Tasting Tour Uncovers Japantown’s Tempting Secrets

| January 12, 2012 | 6 Comments
  • 6 Comments

Lisa Rogovin - Edible Excursions - Epicurean Concierge

I love treasure hunts, especially if cultural adventure and sampling delectable goodies are involved, so I was eager to join Edible Excursions’ new Japantown tour. Although I consider myself pretty savvy when it comes to Japanese cuisine, epicurean concierge, Lisa Rogovin introduced me to a novel set of sweet and savory yummies hiding in plain sight.

The former ad exec for Gourmet Magazine, whose company provides tasting tours of the Mission, Ferry Building and Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto, was recently asked by Japantown’s Merchant Association to add a tour of the 4-block area centered on Post and Buchanan. After having done her cultural homework, Lisa ushered a half dozen of us through the warrens of a pair of concrete mall structures that anchor Japantown, as well as some surrounding streets in order to educate and tantalize our taste buds.

Surprisingly, our outing began with a non-Japanese beverage, a warm sweet potato latte at Yakiniq Café, where owner Christy Hwang serves the traditional Korean comfort drink, made with sweet potato, syrup and foamed milk. Lisa informed us that besides Japanese shops and restaurants, Japantown encompasses a few Korean dining spots and even a Danish Bakery.

As we sipped our hot drinks in the funky, art-lined café, Lisa issued a gentle warning, “This will be three and a half hours of eating; so pace yourselves.” That caveat was promptly forgotten as soon as we drained our cups of foamy liquid.

sweet potato latte

On our walk to our next stop, Lisa gave us a short rundown on the history of Japantown, which began to take shape just after the 1906 earthquake when Japanese San Franciscans needed a place to gather for community support. At its height, it stretched for 36 blocks until WWII internment orders emptied the thriving neighborhood, uprooting its residents and merchants. After the war, many came back to rebuild their lives. In 1968, an urban renewal project bulldozed old Victorians and erected the imposing concrete buildings still at its center, whose fortress-like exterior may seem daunting to uninitiated visitors.

One artifact from the original Japantown that is very much alive is Benkyodo, an unassuming little diner and bakery, that makes traditional fresh mochi confections.

benkyodo mochi

This family business opened in 1906, and is now run by brothers Ricky and Robert Okamura, grandsons of the original owner. Entering their long narrow café, we discovered a split personality: the right side features a low orange Formica counter, matching leatherette bar stools and a Coca Cola menu board with changeable red and black plastic letters that dates from the 50s. Fare and prices also seem to be frozen in time (hot dog $3.15, hamburger $3.10)—just the thing to attract a cadre of regulars. The left side is dominated by the bakery case, which on this late December Friday attracted a crowd of shoppers, standing in line to buy special handmade mochi and manju pastries for the New Year. We sampled chubby, chewy rice flour orbs filled with sweet red beans or blueberries.

Sadly, our next stop was a piece of Japantown history that was just about to close after 105 years in business, Uoki K. Sakai market. There we tasted an earthy hijiki seaweed salad and crunchy burdock and carrot salad from their deli while Lisa clued us in on preparing sushi rice using rice vinegar powder sold at the store. There are two other markets still left in Japantown.

hijiki  and burdock salads

From the oldest businesses, we transitioned to visit the latest addition to Japantown, the New People complex, a narrow, stylish white edifice which houses the SF Film Society, a café and retail stores such as Sou-Sou for tabi (divided shoes and socks) with bold fabric designs and Baby the Stars Shine Bright for Lolita frilly pink dresses.

We stopped downstairs at Onigilly for an updated version of the ubiquitous Japanese finger food, onigiri, balls or triangles of white rice wrapped in seaweed, which may be stuffed with pickled plum or cooked salmon. In Japan, these portable meals are sold in train stations, convenience stores and are as much a part of bento lunchboxes as our PB&J sandwiches.

Onigilly (a play the American pronunciation of onigiri) is the creation of Koji Kanematsu, the first male to go through La Cocina’s food business incubator program. He updated the traditional snacks using brown rice and fillings such as eggplant, hijiki and spicy scallop, as well as the traditional pickled plum. Onigilly also operates a food cart in Justin Herman Plaza and other locations around town.

After this substantial snack and a quick tour of the trendy shops in New People, we headed across the street to the Japan Center. As we entered the busy mall, Lisa, an engaging and knowledgeable guide who was inspired by her own cultural curiosity, told us, “You’ll notice we won’t be having any sushi, tempura or teriyaki today. I want to introduce you to new things and demystify some Japanese dishes that might be unfamiliar to you.”

