New Yen for Japanese Fare on Food-Rich 18th St.

Map by Molly Roy

Map by Molly Roy

En Español.

Delfina, Bi-Rite and Tartine helped turn 18th Street into a gourmet hub, and now three new restaurants are giving the food corridor some Asian flair.

Within less than a year, Ken Ken Ramen, Izakaya Yuzuki and Namu Gaji have moved in — the last two on the same block. Think ramen, multi-course Japanese cuisine and a small-plate mix of Japanese, Filipino and Korean fare. And no, the convergence was not planned.

Yuko Hayashi, the owner of Yuzuki, looked for a place in the Mission for more than a year before deciding on the one vacated by Ebb & Flow, at 18th and Guerrero.

The former CPA wanted space that was already set up as a restaurant. What she didn’t want was to be near other Japanese restaurants. But in a few weeks, Namu Gaji will open its doors one block away from Hayashi’s restaurant.

Plans for it were already underway. Chef and co-owner Dennis Lee, who writes regularly for SFGate’s Inside Scoop, wrote in a post that when he found out through Eater SF that one of his old cooks and friends was opening Izakaya Yuzuki “on the exact same block as our upcoming restaurant, I was both excited and anxious. It was going to be an izakaya and our new concept was inspired by the same idea.”

An izakaya is typically a drinking establishment that serves small plates. Most of the 13 other Japanese restaurants in the Mission focus on sushi; izakayas are relatively new here.

In Japan, co-workers and friends gather at izakayas after work for happy hour.

Lee now says that calling his restaurant an izakaya is incorrect.

“A gastro pub, you could call that an izakaya,” he said. He will serve small plates, but “we’re not purely Japanese food.” Namu Gaji will offer Korean specialties as well as Japanese- and Filipino-inspired dishes. The menu will also include picnic lunches with fried chicken, Korean tacos and shaved ice seven days a week. The restaurant will make its own fermented chili paste, fish sauce and soy sauce in-house.

Lee thinks that Yuzuki’s approach complements what he’s doing. “We have a similar Northern Californian food sentiment and approach to sourcing,” he said, adding that he will be sourcing a lot of herbs and vegetables from a one-acre farm in Pinole.

“It’s awesome having them there. I’ll certainly be eating there often,” he added.

For her part, Hayashi says that at Yuzuki, which opened in November 2011, she is trying to recreate the style of multi-course meals in Japan, which usually include ingredients cooked five ways: raw, simmered, fried, steamed and roasted or grilled.

“For people who love food and who’ve been to Japan, they come and they’re home,” Hayashi said. “I wanted to share the beauty of the dish, then taste. I want people to enjoy the five senses.”

Her menu features Obanzai, Kyoto-style cooked vegetables and tofu made fresh in the restaurant; and yakitori or salt-marinated koji and grilled chicken on skewers.

The chef, Takashi Saito, makes his own tofu and miso. The menu is centered around koji, the basis for sake.

Three blocks east on the same street, Ken Ken Ramen is all about noodles.

Co-owner Robert Patterson used to live on 18th Street and still lives in the neighborhood, so deciding on a location when the business went from pop-up to permanent was easy. He first looked at a spot at Valencia but decided not to go for it.

“Valencia is kind of done,” Patterson said.

In addition to noodle soups, Ken Ken’s menu includes Japanese favorites such as handmade pot stickers or gyoza, seaweed salad and karage fried chicken.

“The more Japanese food, the better,” Patterson said when asked about the other two restaurants.

“We all complement each other,” he said, adding that Ken Ken Ramen is more budget-friendly than the other two.

No matter how many Japanese restaurants there are, the owners of the three new restaurants all agreed: being on 18th Street, close to Bi-rite, Delfina and others, is a good thing.

“People know the 18th Street corridor for the great food, and we wanted to add to the flavor palette,” Lee said.

Rob Black, executive director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association, agreed.

“I do think there is some benefit to reaching a level of density that attracts people,” Black said. “Having a lot of people walking adds energy to the area. Generally that density can be very helpful.”

“Regardless of what kind of food you’re serving, it’s a good place to be,” Lee said.

One Comment

  1. Universal Citizen

    Very excited that at Ken Ken is east of Mission street. Yum!

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