The nuances and clean lines of Japanese cuisine have long intrigued. I grew up during East Coast days with my lifelong best friend, who is half Japanese, discovering authentic cuisine in her home and around New York City, fondly recalling the first time I had sushi, okonomiyaki and sake, shabu-shabu in Manhattan.
SF boasts one of few Japantowns in the US – the oldest and largest Japantown in the country – and a dense Japanese community, so restaurant and market options are vibrant. Sushi is one of my greatest cravings, and the izakaya-Japanese pub/bar food wave seems to re-hit SF every few years with a slew of openings. Outside of these two dominant categories, we’re blessed with Kappou Gomi’s memorable small plates (buttered scallops, tempura crusted in macadamia, almonds and other nuts), Kare-Ken and Muracci’s Japanese curry, intimate Minako for organic, unusual dishes, Macha Cafe and YakiniQ Cafe for matcha tea, sweet potato coffee, and Japanese-influenced treats, Kitchen Kura for an okonomiyaki menu, Delica for Japanese deli goods, the list goes on. These three younger Japanese restaurants offer comforting food at a reasonable cost.
CAMP BBQ, Inner Richmond (4014 Geary Blvd. between 4th & 5th Ave., 415-387-1378)
Opening this summer, Camp BBQ is Japanese grilling taking its cues from Korean BBQ. The long space is lined in rustic Japanese woods, roomy tables surrounding individual grills. Like Korean BBQ, mini-bowls of dipping sauces (like a house miso) arrive, then platters of vegetables, such as a “rainbow mix” ($6) of carrots, bok choy, onions and garlic cloves wrapped in foil, ready for the grill. Scallops soak in garlic butter ($7), tender and buttery in foil.
When it comes to meats, there’s many options, sliced thin, generally tender – only the pork cheek, though juicy, was a little tough to bite. Kobe-style Kalbi chuck short rib ($13 for 3.5 oz.) and ox tongue ($8) are two worthy beef options, though I find the cheaper, savory qualities of spicy pork ($4) and pork cheek ($5) even more appealing. Portions are small enough to mix-and-match while sipping sake, Japanese beer, even pineapple or watermelon slushies. Moving away from the grill, cheese pockets ($5), essentially wontons supposedly filled with cream cheese and shrimp, are disappointingly empty. The setting is mellow with families and friends grilling and singing along (in the case of the kids during my last visit) to somehow appropriate dance pop tunes as backdrop.
SHABUWAY, Inner Richmond (5120 Geary Blvd. between 15th & 16th Ave., 415-668-6080)
Hot pot stylings of shabu-shabu are the basis for Shabuway, the first SF location of a local Bay Area chain that began in 2004 in San Mateo, growing to locations in Mountain View, San Jose, Union City, Santa Clara. Eiichi Mochizuki launched Shabuway using meats from animals fed on all vegetarian diets: Angus Prime, American kobe, Niman Ranch lamb, Kurobuta Berkshire pork. The result translates into a fresher than average shabu experience. In keeping with the meaning of shabu-shabu (“swish-swish”), one selects thinly-sliced meat of choice, chooses spicy miso or seaweed broths, then swishes raw meats in boiling broth until done. Vegetables (like cabbage, carrots, enoki mushrooms) and mini-bowls of soy and crave-inducing gomadare (an almost creamy sesame sauce) arrive, filled up when running low, with add-ons like udon or ramen noodles a mere $1-$1.75. When finished cooking meats and veggies, flavor-rich broth is poured over rice, eaten soup-like as a finish.
There is little besides shabu-shabu on the menu, an appreciated focus, but a special I’d recommend if you see it is takoyaki ($4.50), octopus dumpling balls topped in benito flakes, essentially okonomyiaki (the fantastic Japanese “pancake”) in bread-y ball form, dotted with customary mayo and savory-sweet okonomiyaki sauce.
KIRIMACHI RAMEN, North Beach (450 Broadway St. between Kearny & Rowland, 415-335-5865)
Ramen is akin to pho in Vietnamese food or other filling soups in Asian cuisine. Maybe it was the month I spent in Vietnam eating far less than fresh pho (think greasy broth and unidentifiable meat) at locals only pho bars around the country, or most likely it’s my craving for bold, pronounced flavors that have made me not so much averse to basic broth soups as just bored by them.
Typically, I prefer udon or soba noodles when it comes to Japanese soups for more texture and emphasis on the noodles. I may never be obsessed with ramen, pho or the like but Kirimachi Ramen, a months’ old spot tucked away in North Beach with 1950’s diner chairs and laid back vibe, does well by the genre. All bowls are hefty at$10, with veggie, pork or chicken as a base. They told me they haven’t found a reliable organic pork source yet but use Marin Sun Farms chicken, focusing on fresh ingredients. I took to Sapporo-style miso ramen with chopped pork, Chinese chives, bean sprouts, corn, with additional toppings ($1) including kikurage mushroom, fish cake and soft-boiled egg.