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Is there anything good and inexpensive in Japantown these days? [San Francisco]

My apt. is less then a 10 minute walk from Japantown and I'm often craving inexpensive udon or soba, tempura, ramen, tonkatsu, tofu, unagi, bentos or cheap omakase lunch specials, but have never taken the time to really explore the restaurants and plaza in this neighborhood. I realize that there's generally considered far better Japanese elsewhere in the city (seems odd; is that because of high rents or commercialization or something?) but I'd be very satisfied with any recommendations for just good and cheap places that don't necessarily have to be the best in town. Preferably with authentic flavors. I'm not asking for mediocre or bland recommendations to be clear... I'm just asking for the best of what's accessible in the area. Is there anything worth the walk down Van Ness from my apartment? Are there any reasonably priced counter stalls in the Plaza? A good independent grocery or conrner store perhaps where one could get bento style lunches or cheap but fresh sashimi, hand-pulled noodles, etc? Any tips at all would be really appreciated!

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  1. Cheap to me btw, is $15 or under (before tax).

    Think food truck pricing.

    1. I also live nearby and visit a good amount. It's a strangely inessential foodie neighborhood considering the density of restaurants, but there are a few places I like enough to return. Sometimes it's worth it took look up from your bowl of mediocre noodles to see teenagers dressed as goth babydolls wandering aimlessly through the hallways of a worse-for-the-wear 60's mall.

      I'll note that I've never been to Japan and have no idea of whether what I'm eating constitutes an "authentic flavor" or not; this is just what I like in the area, not limited to Japanese food:

      Fat Angel
      I adore the smoked trout salad ($13) and liked the roasted red grape/walnut flatbread ($11).

      Roostertail
      Good chopped salads. I find them too expensive, but I think they do fall under the $15 mark.

      Mifune
      I like this as a working lunch restaurant. It's nice to spread out in one of their little cubbies with a bowl of sansai mountain vegetable udon. Under $10 I think.

      Yakini Q Cafe
      Good: iced yuzu tea, baked goods from Patisserie Phillipe. Don't know about their signature sweet potato latte, sounds too sweet for me.

      4 Replies
      1. re: pane

        Thanks so much Pane, I'll look into all of these further and give 'em a shot; Mifune sounds good!

        1. re: pane

          The sweet potato latte is indeed too sweet! You can discern some sweet potato flavor out of the drink, but it's really just too sugary to enjoy.

          1. re: pane

            Thanks for mentioning the iced yuzu tea at Yakini Q, pane. I love all things yuzu, and this would be a good chance to try some stuff from Patisserie Philippe. We have never been to Japantown despite a dozen trips to SF (doh).

            1. re: pane

              I recently found out that you can request the sweet potato latte without the simple syrup added. Much better!

            2. i also live in the area, and walk down there a lot.

              -okonomiyaki at mifune don

              -various at mifune (main)

              -sashimi platters from nijiya ($20 but could be split). nijiya also has various other less expensive bentos. i don't know if they are good though.

              -yakiniQ ($20 but good / all you can eat)

              -sophie's crepes

              -suzu noodle house is decent

              -doobu for korean is pretty good

              i've been to japan a number of times, and think the food is generally fairly representative / authentic, as does a friend who lived in tokyo for a few years.

              14 Replies
              1. re: Dustin_E

                Thanks Dustin, I'm sitting in a booth at Mifune Don now, waiting for an okonomiyaki with pork, scallops, shrimps and squid! Looks great so far...

                1. re: OliverB

                  Great okonomiyaki! Not the best I've had nor surely the best in town, but it was very good and packed full of fresh squid, large chunks of scallop, whole shrimp, and tender pork; it hit way above expectation!

                  I was about to post what a great deal that was for under $10 (I was certain it was 9.00 and change on the menu) but I just got the bill for $15+ so closer to $20 with tip. Still great although not as cheap as I'd thought! It might have been a mistake though; Ill pay more attention to the bill next time.

                  Btw, part of the reason for cost consideration is because I'm planning a 1.5 month delayed honeymoon across Japan next fall... So I've vowed to eat out less and not spend more than $10-15 on solo meals during the week. It's often hard because I'm working from home and an in a food wasteland (Van Ness and Clay!) but I'm glad to know there's an option for good okonomiyaki nearby!

                  Can anyone please recommend the best udon or ramen in the area? Also, anywhere for good bento lunches in the $12 range?

                  Thanks!!

