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Jan 17, 2013 02:42 PM

Izakaya Roku in San Francisco

Sunday night a group of friends joined me to check out the new Izakaya Roku. What I’d read about it gave me some inkling that it might be what I’ve found missing in the City’s attempts at izakaya atmosphere or cooking. While I loved the izakaya offerings that Sebo used to have on Sundays, my experiences at Chotto and Nombe had soured me on the genre in San Francisco. Eating this style of Japanese drinking food in San Jose and Los Angeles has been far more satisfying. Yes, the consensus on Izakaya Yuzuki rates it highly, but the price point and cooking refinement are not what I seek. To me, izakaya is a crowded pub with rustic, moderately priced food and that’s what I found here.

Our party of nine ordered a huge variety but still less than half of Roku’s extensive menu. Before diving into the yakitori section we asked first if the grill was gas or charcoal. Our server said that Roku uses bincho tan. We asked her to let the kitchen decide whether to salt grill or use sauce (tare) on the various skewers to show each at their best . . . this might have been a mistake on our part.

Here’s a rundown from worst to best.

Crispy chicken wings, $7 – Grilled, seriously underseasoned, not crispy. Some said their wing was undercooked, others were overcooked.

Yaki onigiri, 3x$3 – Not grilled enough, barely colored and not crisped on the exterior. Not packed tightly, fell apart.

Smoked salmon and mozzarella crostini, $7 – Garlic toast base so hard could barely bite through, not enough salt, hot melted cheese made the avocados slimy.

Gyu skewers, 2x$3.50 – Thin slices of beef loin seriously overcooked and tough like jerky, boring sauce.

Tsukune, 3x$3.50 – Cold in the middle, bland, too firm. Possibly better with sauce instead of salt.

Salt grilled hokke, $9 – Overdone surprisingly as mackerel is pretty forgiving of overcooking.

Karaage, $7 – Nice crunchy crust, meat too dried out, underseasoned, not juicy.

Grilled chicken skin skewers, 2x$6 – Flabby, very pale and no color development.

Ban ban ji, $9 – Interpretation of Sichuan dish, little chile spice other than some threads on top, slices of chicken dried out, would prefer pulled meat, sesame sauce lacked focus and fell flat.

Mochi bacon, 2x$3 – No bubbling on surface of mochi, bacon could be crisper, sauce more complementary to this skewer.

Pork belly skewers, 2x$4 – Good meat to fat ratio with about 2/3s lean, little smoke influence or color, underseasoned. Served with a pile of coarse salt on the plate, tasted as if none added to the meat before cooking.

Kimchee pork, $7 – Very fresh kimchee with little character other than primary chile and crunchy cabbage stir-fried with pork slices.

Stir-fried pork and sprout, $6 – Homely, homestyle dish, large portion for the price and meat heavy, coarse-textured pork slices, Chinese chives cooked thoroughly.

Salmon skewers, 2x$4 – Not overcooked, served with a tartar-like sauce on the side.

Ingen goma ae, $4 – Less than inch-long lengths of green beans cooked just right to develop the flavor and keep their snappiness, small portion for the price, tasty sesame sauce.

Tako wasabi, 2x$4 – Strips of raw octopus dressed with pungent wasabi and ginger, packs a wallop.

Takoyaki, 2x$7 – Dubbed “octopus beignets” by our group, griddled puffs with scant amount of octopus, should be crisper, five to an order.

Roku’n octopus, $6 – Deep-fried baby octopi lopped into head and leg portions, very chewy and verging on tough, spicy sauce option was delectable.

Tuna tartar, comped – Kitchen sent out an extra dish that is not on the menu yet, very pretty non-izakaya presentation with dots of wasabi cream decorating the plate. Thin fried shell holding the cubes of dressed red tuna turned soggy.

Kurobuta sausage, 2x$5 – Not grilled here, but delicious nonetheless. Curious that the menu says “five pieces” and what is sent out is three whole sausage and two halves. Served with spicy ketchup and Dijon mustard, would have preferred hot Korean-style mustard that other places provide. I recommended to my friends who really liked these wienies that they can buy them in the freezer section at Japanese grocers.

Gyu suji nikomi, $5 – From the Mama’s cooking section of the menu and comforting as all get out. Cylinders of beef tendon braised overnight with miso, stewed softer than a Chinese or Vietnamese cook might.

Udon carbonara, $8 – Even though I don’t care for straight up mentaiko (spicy cod roe) on my ramen, I adore spaghetti mentaiko where the addition of butter, cream or egg yolk’s richness rounds out the chile bite. So I was looking forward to trying Roku’s take on the dish. Incorporating cheese, bacon and eggs makes this version richer still and the better for it. Could have used more spicy cod roe and the udon’s somewhat overcooked, but there’s still a lot to love about this dish.

