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Izakaya Sundays at Sebo

November 12, 2007

Well over a year ago, I wrote a post on a then recently-opened Japanese restaurant (primarily sushi-focused), Sebo in Hayes Valley. I haven’t had the chance to write a follow-up review, but I’m happy to report that an update has not really been necessary, as chefs Michael Black and Danny Dunham continue to offer excellent quality fish; in time, it seems they have been able to source more frequently particularly delectable items such as Hokkaido uni. In the past week, though, changes have been afoot at Sebo, and these changes warrant an update. The first notable change is that Fukashi Adachi from Deep Sushi in outer Noe Valley has joined the ranks. The other notable change is that the restaurant is now open on Sundays (previously only open Tuesday through Saturday). On Sundays, however, no sushi is served. As proof, here is the empty fish cabinet:

sebo2_no_fish.jpg

Instead, the regular menu is replaced by a list of about 15 izakaya small plates — essentially Japanese “bar bites.” The Sunday izakaya menu will change weekly, and yesterday was the very first Sunday serving. (Note: full-sized versions of all these images are stored on my Flickr account. To see the larger version, just click through any image link.)

The first plate was the delicately flavored ni-daikon,

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which was the daikon simmered in sake. There was also the goya chanpuru, a stir fry of Okinawan bittermelon:

sebo2_goya_chanpuru.jpg

One standout item was the aji ichiyaboshi,

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a whole horse mackerel fish: cured, toasted, butterflied, and mostly completely edible. Toasting amplified the natural flavors of the fish, and the thin, crisp skin was a nice foil to the moist interior flesh. Another standout dish was the inari yaki:

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The inari wrappers were filled with natto (fermented soybeans), grilled, and topped with green onion. Even if you are squeamish about eating natto, I would recommend trying this dish, as the grilled wrapper was a really nice complement to the more pungent natto.

One of the great highlights of the meal was the homemade tamago yaki (Japanese egg omelette). Most sushi restaurants will serve tamago nigiri, but this can often be lackluster. The process of making the omelette is so time-consuming that few restaurants will make it in-house, so was a real treat to try not one but two homemade tamago samples at the Sunday izakaya meal, courtesy of Fukashi Adachi:

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These blocks of tamago are a work of art, as I am told that they emerged from cooking exactly in the perfect form you see in the above picture. The block on the left is an omelette infused with slivers of the green seaweed ao-nori, while the flavor of the block on the right literally sang of dashi. Both samples were delicious, complex, and had a very nice texture: firm, but with a latent juiciness. This is easily some of the best tamago currently being served in the Bay Area. Here is a close-up shot of the ao-nori tamago:

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And once more, the tamago, but served on a plate:

sebo2_tamago.jpg

Yesterday was the very first izakaya Sunday and the restaurant was, rather surprisingly, packed for much of the night, so the cooking pace was rather frantic. However, I am sure that Michael, Danny, and Fukashi will work out the operational acrobatics in time. Even on this first day, the dishes were really nice, so I am looking forward to seeing this new tradition evolve and mature. With the izakaya Sundays, Michael and Danny have continued to demonstrate their passion for serving their customers a serious, high-quality product.

RATING:

COST:

517 Hayes Street (between Octavia St. and Laguna St.)
San Francisco, CA 94102
Phone: 415.864.2122
Hours: Tues-Sat (sushi menu), 6:00-10:30 pm; Sun (izakaya menu, no sushi), 6:00-11:00 pm.

Cuisine: Japanese
Neighborhood: Hayes Valley/Civic Center

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Tajine

November 11, 2007

Tajine is a Moroccan restaurant in San Francisco’s Polk Gulch neighborhood. The restaurant used to occupy a small Tenderloin storefront on Jones Street but moved this past spring to a larger space on lower Polk, between Bush and Pine.

