This review originally appeared on The Gotham Palate.
Everyone who works in midtown knows it's difficult to find lunch without draining your bank account, especially if it's quality food you're after. I was skeptical about this area's offerings as well, until I happened to walk by E. 41st St., where I found a block of Japanese establishments. There's Chiyoshi Sushi, Yagura Japanese Sushi, and BOOKOFF, a Japanese used bookstore that also sells manga and import CDs. And then, like a beacon in the dark, there's Cafe Zaiya.
Cafe Zaiya's steady stream of customers told me that despite the recession, this place is still going strong. Three separate lines snaked out to the entrance. The front door kept swinging open to usher in more hungry people, each person trying to elbow past others to scan the lunch racks. Convinced, I decided to check it out.
bento box (called "Cafe Zaiya meal"). For just $4.99, you get to choose from a fish, chicken, pork or beef box that comes with a hearty serving of rice, vegetables and pickled appetizer, along with a cup of coffee or hot tea. Vegetarian options are also available for those with more restricted diets. Selections vary by day. A word to the wise: Touch the top of the box first to check the temperature level before you buy it. You want to be sure you're getting a hot meal.
But Cafe Zaiya doesn't just specialize in hot prepared foods - there's sushi (discounted 30% after 5 p.m.), onigiri (starting at $1.69), chicken sandwiches and hamburgers (called 'hamburg'), pastries (from melon pan to curry buns and croquettes - most under $3) and an assortment of cold drinks and desserts, such as green tea ice cream and shaved ice.
In the past month, I've already been here at least seven times. There's always something new to try. Perhaps my curiosity gets the better of me, but at such affordable price points, who could really argue? Careful, though - during the lunch time rush, Cafe Zaiya fills up quickly and items run out, so you'll want to come early to grab your first pick.
If it's a clear day, take your lunch to nearby Bryant Park and sit in the sun (or shade, if you want). I've had some entertaining moments observing a rousing game of ping pong or chess in the park, or just straight-up 'people watching.'
Next time you're in midtown and craving some well-crafted lunch fare, give Cafe Zaiya a try. You're sure to be rewarded for your time. As for me, I'm going to mentally index this spot under my "Midtown Eats Favorites."
Rating: 4.5 stars.
18 E 41st St
New York, NY 10003