Roku pot, $14 (serves 2) – We called this pork and chicken nabe the “golden pot”. Very delicious, round and deep stock base but not nearly enough of it, as we drained all the delicious soup and left the meat and other fixings behind behind. One ding, Chinese chives not cooked, neither sautéed nor steamed under the lid.

Devil tofu, $7 – Highlighted in Tasting Table’s review and deservedly so. Light but packed with flavorful seaweed, sesame, chili oil, ginger, and dried chile shreds.

Torikawa ponzu, $5 – The dish I was tempted to bogart. We tried to order a second but already sold out for the night. Thin strips of chicken skin fried to a crackly chicharon-like crunch dressed with tart ponzu that cut through the richness.

After a couple service mis-steps we were also comped a salmon dish that had strawberries and a huge pile of onion shreds with a sauce that tasted like balsamico to me. I missed seeing or tasting it before the salmon and most of it disappeared so can’t comment.

My advice on ordering here is to skip the yakitori skewers, as technique and seasoning was abysmal. Those were the dishes that fell to the bottom of the heap and make this meal seem worse than it was. There were enough successes that I’d return for the favorites and explore more.

My friends were curious that I did not try the ramen here. Too hard to share with a group, but I'll return some time to give it a whirl. The depth of the non-ramen soup stock in the nabe was encouraging.

Roku deserves a special mention for the ladies room that features a Toto Washlet. Not so the men’s room, I’m told.

To drink we went through a bottle each of Kubota and Nanbu Bijin, plus some Sapporo beers. Our tab came to $346 with tax and a generous tip. Food cost was $26 per person, and those of us who had alcohol paid a total of $44 for food and drink.

What have others tried here?

Izakaya Roku
1819 Market St
San Francisco
Closed Mondays

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  1. The skewers were disappointing; nearly all undercooked. I liked the nabe the best, along with the devil's tofu and tendon. The salmon with strawberries was good, and I got a good piece of ban ban ji, but would rather go to Spices for the real thing.

    I thought the green beans were waterlogged and didn't like the carbonara; it felt like Japanese macaroni and cheese mix to me.

    Friendly, accommodating service and a nice sake list. I'd probably go back with two or three people, based on the size of the tables. They have comfortable bar seating with real chairs but one or two people wouldn't get to try very many dishes.

    4 Replies
    1. re: Windy

      Just goes to show that binchotan (Japanese white charcoal) alone is not a guarantee of good yakitori. Vincent said it well that we should stop ordering skewers at non-grill specialists. Seems like simple food, but the flaws in execution become even more evident.

      The comparison to mac n cheese is apt. Though not that cheesy, the carbonara had that same stultifying quality and the soft pasta too. Do you like well-prepared spaghetti alla carbonara?

      1. re: Melanie Wong

        I love carbonara for breakfast. But that's West Hollywood style (Hugo's) rather than Italian.

        I was especially disappointed at the rice balls after having them at NoJo. NoJo has some flaws, but they know how to grill.

        1. re: Windy

          Funny, we were talking about Nojo on my end of the table. I've not been there. It's starting up counter service and lunch some time in February.

          1. re: Melanie Wong

            The food I've eaten there was very good, just pricey, with various service issues. But I'd walk in just for a grilled rice ball and the dessert with the black sesame ice cream and Cracker Jacks.

            There aren't a lot of counter seats, so it sounds like they're testing the waters.

    2. i came here tonight purposefully seeking out the ramen. except we didn't eat any. my buddy just had surgery on his sinuses and needs to keep his head elevated, and i decided that bending down over a bowl of noodles just wasn't the right medicine.

      so instead we had: (off the specials menu) stuffed shiitake mushrooms. so two shrooms stuffed with a seasoned ground pork filling, coated in panko and fried. this was really good. almost like a tasty gyoza stuffed into a shiitake mushroom and fried, kushikatsu style.

      karaage: to me it was sort but i don't think i love karaage in general. i keep encountering weak crust. this was drizzled with the "spicy" sauce, which tasted like bbq. the meat was tender, and i think unlike yours, was juicy. it was yummy to me, if uninspired.

      takoyaki: this is just such a weird dish to me. after gorging myself on kushi katsu-like dishes in osaka in 2011, i got up from the bar we went to afterwards and announced that i was going to eat takoyaki, since i was in osaka. i was looked upon with fear, but i went and did it. this was a bizarre revelation. gooey mouth burning balls of sticky batter stuffed with octopus, covered with powdered nori pickled red ginger, and drizzled with bulldog sauce and kewpie mayo.

