Cha-Ya nabe (vegan sukiyaki).
Kinoko miso (mushroom soup).
Sea vegetable salad.
A couple weeks ago I reported a new vegetarian Japanese place was opening on Valencia Street, ~CHA-YA~. Well, it's open. And it's so brightly lit you literally can't miss it. I think there must some lab rooms at Genentech studying the effects of overhead fluorescent light on houseplants that are dimmer than this joint. Anyway. After a week of eating like a beast (try three big nights in a row at Oliveto, Terzo, and then Campton Place, I know, poor me, waaah!) I needed something simple. No cream. No meat. No butter. And God, please, no sweetbreads.
Cha-Ya is not only vegetarian, this joint is fully vegan. The room is muy Mission, full of hipsters and hemos (emo homos) and Technicolor-dressed vegan-kidz (they're that funky hybrid of candy raver-meets-militant vegan), all being attended to by engaging Japanese waitresses sporting patterned kerchiefs on their head and groovy aprons. There should be music, but there isn't. (Yet.) You shouldn't be able to inspect your dining partner's pores from across the table, but you can. (Hopefully that will change too.)
Okay, the menu: it's full of things that are good for you. Vegetables abound (what did you expect, pork?). It's also a little confusing when you get to the combo dinner sets, but you'll figure it out. Prices for some dishes seem a little steep ($5.75 for gomaae/blanched spinach) and I had a hard time wrapping my head around the deal in the combo dinner sets. They must be somewhat substantial since they average $17 each.
My pal and I decided to go a la carte, starting with some agedashi tofu ($5.75) for an appetizer. It came piping hot, (ow, hot hot, fan the mouth, where's my water, ow, hot) and was a generous portion of four large pieces of deep-fried tofu, topped with shredded nori, grated daikon, ginger, kaiware, and scallions. Wait, hold up, scallion? This is where Cha-Ya's claim to be "shojin cuisine" drops off. Shojin cuisine, otherwise known as Buddhist monk eats, never uses anything from the lily family (garlic, onion, etc.). So this is where Medicine, the downtown shojin cuisine destination, is the real deal, while Cha-Ya is a loose translation of that style of food.
Okay, so now that we're done wrestling with semantics and tradition, on to my favorite dish of the evening, the "Moon Garden" ($8.25), a steamed tofu custard that comes with broccoli, carrot, shimeji mushrooms (love those guys), squash, and like six other vegetables. Some were a little overdone compared to the others, but overall it was totally spoon-lickingly good. Creamy, rich, and one big hot tub of veggie custard love.
The Cha-Ya nabe (vegan sukiyaki) ($8.50) was a little flat for me—it barely had any of the promised silver noodles, but plenty of nappa cabbage and a total pile of vegetables, mostly the same ones in the tofu custard. It felt like one of those soups that would be good for you if you could only have bland food after being hit with an evil stomach flu for something like eight days. Meh.
The tonchi nasu (stuffed eggplant) ($7) was funky fried fun: green eggplant was stuffed with Satsuma potato (sweet potato), corn, hijiki, carrot, and soybeans, then battered and deep-fried like tempura. It came with a soupy ginger sauce, and was hacked into four very oddly sized pieces. I found it almost impossible to eat with chopsticks—the stuffing would fall out, and I had to employ my soupspoon from the custard to help handle it. But the texture was interesting and kind of good, even if it was unmanageable. I don't think I'd order it again. Maybe I could be coaxed if I had my Swiss Army knife and a fork.
We didn't make it to the sushi—I have to admit, I'm not really into broccolini nigiri. I want toro on my nigiri! But the presentations we saw on the table next to us looked nice enough. There are also udon or soba dishes, tempura, and four kinds of soup to start. We decided to be adventurous for dessert: we had the oshiruko ($4.25), a warm bowl of sweetened azuki beans and little chunks of mochi rice cakes. Funky. Not for everyone, but I liked it.
Servers are kind, and we had a fleet of them who kept us hydrated with tea and water. The bill was cheap for a Saturday night out. (It's cash only for now, so good thing.) I felt healthy and sated, although I went out two hours later for a carnitas taco (kidding!). I'd say most vegetarians and vegans in town will enjoy exploring the menu, and as for the carnivores, I'd say the adventurous ones who like to try different things will find things they'll like, but I wouldn't send picky people here. My wishes for Cha-Ya: get some art, some good music (maybe go talk to Judy over at Minako?), and ditch those overhead lights!
762 Valencia St.
Cross: 18th St.
San Francisco, CA 94110
Combo sets $15.25-$18
Open Tue-Sun, 5pm-10pm
06/10: I have to commend them for fixing the laboratory lighting–it’s actually quite comfortable now. (It would even be good for a vegan first date.) A couple new favorites on the menu: the kinoko miso with tofu and a variety of mushrooms is quite savory and hearty for $6; the sea vegetable salad with hijiki, wakame, and more has a delicious sesame dressing; and I have grown to love the simplicity of the Cha-Ya nabe (vegan sukiyaki). What I do not love is the non-environmental to-go packaging (in a plastic bag, what?), and that the vegetables aren’t organic. It feels rather contradictory to me. Hmm.