Three Ramen Shops in Japantown

Suzu Noodle House

Sapporo-Ya Japanese Restaurant


I love double plays. Back in the day, I remember getting drinks at Dalva while waiting for a table at Ti Couz... But now I'd say dinner at Bar Crudo followed by an after-dinner drink and dessert at Café Claude would be my idea of a good one-two, or picking up a Bi-Rite ice cream cone after some tacos or a pizza from Pizzeria Delfina in the Mission. Lately, one of my favorite nights in the City has to be catching a flick at the Sundance Kabuki (so civilized), and balancing out the extra-spendy ticket (because it's worth it, and I'm worth it) with an inexpensive bowl of ramen before the show.

Sadly, San Francisco's ramen shops haven't quite transported me to ramen nirvana. I know I am not alone in this. Santa Ramen in San Mateo is pretty damned delicious--I Â was thrilled to have the opportunity to partake in a bowl after spending Christmas with my family before heading back to SF last month. Ditto on points for San Mateo's Himawari (it's nice to be a local girl) and way back in the day, Kaimuki Grill used to make an awesome bowl o' noodles (no longer) in the 650 as well. Katana-ya holds the title as my SF fave for ramen, especially with their late hours, bonus.

As for Japantown, I went to Mifune and Iroha for years, and usually ordered their udon. Mifune is easy if you're solo and/or in a rush, while Iroha is quiet and peaceful--you could happily spread out in a booth with a paper for an hour. Decent broth, nice service, $10, done.

But with the chilly weather, and wallet-tightening time, I've been on a ramen-and-movie tear lately, so here are a few mini-recaps of a few other spots I've been hitting in J-town. Gotta love a belly-warming dinner for $10.

You can easily pick out ~SUZU NOODLE HOUSE~--it's the one with the long DMV-like lines. It's good, one of the better places in town, but unfortunately, Suzu did not impress me on my last visit. The noodles are usually nice and springy, but the broth was missing some depth. And dag, my mabo ramen, a tasty and slightly spicy mix of tofu and ground pork (don't let the chili pepper on the menu scare you, this dish is mild enough for most seven-year-olds) wasn't served hot. Like, damn, if you're going to have me wait and wait for a table and wait some more for my noodles, at least have that puppy come out piping hot. Even let me burn my mouth a little, because otherwise I'll be halfway into my bowl and that thing rapidly starts to resemble a lukewarm bath, with some soap scum on top, and I want out. The karaage/fried chicken version is one of my faves, in fact, it's really well done here, but the long waits and me being short on time can drive me elsewhere.

Like where? Well, if I feel like taking a trip back to the décor of my childhood, it's hard to beat the 1970's time warp of ~SAPPORO-YA~, just upstairs from Suzu. Yup, you get some bad overhead lighting, a weird greenish hue to the room, dingy furnishings, even grass-cloth wallpaper. And Muzak! This place has been around for 30 years, so the décor is too legit to quit. I dig the pottery and vintage bowls everything comes in, only adding to the 70s vibe.

The servers keep their cards close to their chest--super brisk and efficient, these ladies. So no B.S., claptrap, and shooting the breeze, babe. Although I usually see parents with kids in here, but they're often well-behaved Japanese kids--as my grandma would say, "No fighting, no biting!"

I'm a fan of the kimchee ramen here because, hey, I like some kick, and it comes with their pork that for some reason has this homey taste to it--almost like it's a pork roast your nana would make--a little fatty, too. The bamboo shoots soak up the savory broth, and there's also some hard-boiled egg hiding in there. It's not transcendent ramen, but it fits the bill.

Supposedly they make their own noodles, but I have never seen anyone in the front window using the vintage-looking noodle stretching machine. Prop, or reality? I dunno. Anyone have some proof?

While I am only talking ramen in this piece, I will add that Sapporo-Ya is one of the few places in town where you can get okonomiyaki, an eggy pancake that is quite the pile-up, with shrimp, plus some meat (pork, beef), cabbage, scallion, and doused with a Worcestershire-tasting sauce and sweet Kewpie mayo--the one here comes on a vintage-looking oval plate on a wooden base, with super hot mustard (karashi) on the side. Oh, and bonito flakes on top. It's really dense, and I'd prefer it with a lot less sauce, and more shrimp (I only counted two). I think I need to try this dish elsewhere to become a fan. In fact, I need to be in charge of making it like you're supposed to be. Oh, to be in Japan.

Oh yeah, we're on ramen. Back on track. For pure kitsch, here's one place that cracks me up with its kookiness: ~TANPOPO~. The place is quite the scene, packed with a bunch of tables of mostly-young Japanese diners ordering as many bowls of ramen as small plates from the izakaya-like menu (I can't vouch for the small plates--only been here on ramen detail, but the gyoza looked really good).

The place is lit like a lab, with the odd addition of fresh flowers here and there (we had a huge bouquet of red long-stemmed roses next to our table, uh, thanks), the TV blaring Japanese shows (gotta love variety shows with tranny-like characters on it), a curving and glossy bar counter (good for single diners), and wow, our server truly did not speak a lick of English. The menu is actually a little ESL too--you won't be exactly sure what you're doing or ordering unless you have some basic ramen jargon down. But bonus points for making me feel like I wasn't in San Francisco!

Did not love the fruit flies, though. Or the skanky bathroom. Hrm. Maybe get some of the fresh flowers back there? So, don't go to the bathroom if you subscribe to the ignorance is bliss policy, and don't order tea--they just heat up tea that comes in a plastic bottle, so random and kuh-razy.

Now, after all those caveats, to the ramen. I thoroughly enjoyed the shoyu chashu (a substantial soy-based rich broth, with nicely fatty pork)--it came with the bonus of fish cake, plus some seaweed, and the requisite scallion, and half an egg. I could be wrong, but the bamboo shoots had a canned taste. Go for the extra pork for $1, it's so worth it. This place had primo people watching, and not only do they have Kirin on draught, but they also have full liquor in case you'd like some Jack or Chivas with your noodles. Hilarious. This place wins on personality, that's for sure. But health scores, eh, not so much.

So which one will it be, Waiting for Godot, That 70's Show, or Blade Runner? I'd have to do a much more detailed tasting of all three in the same week to really decide a "favorite," so let's just leave it up to your mood. Slurp on.

Suzu Noodle House
1825 Post St.
(Kinokuniya Bldg.)
Cross: Webster St.
San Francisco, CA 94115

Wed-Mon 11:30am-3pm
Closed Tue

Sapporo-Ya Japanese Restaurant
1581 Webster St.
(Kinokuniya Bldg.)
Cross: Post St.
San Francisco, CA 94115

Mon-Fri 11am-11pm
Sat-Sun 11am-10:30pm

1740 Buchanan St.
Cross: Sutter St.
San Francisco, CA 94115

Mon-Fri 11:30am-2:30pm
Sat-Sun 11:30am-10:30pm



  • Noodles