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by nancy j. brandwein

even though bbq joint rack and soul downsized its upper west side outpost, the giant orange sign eclipses next-door-neighbor saji's. yet out of this tiny, authentic japanese storefront come some big flavors, like that of the agedashi tofu appetizer ($4.25). saji's takes a block of aged firm and silken tofu and fries it in the lightest of batters-perhaps just a dusting of cornstarch. the hot tofu comes out wearing a lacy camisole of batter, floating in a bowl of cool, strong, smoky japanese soy broth. green frills of scallion tips as well as pink pickled ginger strips decorate the top. no workaday tofu, this: it has the texture of crème brulee custard.

the intricate layers of flavor and texture belie the gigantic hokey menu, which, like teriyaki boy and all japanese fast food spots, is composed entirely of garish, grainy photos. the counter men only speak spanish, but fortunately, saji's has a following among columbia's japanese students, so you'll easily find a translator. no translation is necessary for "bargain," which you get with the $5.99 lunch specials (served from 11:30 a.m.-4 p.m.)-from the chicken teriyaki/gyoza combo to the avocado salad with soba noodles. all specials are ample and come with rice, salad and homemade cold japanese barley tea.


saji's japanese restaurant

256 w. 109th st. (betw. broadway and amsterdam ave.),


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