Our eating adventure continued at Mifune Don, where we sat down for another mainstay of real Japanese cooking that is not commonly known to foreigners. Okonomiyaki is called a “savory pancake” but the name literally means “what you like” and is a tasty way to use leftovers. These large grilled discs usually contain some combination of eggs, shredded yam, cabbage, meat, or seafood, topped with a special brown sauce and squiggles of Japanese mayonnaise. They are sprinkled with bonita shavings, whose eerie 3-D undulations seemed to be waving at me, inviting me to partake in this hearty, vegetable griddlecake. My first okonomiyaki was a satisfying discovery and definitely will not be my last.

japanese pancake

Then our group of locals and out of state visitors shifted into an intense assault on sweetness, starting with a neon-hued, mini Geisha float—green tea ice cream topped with red beans, green tea syrup and red mochi cubes at Carol Murata’s Café Hana.

geisha float

For our second dessert, we strolled over to May’s Coffee Shop, run by Carol’s mother May Murata since 1973, to sample taiyaki, a fish-shaped sweet with a long history. In Japanese culture, the sea bream is considered a symbol of good luck and these distinctively shaped pastries are made by pouring waffle-like batter into metal molded trays and topping with red beans, chocolate or other fillings. The two halves of the fish are then folded together and cooked until golden brown. They originated in Tokyo in 1909.

taiyaki fish pastry

Full of lucky fish pastries, we ducked into Nippon-Ya, a stylish shop specializing in omiyage, the artfully wrapped regional specialties that Japanese visitors commonly bring back from their travels for friends and co-workers. Beautifully boxed mochi in fruit flavors, plus cookies, tea and other souvenirs from all over Japan are their most popular selections. We were offered tastes of creamy chocolate mochi.

Nippon Ya

On our way out of the building Lisa pointed out shops that carry stickers, stationery and fashion and then impossibly announced that it was time for lunch. A 3-course lunch at that, with wakame, a slippery green seaweed salad, a pair of mini gyozas and a big bowl of steaming nabeyaki noodle soup with vegetables, fish cake, chicken, shrimp tempura and udon or soba noodles. The key ingredient of the soup is the dashi flavored broth and Mifune Bistro’s dashi had a strong, clear taste.

nabeyaki soup

As I waddled out after lunch, much wiser and definitely much fuller than before I started the tour, I made mental note of the dozen new tastes I’d sampled, and wondered if this is how sumo wrestlers begin to build their girth.

Edible Excursions’ Japantown tour is offered every Friday and the second Saturday of the month, from 11-2:30, for $85. Itinerary may vary.

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Category: asian food and drink, baking and bakeries, bay area, Bay Area Bites Food + Drink, dessert and chocolate, holidays and traditions, local food businesses, restaurants, bars, cafes, san francisco, street food and fast food

About the Author ()

My passion is exploring the connection between food and culture. I write regularly for Oakland and Alameda Magazines and Berkeleyside's NOSH. My blog, East Bay Ethnic Eats, gives me an excuse to track down the only Bay Area baker making fresh filo dough or learn to stuff a dried eggplant with help from a Turkish immigrant. Culture is the thread that ties together my several careers. As a sign language interpreter, educator and author, my study of Deaf culture has taken me around the world, where I fell madly in love with seed-strewn Danish bread, attacked platters of French shellfish with a small arsenal of tools and sampled a Japanese breakfast so fresh it wiggled. I'm also an epicurean concierge for Edible Excursions Japan town tours (that I lead in either English or ASL). And when I conduct in-depth cultural trainings for foreign workers being transferred to the Bay Area, I am sure to discuss the delights of doggie bags and the mystery of American restaurants serving ice water in the dead of winter. I can be found tweeting @EBEthniceats
  • Joseph

    Thank you for this write-up! I’ve lived in J-town for about 6 years, now, and love it! I’m extremely sad to hear that Sakai is going out of business, though, I’m not surprised… Just a quick, nit-picky, editorial note (I apologize for being one of “those” people), but it’s “udon” not “odon”… :) Welcome to the wonderful world of Washoku!

  • http://www.eastbayethniceats.com Anna Mindess

    Joseph, thank you for your comment and catching that error. It’s corrected now.

  • Rachel Trachten

    Lovely to be a part of this eye-opening sweet and savory tour! Thanks for the vicarious tastes and surprising info about Japanese food.

  • http://www.eastbayethniceats.com Anna Mindess

    Thanks, Rachel. My pleasure. By the way, Lisa can accommodate dietary restrictions, if you let her know in advance.

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  • aan cowsky

    I love Japanese food. I love onigiri. The simplicity of this food is something that even makes it special. I love to have onigiri with wasabi (green chili paste from Japan). Thanks for sharing your story of Japantown’s touring. I would love to be there too :)
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