Authentic Asian cuisine of every category is one of California and the Bay Area’s strengths, with constant new openings from hole-in-the-walls to hipster hotspots. Busy dining at a slew of Asian newcomers, like the Richmond’s mellow Daigo Sushi, or Szechuan outpost Chili House, these three restaurants stand out for one (or a few) reasons.
MUGUBOKA, Inner Richmond (401 Balboa St. at 5th Ave., 415-668-6007)
Passing Muguboka many a time over the years, I meant to visit but never did until recently. What I found is a humble, all-day respite serving an impressive array of banchan (mini-dishes accompanying a Korean meal), whether kimchi or myeolchi bokkeum (crispy mini-anchovies). Free, generous banchan and bottomless tea make even upper teens-priced entrees a deal. Dining alone, I attempt to finish the banchan… and fail. There’s a plentiful selection of soups and stews featuring tofu or Korean sausage, and dishes like go dung uh gui (broiled salted mackerel), or hae-mool pajeon, those ever-fabulous seafood-green onion Korean pancakes. I finish with a complimentary, cool pour of sujeonggwa, a sweet Korean punch alive with cinnamon, ginger, peppercorns, dried persimmon.
Best dish: Muguboka serves a mean hae-mool (seafood) dolsot (stone pot) bibimbop ($16.95), the scorching stone pot arrives sizzling with rice, egg, squid, shrimp, mussels, veggies and nori on top.
Best suited for: A mellow setting with copious amounts of Korean food. Expect two meals for the price of one.
RAMEN SHOP, Oakland (5812 College Ave. near Birch, 510-788-6370)
Open just since the beginning of the year, this is an early word on Oakland (Rockridge, to be exact) hotspot, Ramen Shop, packed since day one with long waits (no reservations). A short, ever-changing menu offers three types of ramen, one dessert and a handful of appetizers so it’s possible to try the entire menu in one visit. Chez Panisse alums, Sam White, Jerry Jaksich and Rayneil De Guzman already have a hit on their hands, if crowds are any indication. Though early Yelp comments are trending towards the frustrated-to-spend-$16-on-a-bowl-of-ramen kind, this is quality ramen… house-made noodles, salt-cured eggs, ultra-fresh ingredients. Meyer lemon infuses shoyu ramen ($15) with bright dimension, while spit-roasted chashu (literally pork roast, often known as char siu) adds heft to particularly flavorful spicy miso ramen ($15).
But my favorite aspects aren’t ramen. Meyer lemon shows up again in unique kimchi/house pickled Napa cabbage ($5), to winning effect, a spirited contrast to chili. Then, wild nettle fried rice steals the show (see “best dish”). The third best element is liquor. While wine and beer work quite nicely, it’s a rarity (I can’t think of any other local example) to see cocktails with ramen. Straightforward, refreshing mezcal or rye-based punches ($10) make fine ramen companions, as does a classic hi-ball ($12) of Hibiki 12-year Japanese whisky and soda. A nutty-tasting black sesame ice cream sandwich ($5) in brown sugar cookies is the right finish.
Best dish: Easy… wild nettle fried rice ($9) interlaced with Monterey Bay squid and Llano Seco pork is as comforting as it is gourmet.
Best suited for: The joyous convergence of ramen and Japanese whisky – and for those with time on their hands.
ROKU, Castro (1819 Market St. at Octavia Blvd., 415-861-6500)
Opened in October by JapaCurry‘s Jay Hamada, Roku sits at busy Market and Octavia. Similarly bustling inside, groups of friends down Japanese beer and fried chicken in the form of karaage ($7) or chicken nan ban ($8), the latter a specialty of Kyushu, Hamada’s hometown island in southern Japan. Under warm wood walls graced with unframed, vintage Japanese posters, I opt for the likes of house-made noodles and mochi bacon yakitori (though I couldn’t help but long for FuseBOX’s supreme bacon-wrapped mochi).
During opening weeks, I went straight for dishes I’ve never tried, like shio-kara ($4): room temperature, fermented squid swimming in its own innards. Salty and gummy, it is, as the menu states,”an acquired taste.” Likewise, hotate butter ($12) topped with the vivid orange of tobiko/fish roe is unexpected. Scallops are sautéed in butter, but unlike most of our Westernized experiences with the succulent bivalve, the stomach and membrane skirt are left on around the scallop flesh. Call it umami, call it funky, the taste is more accurately both.
Though I find preferred renditions of classic izakaya dishes elsewhere, it’s items like the seafood salad (see “best dish”) or rare dishes for a bold palate that make Roku interesting.
Best dish: Surprised to prefer a seafood salad ($13) in an izakaya, this one is laden with red king crab and smoked salmon, tobiko, boiled eggs, yellow bell pepper and tomatoes over romaine, bright in a yuzu wasabi dressing.
Best suited for: The hardcore who want authentic dishes they won’t find on typical menus. Also for groups of friends.