a bottle of water, coffee, or tea. Add on a salad and it becomes $7. Do without the liquid and the price is dropped to $4.25 (plus tax).

“Zaiya Meal” bento options cover a broad range of items. To name a few: Oyako Don, Unagi Rice, and Hamburg Steak.

Ahh… the Hamburg Steak is a funny one. This bento comes with your starch choice of rice or white bread. But no matter which option you choose, both come with a fair helping of spaghetti tucked under the steak.

I tend to lean away from the salad, sushi, and hot foods section. If you come to Zaiya, come for the unusual assortment of pastries. With a steady rotation of new products, it never gets boring. I find that 1 savory pastry + 1 sweet pastry = a most satisfying lunch combination. Though on some days, I’ll have 3 sweet pastries and nothing else for lunch. Whatever suits your mood.

…But if you have room for more sweets at the end of the meal, polish it off with a Beard Papa cream puff strategically placed towards the exit of the cafe. Nothing quite like making your co-workers envious with a custard-filled double choux shell.

Post and photos by Kathy YL Chan

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

32 Comments

  • Amazing writeup.

    FYI – The piroshiki’s used to be fried and then about a year or so ago they started baking them…. a fatal error in my book.

  • I just can’t get behind an all-sweets lunch, pork buns or not. I need salty, sour, spicey foods. Maybe around 3pm though, that’s when i need the sugar pickmeup.

  • Oh, I want to cry when I see all this food porn! I wish we had a Cafe Zaiya in London (preferably near my work!).

  • They have a mentaiko (spicy cod roe) pizza-like pastry. So rich, so good. I love you, Zaiya.

  • Any of the bakery items here gluten free? (Yes, Zach..still waiting for the Gluten-free posting you were going to make last year :P )

  • Can’t think about food today with the passing of Patrick McGoohan

    R.I.P., #6

  • this post is awesome. Now I want to work by the trinity again. Doh!

  • Those croquettes look good. Danku could learn something.

    Thank god I already had lunch before seeing this post. To date I’ve never liked japanese food. I guess I was just eating the wrong crap.

  • NOOOOO! Wayne why must you break this sad news to me??!? Sigh, I loved that man. He was still a hottie. “I am not a number! I am a free man!!”

    Wow, I’m really bummed, I need a drink…..

  • Sorry M – but it’s true. Sniff

  • love the chicken curry butty…..but why the slice of egg?

    I HATED the Prisoner….stooopid bloody bouncy white balls…..in a welsh village.

    Ah, the 70′s.

  • Shut your pie-hole Rudy!

  • No!

    I was a New Avengers kid……Purdey in her TR7….hmmmmm.

  • I could cry from looking at all those pictures. Zaiya was my defacto go to place for lunch when I still worked in Midtown. I can still taste the curry pan and yakimochi. I also loved the fact that I was able to eat good and not spend a ton of money either.

    I’m working in the middle of nowhere hell New Jersey with the crappiest food options for the past 4 years. Burger King and a crappy deli is not the height of lunchtime options.

  • Kathy, you should bring your camera and your good taste to woorijip and do a similar review there.

  • I worked in edison for 6 months. Lunch choices were abysmal and you had to drive to get there on top of it.

  • i would LURVE to eat 2 pastries for lunch every day! but alas, my genes don’t allow me to eat that many luscious carbs and get away without extra mid-pudginess. i am very jealous, kathy! ok, enough complaining- i’m off to the gym again…

  • I eat 3-4 pastries for breakfast each and every morning and have for probably 35 years.

    Please don’t deny yourself little things like this. Life is far too short.

  • Is that a green tea flavored cream puff? Yikes. What’s up with green tea-flavored everything these days? I love watching the employees use that cream pump device thingy. I always want to jump behind the counter and try my hand at filling those pastry shells.

  • okokokokok no more pret-manger when we’re in midtown!

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