Like most love affairs, it takes time to warm up to Saigon’s Japan Town. There’s the disorientating maze of alleys. There’s the over-zealous spa attendants. And then there’s the dizzying neon signs. But those in the know are in love with Saigon’s Japan Town, the hip District 1 haven with a host of rowdy izakayas, ramen joints and omakase sushi spots. And thanks to restaurateurs like Nikichi Nagatsuyu and places like Sushi Tiger there’s a rebirth of Japan Town cool.
Đọc bài viết bằng Tiếng Việt
Saigon’s Japan Town took a major hit during lockdown. Starved of its short-term Japanese residents, who take apartments upstairs in the alleys, and after-work salarymen dropping by for a refuel, the whole area between Le Thanh Ton and Thai Van Lung went to sleep. And lots of places flipped the closed sign for good. But while the alleys emptied, restaurateurs plotted and schemed, imagining a post-pandemic future for the area. And almost as soon as lockdown was lifted, Nikichi Nagatsuyu helped throw open the sliding wooden door to the bright yellow corner standing sushi spot they called Sushi Tiger (it is the Year of the Tiger after all).
Fukuoka-born Nikichi Nagatsuyu looks like he’s about to pick up a surf board and paddle out into the sea off Shikoku with his Bermuda shorts and thongs and carefree Kyushu attitude. But that belies a shrewd entrepreneurial mind, always building new concepts, and proudly helping to evolve Saigon’s Japan Town into a foodie destination. For now, he’s content to stand at the window of Sushi Tiger, guzzle down some sushi, and answer some questions about the rebirth of Saigon’s Japan Town cool.
The Year Of The Sushi Tiger
Sushi Tiger is unadulterated good times. You have to duck through a tiger-printed noren to enter the wardrobe-sized space. Wobbly tables stand on Sapporo beer crates. Latino party music pumps through the stereo. And the windows are slung wide open so you can stand in the alley outside with a highball in hand, as plate after plate of cheap but still-fresh sushi arrives.
But Sushi Tiger is only one of Nikichi Nagatsuyu’s projects helping him fulfill a long-held dream of turning Japan Town into a fantastic, foodie enclave of Saigon. “People used to warn me that if I opened a restaurant here no one would come,” Nikichi smiles. “I remember it as a dark place, without many people,” he adds. But he went ahead and opened Ramen Danbo in 2015 anyway. And it kick-started a revolution in the alleys: “Gradually, more restaurants and bars started opening, and there’s been more and more every year.” That’s including many of his own.
He’s had a hand in lots of the area’s most successful restaurants. There’s the beloved Fujiro tonkatsu spot with its crisp pork cutlets and pools of flavorsome curry sauce, and Mutahiro Ramen, which is often name-checked as the best chicken ramen in town. And they’re mostly filled with Japanese people grabbing a bite to eat and staving off any feelings of missing the flavors of home at the same time.
Bringing the taste of Japan to Vietnam
Besides their authentic taste, Nikichi Nagatsuyu’s restaurants are renowned for their consistency and speedy service. “OK, I have to tell you, I can neither serve nor cook food!” Nikichi laughs. Another remarkable thing is his restaurant teams are all Vietnamese.
“I guess the three biggest things I’ve learnt are the connections and differences between cultures in Vietnam and Japan, and how to bridge them with food. I’ve discovered the joys…and the difficulties of serving people from all around the world. And I’ve realized the importance of setting high targets, and high standards.”
As Nikichi points out, it’s not always been easy. But it’s always been worthwhile. The salty ramen broth he’s served wasn’t an immediate hit with Vietnamese foodies. “We season our ramen exactly as we do in Japan,” he explains. “It’s true that Vietnamese people here don’t go for overly salty and oily dishes. But how can we try to make Vietnamese food better than it already is? I’d rather offer something they haven’t tried and we make things that people don’t make.”
Saigon’s Japan Town…and beyond
There’s a real sense of community in Saigon’s Japan Town. And as its proud ambassador, Nikichi Nagatsuyu happily recommends other places he loves. “There’s Bar Oza for its hospitality,” he begins, “and izakayas like Sakaba Sasuke and Gyutan Kimuraya, there’s ramen at Choi Oi Noodle and Ittou Ramen, and a little further afield, great steak and beef at Il Corda and Yakiniku Yazawa, and Shozo’s supreme omakase over at Fume.”
He’s even branched out of the alleys with the brilliant (and ever-busy) Yakitori Hachibei, over in Pham Viet Chanh, the buzzing part of Saigon often referred to as the second Japan Town.
But back to the alleys between Le Thanh Ton and Thai Van Lung, he tells us there’s been a pleasant increase in the number of Korean restaurants opening. Plus there’s the expansive new 7 Bridges Brewing Co. on the opposite side of the alley.
With so much happening, we wonder what’s next for this restless restaurateur now the alleys are filling up again. Nikichi Nagatsuyu thinks for a minute before deciding: “Ramen Tiger!”
Photos by Nghia Ngo.