With the rampant izakaya or izakaya-inspired openings in SF (Nihon, Umami, Hime, Sozai, and the soon-to-open O), it's time to pay homage to one of the originals, ~OYAJI~, tucked away on a foggy stretch of Clement out in the Richmond. The style of dining is Japanese tavern-style, a place where you get together with friends, eat small plates of home-style food while drinking (often too much) from shared bottles of sake, soju, and Sapporo. This place is one of my favorites to get a good-sized group together, like eight friends or so, who like to do damage with you. A cab is a wise idea, and since Oyaji is almost out in BFE, you might want to share the fare, because tonight, my friend, the odds are good that you are getting tipsy.
But no matter how wasted you get, it's hard to top the BAC of the owner, Hideki, AKA the (usually) rather drunk owner who will make comments about your breasts, your date's balls, or any number of inappropriate topics, all the while drinking your sake (hey, you offered it to him! Wait, or did you? Anyway.) It's not like you weren't warned: the name of the place is oyaji, which I was told means "dirty old man."
Personally, I found the whole thing hilarious the first few times, but the bottom line is the guy has a serious drinking problem, and the "Oyaji Show" (whose rating can veer from PG-13 to NC-17 later in the evening) can be a little much, if not a bit saddening when you step back and think about it. Anyway, don't bring mom or any prudish friends who get offended easily.
Last time I was here we had a group of eight or so sassy ladies (and our token homo). One of the ladies was designated to keep a close eye on Hideki, alerting us when he was "out of the box" and roaming around. He must have vibed our iron curtain, because Hideki actually let us be. Nary a boobie joke. He even sported us with a bottle of soju--he can be quite generous that way.
When I come here, I actually don't even consider the sushi--I'm too fired up to try all the other dishes calling me on the menu, from the tame (kani cream korokke: deep-fried crab croquettes with béchamel, onion and egg/$7) to the exotic (kurage su: jellyfish in a tangy vinegar dressing/$4) to the super funky/totally wrong (ika natto: raw squid with sticky, fermented soy beans/$6--I have no plans to repeat this one). It's the kind of place you can afford to experiment with the outré, because odds are it will only put you back $4-$7 if you don't like something.
Many tables opt for the Oyaji beef ($10), a saucy version of Japanese fajitas, served with onions and bubbling away on a sizzling platter. There are also at least ten different grilled skewers ("kushiyaki") you can order, from chicken thighs to pork tongue to duck to veggies ($3.50-$7.50)--extra delish with a hit of the spicy chili miso paste.
One trick when ordering here is to just order a little bit at a time, otherwise everything happens really fast, even if you ask them to take it slow--kind of like a 20-year-old boy. Just know when it's time to order some more dishes, you practically need to fire off a flare to get the somewhat overwhelmed servers' attention. This is why you should always have at least one bottle of something to drink in front of you--consider it self-entertainment.
Some pals who lived in Japan invited me along for dinner here one night; they taught me about ordering a bottle of soju, and then you ask for ice, water, and lemon wedges--you fill up each glass with ice and soju, with a splash of water to your taste, and a spritz of lemon. Fab.
Hmmm, I need more to eat. Hello, buta no kakuni (steamed pork belly/$7.50) with spicy mustard, and let's try some yaki onigiri (rice balls with salmon and bonito/$3.50), which we didn't love so much. Much better was the gindara kasuzuke (grilled codfish in sake lees/$10), or the ankake dofu (deep-fried tofu with thick ankake sauce/$5.50). Actually, vegetarians can have some fun here, from burdock a couple ways to mushrooms to at least five different deep-fried numbers.
Here's the shocking thing: if you have a large enough group, you totally feast, and still walk out of there spending $40 or less. I don't know how it happened last time, but it did. Magic. I think it's the sushi that can jack things up quick. Speaking of the bill, you'll want to give it a once-over, no matter bow bleary you are: every time I've been here something is wrong, either being overcharged or even undercharged (yes, we told them they forgot to charge us for our second bottle of soju--mama raised us right).
So, let's recap: go in a group (make reservations in advance or you'll never get a table), take a cab, be adventurous, and keep a watchful eye on the drunk guy, or he might slip a live freshwater crab down your friend's shirt (true story).
* Follow-up from a star tablehopper reader: "Oyaji does not exactly mean "dirty old man". It means "father" in a more informal sense, but in some cases they are one in the same, so your sources were partially right.
Speaking of Oyaji, the next time you go, ask if they have grilled hamachi cheeks available. It's not on the menu, but sometimes it pops up as a special. It's fabulously rich and you get so determined to pick off every bit off the bones."
3123 Clement St.
Cross: 32nd Ave.http://www.blogger.com/img/gl.link.gif
San Francisco, CA 94121
Sun 5:30pm-10:00 pm
Small plates $3.50-$14