                  1. re: OliverB

                    Relatively new Waraku makes my favorite ramen in the area, but it doesn't exactly have stiff competition; Waraku's ramen is passably good, but it's also not the cheapest bowl around. I like the firm, yellow noodles, the raw pressed garlic, and the fact that the broth has pretty good flavor without being at all salty. I did not really like the pork, and the whole bowl really wasn't hot enough, but it's still much better than the offerings at Tanpopo or Suzu.

                    Not a meal item, but if you're going to walk from Van Ness, Benkyodo is definitely worth a short detour for a mochi dessert- the chofu is my favorite. It's not available every day, but you can definitely get them on Wednesdays and Saturdays.

                    1. re: drinkmoretang

                      i agree completely with this assessment of waraku.

                      1. re: drinkmoretang

                        Waraku is a venture of Eiichi Mochizuki, the hyperactive chef who brought us Hime, Men Oh Tokushima Ramen, and most recently Raijin Ramen on Taraval. (He also recently acquired Shabusen on the Buchanan Mall and owns a half dozen Shabuway franchises from here to Los Angeles).

                      2. re: OliverB

                        Is buying from Nijiya and cooking at home an option? I'm sure they must have some ramen or udon you like. Just need to add some protein and/or veggies.

                        1. re: OliverB

                          glad you enjoyed it -- what place in town do you think has a better version?

                          you probably got the combination okonomiyaki -- i believe the single-ingredient non-seafood ones are less expensive.

                          hope you will report on your journey across japan on the (borderline-dead) japan boards.

                          be sure to post back on any japantown finds -- would be helpful to find more decent things there.

                          1. re: Dustin_E

                            I feel like IDing great food in Japantown could be a Chowdown challenge in and of itself. 20 people meet at the Japantown mall, assemble into groups of 2-3 and disperse. Your mission: find one excellent dish within mall or 1 block radius outside.

                            1. re: pane

                              My go-to one-dish for lunch:

                              Takara Japanese Restaurant for shio saba, Taramiso/black cod, Takara Chirashi
                              takararestaurant.com
                              http://www.takararestaurant.com/lunch...
                              validates one hour parking in the garage under the mall

                              Jitlada Thai Cuisine for the Mango Salad
                              jitladasf.com

                          2. re: OliverB

                            FWIW you can eat very reasonably in Japan, in the $10-15 range for casual lunch/dinner, unless you're planning on hitting name places only. They have a wonderful "fast" food culture.

                            1. re: rubadubgdub

                              Yes I know, but we'll be traveling all over Japan for 1.5 months and are planning to balance out the cheaper blue collar Izakaya bars and market stalls with some really high end meals in the bigger cities like Tokyo. We're not eating exclusively at name restaurants but as its our honeymoon, were not exactly on a stringent budget. We're staying at some very high end ryokans and hotels and it is proving to undoubtedly be the most expensive trip I've ever taken... But it's been a lifelong dream and its a special ocassion!

                        2. re: Dustin_E

                          Dustin, what do you recommend at Suzu?

                          1. re: OliverB

                            so suzu is not a super strong recommendation of mine, but i believe it is inexpensive and decent -- it is at least very frequently crowded with a wait.

                            i've had various good noodle dishes there.

                            i think some of their other dishes are better than their ramen.

                            1. re: Dustin_E

                              Suzu's Udon used to be my go to in J-Town when I lived in the city many moons ago. At one point they made their own noodles I believe. Still looking for a great Udon place in the Bay Area...I miss U:don in Seattle and the great Sanuki in Gardena.

                              Sad to hear about Maki as that used to be the best restaurant in the mall. It was one of my splurge restaurants in the early 2000's.

                        3. Izumiya, across from the Kinokuniya bookstore in the mall next to the Kabuki, sounds like the kind of place you're looking for. I especially like the grilled squid w ginger; sushi is decent. Prices are very reasonable.Nijiya Market has an extensive takeout section in the front and also sashimi in the back. I think around 530-600 they discount the prepared items, which is handy for dinner or premovie.

                          10 Replies
                          1. re: rubadubgdub

                            Thanks so much! This is exactly what I'm looking for and I will give it a shot and report back next week!

                            1. re: rubadubgdub

                              I've been going to Izumiya for years but recently had two terrible meals there in a row. The okonomiyaki was greasy and overdone. Service, which has never been great, was really poor.

                              1. re: Windy

                                I still find them a reliable choice. Last meal there was only a couple of weeks ago and it hit the spot. One of the reasons I like them so much is you don't have to order a full meal, rather you can just order exactly what you want, even a small snack. But service is not their strong point, agreed.

                              2. re: rubadubgdub

                                A couple take-out, prewrapped items I can recommend from Nijiya for a fairly inexpensive meal.

