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Japanese vegetarian - minako or cha-ya?

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Something I thought I'd check out. I see that Minako and Cha-ya are located near each other, and neither seem to take reservations. I may find myself in the area tomorrow - any thoughts? Are the two places comparable? Any comparison to be made to Medicine Eatstation?

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  1. I think it's near-blasphemy to compare the two. The concept and execution at Cha-ya are uninspired, with some real clunkers on the menu.

    My brief write-up on my only visit to Cha-ya: http://www.chowhound.com/topics/46594 .

    Minako's menu is always interesting and sometimes brilliant. Their execution is usually very good, often excellent. Service is slow and unpredictable, but so long as you go in with a relaxed, curious attitude and trust in the mother/daughter team that run the place, it can be incredibly rewarding. Pricier than Cha-ya, and on a much sketchier block.

    Compared to Medicine Eatstation, Minako is less delicate: deep-fried dishes can be heavy, and many items are downright rustic. An important difference from Cha-ya and the old Medicine is that Minako serves fish and, occasionally, meat. Minako has a wide selection for vegetarians and vegans but it is not a vegetarian, vegan, or kosher kitchen.

    10 Replies
    1. re: david kaplan

      I agree with David on Cha-ya. I ate there once. The portions were small and the food was not good. The Chawan Mushi (a dish I love) was grainy and bland. My friend said her soup was OK though.

      1. re: Philip

        How can Cha-Ya offer Chawan Mushi (a dish I love too)? Everything on the menu is vegan so no eggs.

      2. re: david kaplan

        I saw someone somewhere recommend the okonomiyaki at Minako. Do you know what they put in theirs? Is Minako mostly Kansai-style cuisine?

        1. re: coolbean98

          Okonomiyaki is one of the very few things I wouldn't recommend at Minako. It's too thick and heavy. They only occasionally make it as a special.

        2. re: david kaplan

          Any specific dish recommendations? (Failed to find a Minako menu online.)

          1. re: nsheth

            Heartily agree with above.

            You not only won't find a Minako menu online, you won't find one with prices. And they close early. And you have to follow the rules about how to put your name on the list and order.

            When in doubt, stick to specials. Get anything with sauce or marinade--tataki, yuzu sauce, etc. Delicate vegetables and fish in broth. Even the tomato salad dressing is unique. Try something with the aged umeboshi plums. Ask for a side of rice and mommy sauce (their homemade worcestershire).

            The sushi is fine but not what you're there for, unless you're a vegetarian and excited by having three pages of sushi. There are plenty of places to get sushi.

            Cha-Ya does make pretty food, and they're open for lunch occasionally.

            1. re: Windy

              Sounds good, looks like there's a strong consensus here to go to Minako. Thanks!

              Two of us, one is vegetarian.

              Generally pretty busy on a Wed night?

              1. re: nsheth

                Depends on the Wednesday night, but that's the best time to go.

                Oh, and David just reminded me of a favorite dish that's been on the specials: shrimp tempura encrusted in almonds. The mashed potato croquettes are good too.

            2. re: nsheth

              If you don't mind heavy fried food, try Minako's nasu dengaku (cubes of eggplant deep-fried and sauced), agedashitofu (it's inside out -- a deep-fried tofu box with sauce inside), or the kuri-kuri-ebi (shrimp wrapped in potato shreds and deep fried).

              1. re: david kaplan

                Here's a link to my post on Minako from last summer, including a photo and description of the tofu box.
                http://www.chowhound.com/topics/31963...

          2. Thanks to all for the recommendations. We ended up at Minako last week, just thought I'd pass along a few of my thoughts. We ordered a variety of dishes, overall things were done very well. I'll definitely return.

            First, as I had read beforehand, there are definitely some quirks with the service. The waitress gives you a reminder to close your menu when you're ready to order - first time I've been told that explicitly! She also seems to write down the entire dish name as you're ordering, making the ordering process a bit slow. There were often long waits between dishes. Still, the people there were really friendly. I had a discussion with the waitress on other sushi places in the area, she was happy to make dish recommendations, etc. At the end of the meal, between me giving my credit card and getting it back, my total bill was reduced by $3 - because she "liked round numbers" (there aren't prices on all the menu items, so it feels like they just make it up). Oh yah - also check out their restroom, way in the back. Very colorful!

            In terms of the food - ordered a variety of dishes, so I've probably forgotten something . . .

            Started with an almond-crusted tofu dish off the specials menu. Pretty interesting - in many ways, tasted like a candy bar, with the slightly salty nuttiness of the almonds and the slightly sweet tofu. Still, this dish was begging for some sort of dipping sauce, as it felt quite dry by the end (large portion).

            As recommended by David, we tried the fried eggplant dish - very good! Lightly crispy on the outside, giving way to meltingly soft eggplant on the inside, dressed with an addictive slightly sweet sauce, all served in an eggplant shell. I could have just eaten a few orders of this and left happy.

            I tried a cured salmon with honey sauce (sorry, can't remember the details), off the specials menu. Perhaps this was similar to the dish Melanie mentions, though mine was served as a nigiri pair. Very good, though the rice seemed to have an odd consistency, and didn't really hold up.

            I had tried to order, off the specials menu, a dish with hamachi in a mint sauce. Unfortunately, I was informed later that they were out of the sauce - trying to think back to the menu, I remembered a hamachi toro offering on the same page, so I went with that. While the cut was very generous, I didn't think it was a great piece of fish. I decided to stick with the non-sushi-type dishes.

            I also had an order of tataki, as the waitress had recommended. Served quite elegantly in a crystal glass - drew friendly jealously from the table next to us. Tasty.

            As one of us was vegetarian, we also tried a couple of the rolls, one with pickled plum, the other with avocado and vegetarian eel. I tried both - while pretty straightforward and not incredibly exciting, they were good. Portions were huge.

            At the end, we each received a little cube of agar(?), topped with some sort of crumbled tofu. A refreshing end to the meal.

            Total bill, for 2 of us, including a beer and a soda, was $70.

            4 Replies
            1. re: nsheth

              Thanks much for a nice chow report! I'm glad you were forewarned about the service here and could take things in stride.

              1. re: nsheth

                Brace yourself, dumb question ahead: I'm vegetarian, but have not heard of veg eel. Could you fill me in, pleas? Thank you :)

                1. re: enbell

                  I don't recall what it was made out of. I don't think it was tofu. Some sort of root vegetable? I do remember that it kind of had the flavoring of unagi, probably due to the use of the same (or similar) sauce, but not the same texture. If they didn't call it vegetarian eel on the menu, I'm not sure if that's the connection I would have made.

                  1. re: nsheth

                    Hey, thanks for the info :)

              2. I think Kazu in the inner sunset has some of the most yummy and most beautiful vegetarian dishes in SF