The (evil) chicken wings.
Chilled suimono salad.
Ocean trout sashimi.
Pork shoulder roast and chicharrones.
Array of side dishes.
What would I consider a fine quality in a restaurant? Well, for starters, chicken skin on the menu is most certainly an eye-catching item. Oh, and what I’d call “chef chicken wings,” juicy and meaty numbers sporting a crispy and chewy exterior from a homemade toasted rice powder coating, with a total flavor triangulation of sweet local honey, the heat of serrano chile and shichimi togarashi pepper, and the tang of lime and fish sauce. Quality chicken, too (from Fulton Valley Farms).
Chef Nick Balla’s menu at ~NOMBE~ in the Mission actually has a lot of chef food on it, from tripe to pork belly to late night bowls of ramen. I’ve been a fan of his food since he was at O Izakaya Lounge in the Hotel Kabuki, where he did one of the city’s better burgers, and I really dug his hamachi belly yakimono (skewers), and his notable pork belly and housemade kimchee dish.
He may be a tall white boy, but Balla has traveled a lot throughout Japan, and really has a passion for the cuisine, even making his own umeboshi (you can see the containers in the window), pickles, and shichimi togarashi (a pepper blend that he makes with hops instead of hemp, among other custom touches), plus more western items like yogurt, and sour cream that he pairs with Chioggia beets and mizuna.
What’s cool is how Balla balances many traditional or obscure Japanese ingredients alongside local and seasonal ingredients, like the stunning chilled suimono salad ($14). The next heat wave, this is the dish I’ll want: a veritable garden of vegetables (chanterelles, squash blossoms, sea beans, wild arugula, pea tendrils, peppercress, baby shiitakes, grated daikon, purslane, wakame, shiso leaf, and pickled ramps), plus the creamiest tiles of tofu, all composed in a stunning dashi-based broth that is finished with a peppery extra virgin olive oil—so fresh, bright, and quite beautiful.
Since Nombe (which means someone with a penchant for partying, FYI) is an izakaya, the focus is more on cooked dishes, but there are a few daily sashimi selections to try—just don’t look for sushi on the menu, it’s not that kind of place. We had a delightfully fresh ocean trout sashimi ($13)—pink fatty morsels perked up with feisty accompaniments like daikon, ginger, fresh wasabi, peppercress, plus salty roe, and a side of tamari to lightly dunk the fish into.
But really, when you’re drinking (you nombe, you), what you want are even fattier flavor bombs. The chicken wings ($9) are a must (you can even follow this recipe at home)—and ditto on the freaking outstanding Mission motzu ($8). What I love about this dish is that it’s a total Japanese-Mexican mash-up: it’s tripe that’s braised and then grilled, so you get this smoky carne asada effect, balanced with creamy cubes of avocado, a kick of serranos, the brightness of cilantro, and notes of fennel, plus a spritz of lime. Slam dunk—a dead-on cap in my ass.
The sake list here—compiled by co-owner and sake obsessive Gil Payne—will insure you have plenty to drink, 75 choices in all. Since he’s so passionate about the selections, be sure to engage him for spot-on pairings, like the Shichi Hon Yari junmai, which had the right acidity and flavor to pair well with the motzu. You can do flights or bottles (including some big daddy 1.8L sizes), along with pitchers of beer, from Sapporo to Lagunitas IPA, six in all (or there’s Echigo or Yebisu by the bottle), plus there’s shochu, too. (I also want to mention here that Mari Takahashi is another partner at Nombe—she was a partner in her previous venture with Payne, Sozai, and also has a catering service.)
So, back to the vittles—you’ll def want to try a selection of the yakimono (grilled skewers), like the juicy negima (chicken thigh with scallion; $5), the aforementioned chicken skin ($4 for two skewers), and the pork belly with shichimi togarashi ($10). And to balance all this out, a cannot-miss side is the wild nori Koshihikari rice ($4), with the tang of seaweed, nutty sesame seeds, and green onion.
One of the best deals on the menu right now is the Llano Seco Okazu Feast ($35), a pig party that’s enough for two or three friends. You’ll get thick slices of a juicy and fat-marbled pork shoulder roast (about one pound), sprinkled with shichimi togarashi and served with a side of garlic aioli and tonkatsu sauce (loaded with tamarind), crisp chicharrones, thin ribbons of pickled pigs’ ears, and six side dishes. (Yeah, it’s a fiesta.)
Chef sent us out a few extra dishes so we could taste even more. It was a parade of flavor, like the chilled heirloom squash with nepitella, goya (pickled bitter melon) with curried onion, the unusual pear and cabbage kimchee, cucumber and gobo (burdock) cured for six months in miso, and the chewy takuan (daikon) that’s cured in nuka (rice bran) and turmeric for two months. I kept returning to the salty karasumi, thin slices of slightly sticky bottarga of grey mullet (Balla’s uncle sends it—he’s a fisherman in Florida); but I imagine its saltiness and texture wouldn’t be a favorite of everyone. You can order many of these sides on their own for $3-$4—but they were especially well matched for the pork.
I know it appears to be a meat-heavy menu (yeah, there’s beef heart and fried chicken liver on it), but vegetarians will have enough to make a substantial meal here beyond a bowl of rice, from the suimono salad I mentioned, to a few fried vegetable dishes, along with many of the sides.
Dessert is unexpectedly detailed beyond the usual mochi or green tea ice cream selection, like the beignets ($7) dolloped with a concentrated strawberry jam and crème fraîche, and chocolate ice cream truffles ($6), rolled with kinako (toasted soy powder). No, these are not traditional desserts, but they make for a tasty finish.
So, a few quibbles. I really think the menu could use more translation: there are some inscrutable items on there, and I think guests would like to understand what they’re ordering instead of having to ask what is karasumi, katsuo bushi, and karashi, mmmkay?
Also, alas, the décor. The only way I can describe it is Japanese college dorm room-meets-diner. Instead of trying to graphically work with the former diner’s black-and-white check tile, the whole funky look feels thrown together, with a random scattering of Japanese lanterns, wall hangings, and plug-in Christmas lights. But I am quite willing to shelve my design issues once the kickass vittles start coming out of the kitchen—because with one bite of those chicken wings or tripe, you’ll be transfixed.
It’s an ideal spot for a midweek bite (or a late night one!), and I also think it would be fun for groups, too—especially since there’s a side room you could ostensibly take over if your party was large enough. There is also a weekend brunch with a mix of Japanese and Western breakfast items, and a late-night menu from 11pm-2am on Friday and Saturday nights, with dishes like okonomiyaki and ramen (also available for take-out), plus late-night beer and drink specials.
And starting on July 7th, there will be a new u-shaped snack bar near the front door, where you can swing by for noodle slurping and chicken wing consumption during regular business hours. Also look for an outside window for late-night take-out service. Party on, you nombe!
1/10: Chef Nick Balla has departed; the new chef will be changing the menu.