There are now plenty of businesses in San Francisco that call themselves an izakaya—and here’s one of the latest to join the fray, ~IZAKAYA ROKU~. It’s a relatively tiny joint on a stretch of Market between the Castro, the edge of the Mission, the Lower Haight, and Hayes Valley (just next door to Pisco). Roku has a social scene, with J-pop playing, tables of friends (mostly Japanese) drinking cold mugs of Sapporo from the tap, and some of the nicest servers, even if they will sometimes abandon your table. Whatever, just keep drinking.
The one thing that harshes the party scene is the crazy-bright lighting in the joint. I’m talking halogen on blast. If they could take it down a few ticks, the beer hall vibe would be more intimate and less Inquisition-like.
The chef-owner, Jay Hamada, is behind the JapaCurry food truck, and this is his first brick-and-mortar location. The menu covers all kinds of dish styles, from grilled to fried (the servers will charmingly announce “there is no sushi here” for those who aren’t izakaya savvy). Be sure to check for additional dishes handwritten on pieces of paper stuck on the walls, in between the vintage beer posters with Japanese beauties.
Now, the food here isn’t perfect, nor necessarily made with the most pristine or seasonal ingredients (I espied some honking cherry tomatoes in our salad in the middle of February). But what it does have going for it is that a group of friends can chow down for relatively cheap, you can graze on a bunch of different dishes, and the food has a homey and unpretentious style to it that I enjoyed (like a steaming and gelatin-rich pork “nabe” stew with cabbage, tofu, green beans, mung bean sprouts, and more).
I’ve had some clunkers, but dishes I’d order again include corn tempura ($7) with matcha salt on the side; the devil tofu ($5), topped with seaweed, sesame, ginger, chile oil, and threads of togarashi; some of the yakitori options like chicken skin ($2) or tsukune (tender chicken meatballs, $3.50); and the utterly delicious nikumaki onigiri ($6), which are rice balls wrapped with marinated beef—and you get three pieces. So good. And not a single one of these dishes costs more than $7; crazy.
The same goes for the tonpei-yaki, which features stir-fried cabbage and pork wrapped with a thin omelet and topped with a shower of bonito and a saucy mayo and mustard fandango. It’s picture-perfect “I have been drinking too much” food and is a Mount Fuji of food for $6. You can go for some funkier dishes, too, like the supple beef tendon ($6) or the shio-kara ($4), little pieces of fresh squid that are slightly fermented with their guts and salt. (Back that one up with some sake.)
I always dig those dishes that are kind of wrong, but end up being right, like the seafood salad ($13), which was enough to feed three. It was like a version of a Chinese chicken salad, with mixed greens, “king crab,” smoked salmon, tobiko, hard-boiled egg, bell pepper, tomatoes, and fried wonton slivers on top—it all comes together with the magic yuzu-wasabi dressing.
The finale, and ironically one of the more expensive items ($8), was the strawberry shortcake, which was really a white layer cake with strawberries and whipped cream frosting made by a local Japanese baker. Mmmm, fluffy.
The place seems like it could almost stay open later than its 10pm close time during the week, but they seem intent on shutting that kitchen down (Friday and Saturday, they’re open until 11pm). It’s a good little hangout, full of authentic Japanese charm (wait until you check out the bathroom). While I wish Hamada’s famous katsu curry was on the menu, I’ll be back soon enough to try his ramen, and about 15 other dishes on the menu that I haven’t gotten to yet (the mozzarella and smoked salmon crostini will not be one of them, however).
- 1819 Market St. San Francisco