      so i wasn't in osaka and these won't take me back there, but i liked them and so did my recovering scottish buddy. the "wasabi cream" was drizzled instead of kewpie mayo, but didn't really have that sting.

      seaweed salad? like anywhere else's.

      tsukune skewer? i agree that maybe yakitori is not the way to go here. there was nothing wrong or memorable about the two preps of tsukune. shio vs. tare? doesn't matter, and if i didn't know they were grilled over charcoal before hand i would never have noticed.

      nikujyaga: i love this dish. it's totally homestyle cooking and i can't think of another restaurant that has it on the menu. its almost a japanese answer to beef stew, but not....

      "niku" means meat and "jaga" is short for jaga-imo, which, i believe, makes nikujaga translate directly into english as "meat and potato." it was stewed potato, onions, and carrot and a touch of green bean cooked with paper thin, sukiyaki or shabu shabu style sliced beef, rib-eye, i think. cooked in dashi, soy, and sake. it is a dish i've only eaten in my japanese friend's mom's kitchen, and i love it. i think if western palates were exposed to this home-cooked meal, they'd go wild for it. this version is pretty tasty, but not revelatory. i think that's the point, though. its good, hearty, delicious food, but really humble.

      still want to go back to try the ramen. saw a few bowls going around, and they smelled good, but...

      and dessert: green tea and red bean ice cream with small scoops of red bean paste and mochi-ish gummies. ok.

      so i will go back, and hopefully experience more of that menu. after my tasty but pricey meal at izakaya yuzuki, which seems to be more of a refined dining setting rather than the spirit of a japanese izakaya, i have some hope for roku.

      1 Reply
      1. re: augustiner

        Thanks for the detailed report! I want to try the nikujyaga. Seems like the braised dishes are a strength here.

      2. Went last night, my friend ordered so I'm not sure what everything was, there's a lot of stuff on the various menus that's not on the web site.

        Takowasabi ($4), raw marinated octopus, as promised on the menu went really well with the shochu ($42 bottle from the night's specials menu).

        Shiro-kara ($4), same sort of thing but squid with innards, was a little sweet for me but again nice with shochu.

        Tsukune ($3.50), minced chicken with shiso and ginger, really good.

        Pork belly skewer ($4) with soy sauce, very good.

        Grilled whole shrimp ($4), really good, would order more next time.

        Some kind of Koreanish salad with kimchi was really good.

        Chicken skin skewer, one end was nicely charred and good, other end was flabby and just OK.

        Cucumbers came with a huge amount of house-pickled American apricots, nice but I prefer ume.

        I think we had a few more things I forget. Great value, with tax it was $84, and half that was the shochu.

        7 Replies
        1. re: Robert Lauriston

          What made the tsukune and the pork belly skewer good to you?

          1. re: Melanie Wong

            The tsukune was really nicely seasoned. The pork belly was nicely cooked, simple but I'm a sucker for pork belly. Neither was on a par with Ippuku.

            1. re: Robert Lauriston

              I agree about the tsukune, I went last night and ordered it along with the tonpei-yaki and both were absolutely delicious. The tsukune was packed full of flavor, mosit and very well prepared. The tonpei-yaki was really delicious as well and a favorite. I'm considering returning tonight to sample some of the suggestions from Melanie's earlier review.

              Edit: I should note that we ordered the tsukune with sauce rather than salt, on the recommendation of our waitress. Perhaps that's where you went wrong.

              1. re: OliverB

                I went back again tonight and ordered the takowasabi, kawa yakitori with salt, takoyaki, agedashi tofu, roku'n octopus, nikumaki onigiri and a few glasses and bottle of sake. I enjoyed everything except for the kawa, which I only took a bite of and left the rest. It was completely dry and flavorless, chewy and fatty, and not crisp at all. Perhaps I should have ordered the ponzu; it looked nothing like Melanie's photo above and was anything but crispy. The texture was sinewy and really unappealing. The rest of the dishes were wonderful though. My favorite was the agedashi tofu. Next time I go back, I want to try their roku ramen which looks really fantastic and everyone seemed to be ordering. I really like this place a lot!

                1. re: OliverB

                  How was your trip to NYC? Some Chowhounds would like to know! Please report back on the Manhattan Board ;-)

                  1. re: prima

                    Oops, I thought I did!

                    I'll report later this aft... I tried to post from our hotel room halfway in but my cell phone was acting screwy. Thanks for reminding me!

                    1. re: OliverB

                      Awesome. Looking forward to it :)