Ask any chef in town—a meatball is an easy sell. At Pizzeria Delfina, the Italian polpette are second only to the restaurant's namesake pizza. Further North at Chotto, a server says the juicy Japanese tsukune are a "must-try." On that note, almost every culture has a meatball, and San Francisco has representatives from more than several camps. Here, a bit of a cultural lesson by way of hand-rolled meat: from fiery Mexican albondigas to pomegranate-speckled Iranian kufteh tabrizi.
A few years ago, nobody around here knew what an izakaya was. The Japanese word literally means "sitting in a sake shop," but it's evolved to encompasses all manner of casual Japanese eating and drinking establishment. Now San Francisco has been hit with a slew of izakayas in the past year or two. We've got Nombe, Nojo, Hecho and Chotto. All of them have simply grilled, seasoned meats that are served on skewers; some have traditional sushi as well. There's also a sustainably minded izakaya called Ki on the way in the Mission. And Sebo, a sushi spot that's long been devoted to the highest quality raw fish, has recently expanded its menu to include cooked items, making it more of an izakaya-type hangout.
So by now, even those who don't have a clue what "izakaya" means, have probably eaten at one. We sat down with two of our city's successful Japanese chefs, Hiro Sone of Ame and Mari Takahashi of Nombe, for a long-overdue schooling in all things izakaya. Here you'll get the male and female perspective on what it all means.
An izakaya might seem like an unlikely restaurant to open in the Marina, but the tradition of the classic Japanese pub—a place bustling with drink-induced rowdiness sopped up with snacky bites of food—is in many ways a perfect fit. Chotto’s got the beer. Now if they’d only add a flat screen showing college ball games, it would be perfect. On the menu you’ll find kushiyaki—grilled skewers of everything from chicken meatballs to freshwater eel—not to be confused with sumiyaki, charcoal-grilled items including Kobe beef tongue. There’s sushi, salads (try the kanisu, a cooling mix of crab and cucumber), agemono (try the fried mushrooms), and tonkotsu ramen. The cloudy, rich broth takes a full 48 hours to prepare, and the springy noodles are made by Yamachan in San Jose.
Ask the average San Franciscan, “What’s an izakaya?” and bet on a blank stare as your response. The word is about as common as “bar” in Japan, but we’re just starting to crack the surface of the notion around here. In its original form, an izakaya is built around alcohol, consumed ad nauseum, and flanked with the necessary protein-heavy small plates to keep peace. Sure there’s sashimi, but skewered meats are the pulse-quickener: hearts, intestines and even chicken feet often steal the show. The protein-heavy barrage ends with a judicious rice bomb of onigiri. Oyaji and Izakaya Sozai have done this forever in the Richmond. And with the past year’s advent of Berkeley’s Ippuku and the Mission’s Nombe, I’d dare say izakayas are a trend.