Naturally, the restaurant offers a selection of tajines, a signature dish of North Africa, generally slow-cooked in a glazed pot that also shares the name tajine. Also offered is the traditional harira (a lentil soup), kabab plates, salads, sandwiches, and various dishes involving meat and vegetables over couscous. On a recent visit to Tajine, a friend and I shared two dishes, including the lamb tajine:

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The slow-cooked lamb was quite tender in some spots and a little tough in other spots, but it was still delicious, steeped in the spices and herbs. Soft prunes added a sweet fragrance to the dish, and almonds, roasted to enhance their flavor, added a comforting crunch. The whole dish was topped with sesame seeds and was served with a plate of Moroccan bread. The bread was a bit too dry but was still good to mop up the thick sauce in which the lamb and prunes had been stewing.

We also enjoyed the chicken bastilla:

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Although listed as an appetizer, this dish is easily the size of an entree. Essentially a large fillo pancake, the flaky bastilla is topped generously with a brown and white criss-cross pattern of sweet cinnamon and powdered sugar combined with a savory interior of chicken, egg, and almond. I found the interior of the bastilla to be somewhat under-seasoned, but the diversity of textures and flavors made this is a successful dish.

Mint tea is a serious endeavor in Morocco, so if you visit Tajine, you will want to try out a pot of the mint tea:

tajine_mint_tea.jpg

Served in a traditional pot, poured from a couple feet above the cup, and brewed with a large stalk of fresh mint, this tea is richly sweet and is a very nice treat either during or after the meal.

Although the food can really be quite delicious, my experiences at Tajine have not exactly been a home run. The cooking at the Polk Street location is at the same level as what was offered at the Tenderloin location. However, prices have risen considerably since the move, and to my mind, the quality of the total experience has not risen in correspondence with the prices. The service is often friendly, but sometimes indifferent, and repeatedly forgetful — either portions of my meal have been forgotten, or I have heard diners around me reminding the server that some portion of their meal had been forgotten. I am usually completely willing to overlook this for meals under $10, especially if it happens only occasionally, but now that Tajine’s entrees are in the double-digit range, it is easy to spend $20+ per person here including tax and tip, even without a salad or appetizer. (Note: diners should keep in mind that despite these prices, the restaurant is cash only.) At that price point, the “value” of a meal is not only connected to the quality of the cooking, but also the atmosphere and service, and therein lies the disconnect. Basically, the price increases seem to be disproportionate to the dining experience, which is essentially unchanged except for the somewhat larger (but often very crowded) space.

I still enjoy Tajine’s food, but the restaurant has been in a slightly awkward stage since the move to Polk. At heart, it is still a hole-in-the-wall serving tasty dishes. The price increases suggest that it strives to be something more, but that has not really happened yet. Although no longer a bargain secret gem, Tajine is still a nice choice in the area.

RATING:

COST:

1338 Polk Street (between Pine St. and Bush St.)
San Francisco, CA 94109
Phone: 415.440.1718
Hours: Daily, 12:00 noon – 10:00 pm.

Cash only. Takeout available.

Cuisine: Moroccan
Neighborhood: Polk Gulch/Van Ness

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End of Hiatus

November 11, 2007

Yes, contrary to popular belief, Short Exact is actually still alive!

I wasn’t really planning on such a long hiatus, but the time off has been useful and productive. Life has been very busy, and in the meantime, I have started writing another blog on a topic completely unrelated to restaurants. I’ve been enjoying working on that other project, but it became too difficult to maintain two blogs while doing everything else, and something had to give somewhere. Unfortunately, Short Exact turned out to be the something that gave. If you have been checking in all this time, I would like to apologize for my silence and to let you know that I appreciate your readership.

The good news is that I am planning on calling an end to this hiatus, and it will be nice to get back to writing restaurant posts again. With everything that is going on, it will be difficult to post as often as I sometimes have in the past, but at least, I will try to keep to some sort of regular schedule. If you haven’t already done so, subscribing to the feed is a good way to to be notified about any updates.

At any rate, it’s nice to be back. Please check back in tomorrow, as I’ll have a new review posted — for real.

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Dinner Specials at Mikaku

July 21, 2007

Whew, it sure has been a long time since a post! Sorry folks, real life has caught up with us recently, but we promise to get going again soon, back to more regular programming. We figured a new post was especially appropriate for today, because this weekend, our blogging platform WordPress is hosting the entertaining, informative, and pretty-darn-geeky WordCamp conference in San Francisco. Short Exact is right now sitting in the antique Swedish-American Hall on Market Street (which, sadly, doesn’t have nearly enough outlets for laptops!), blogging from WordCamp about… the dinner specials at the Mikaku restaurant, which have absolutely nothing to do with WordCamp!