                                Saba battera Osaka-style sushi, $7.49 for six pieces - Marinated mackerel had a clean, non-chemically taste and was cut in thick slabs. A sheet of kombu over the fish, and shiso leaves were layered with the rice. The only ding would be that the rice was a little too wet, thus on the soft side and not really achieving the desired firmness of pressed sushi rice. But this is a type of sushi not encountered often around here and this was quite satisfying for to-go lunch. Nijiya includes a pack of organic Kikkoman soy sauce and prepared grated wasabi from Japan.

                                Hiyashi chuka, cold ramen salad, $4.99 - Nicely done with a fine julienne of firmer and sweeter Japanese cucumbers, red ginger, egg, strips of boiled ham, and a stick of surimi (which I do not eat). Delicious tangy dressing, slightly sweet, and fragrant with toasted sesame oil. Noodles were a little too soft but not mushy. I'd buy this again too.

                                 
                                 
                                 
                                 
                                 
                                1. re: Melanie Wong

                                  Grated wasabi in takeout? I'm impressed. That stuff's expensive and elusive where I'm from.

                                  1. re: grayelf

                                    It's a little plastic squeeze pack like the soy sauce packets. IIRC the ingredient list was something like horseradish, wasabi, corn syrup, mustard seed... What I liked about it was the grated texture like fresh wasabi root rather than reconstituted powder.

                                    1. re: Melanie Wong

                                      Ah, got it -- it was prolly the horseradish that was grated then. I thought I'd found another reason to be jealous of SFers :-).

                                  2. re: Melanie Wong

                                    Just curious why you don't eat surimi. Is it too highly processed? I eat it occasionally and like it, but I know a lot of people avoid it. Thanks!

                                    1. re: The Librarian

                                      Processing aside, I don't like the texture nor the amount of salt in surimi.

                                2. Some more recommendations for good cheap eats in J-town:

                                  Japanese:

                                  Kissako Tea - best bento box in J-town, by far!

                                  Waraku - decent ramen, the best in J-town but that's not saying much.

                                  Takara - my favorite in the area for basic cooked dishes like saba shioyaki or tonkatsu. Nothing to write home about, but decent lunch specials and authentic.

                                  On the Bridge - makes a decent Japanese curry.

                                  Tanpopo - don't get ramen there, it's terrible! But its a decent place for cheap beer during happy hour (5 to 7 pm weekdays) - $2 drafts, and their takoyaki and torikawaage are pretty darn good with a cold beer.

                                  Also, note that Ramen Underground just opened a branch in J-town; haven't tried it yet.

                                  Korean:

                                  Doobu - good sundubu jjigae and cheap lunch prices.

                                  New Korea House - my favorite hae jang gook in SF. All their soups are pretty good. I don't recommend the BBQ there, though.

                                  9 Replies
                                  1. re: od_sf

                                    Thanks very much! I've been to New Korea House before for dinner and enjoyed it but the others are new to me. Great tips and much appreciated!

                                    1. re: od_sf

                                      have you (or anyone) tried much else from on the bridge?

                                      the shrimp curry don was decent, my main complaint is a too low curry / rice ratio.

                                      i had written this place off for years, just because i thought the fun decor implied bad food -- i was wrong.

                                      i don't know any other good yoshoku places in sf. are there any?

                                      1. re: Dustin_E

                                        As far as I know, On The Bridge is the only place in town serving yoshoku style dishes. I've mostly had their veggie and chicken curries, but I've tried a couple of their spaghetti dishes too (mentaiko spaghetti, if I recall) and it was good.

                                        1. re: od_sf

                                          Haven't had mentaiko spaghetti in ages from anybody. Recently tasted the version at On The Bridge, well, the leftovers that is and liked it quite a bit. Some nice richness from cream and/or butter, medium tone to the spicy cod roe, and a flurry of nori added a vegetal brininess. While the pasta wasn't al dente, it wasn't soft either even when reheated.

                                           
                                        2. re: Dustin_E

                                          On the Bridge is our go-to place in Jtown. Usually get curry, but have also tried ume spaghetti & other things, never had anything we didn't like.

                                          1. re: indigirl

                                            do you get their curry, or curry don?

                                            which versions of his curry do you like, and what spiciness level do you recommend?

                                            thanks.

                                            1. re: Dustin_E

                                              Build your own curry, on the back of the menu. I get mild because of my tender Cantonese palate, so can't say what the hotter versions are like. Total comfort food!

                                              1. re: indigirl

                                                Even the spiciest Japanese curry is very mild.

                                                1. re: Windy

                                                  Although, recently I got some packaged curries from our supermarket here in Tokyo marked "extra hot" 激辛 and they were surprisingly hot, though still easily eaten, but this is a rather new trend.