In an earlier post about Mikaku (a Japanese restaurant located right next to the Chinatown gate), we mentioned the chirashi, slices of fish carefully layered atop sushi rice. On a recent visit, we had the opportunity to try a couple of the dinner specials written on the white board located just east of the sushi bar; the restaurant really shines in its preparation of these specials.

At dinnertime only, Mikaku offers house-made soba (buckwheat) noodles. The noodles, which are served cold in the form of zaru soba,

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had a nice bounce and texture, easily superior to the soba noodles offered at many of the more popular noodle houses in Japantown. The noodles are served with the tsuyu dipping sauce, a refreshing and light yet robust combination of soy sauce, dashi, and the sweet rice wine mirin. Perhaps best of all, Mikaku also serves the traditional sobayu,

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which is the water in which the soba noodles were just boiled. Pouring the sobayu into the cup containing the leftover tsuyu dipping sauce makes for a delicious drink and is an excellent way to cap off a plate of soba noodles.

We also sampled the chawanmushi,

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a traditional savory Japanese egg custard with surprise fish, meat and vegetables inside the custard that are to be unearthed. The chawanmushi we had at Mikaku, which included crab and chicken, was a delight, with a clean egg flavor that was a good complement to the other ingredients. Mikaku’s rendition of this dish is quite nice.

At a standard dinner, Mikaku offers at least a dozen specials. Recently, in addition to the soba noodles and chawanmushi mentioned here, we’ve seen daikon soup, dishes involving yam and kabocha (“Japanese pumpkin”), different preparations of clams, and hirame usuzukuri, which are paper thin slices of fluke sashimi dressed in a very light ponzu sauce. Although Mikaku’s menu has all the standard tempura, teriyaki, and sushi roll combination deals that Americans have come to expect from Japanese restaurants, the skill of both the sushi chef and the kitchen are most clearly displayed in these authentic specialties, and we’re glad to have gotten the chance to sample Mikaku’s versions of these dishes. “Averaging” this with our previous visits to Mikaku, an upgrade of Mikaku’s rating is definitely in order:

RATING:

COST:

Please scroll to the bottom of our original review for the restaurant hours and contact information.

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Pho Tan Hoa

June 25, 2007

Located across Jones Street from the Gazebo Smoke Shop and one of the many “massage parlors” that grace the streets of San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, Pho Tan Hoa is in a prime location for fans of that particularly colorful brand of street theater that is the hallmark of the Tenderloin. If you are not a fan of street theater, please do not be discouraged, as you could very well be a fan of the tasty noodle soups to be found at Pho Tan Hoa; this restaurant is definitely worth at least one visit. However, if you are a fan of the street theater, make sure to snag a table facing the street: you won’t be disappointed!

Pho Tan Hoa used to be named simply “Pho Hoa”, and the name was changed only recently to “Pho Tan Hoa.” This restaurant is not a member of the huge worldwide Pho Hoa chain, and so we can only assume the name was changed to avoid confusion. Good thing too, because Pho Tan Hoa’s soups are far and away superior to the fare typically offered at the Pho Hoa chain, which — to put it lightly — leaves much to be desired. Pho Tan Hoa is run by very gracious and friendly people, and they are quick to remember and acknowledge repeat customers. As is often the case at pho joints, the service here is usually lightning quick.

On our most recent visit to Pho Tan Hoa, Short Exact ordered the pho dac biet,

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which the menu declares to be a “house specialty,” and rightly so. On top, you can see the slices of rare steak. At some pho joints, slices of “rare” steak are served stewing in the broth, so that they are already overcooked by the time the bowl reaches your table from the kitchen. Here, though, care was taken to make sure that the slices were mostly perched atop the broth, so that the rare slices were actually rare. The above photo shows the slices more submerged than they actually were upon serving, since we had poked our chopsticks in, almost forgetting to take a picture! It was a close call.

We did not do it on this last visit, but for an additional 50 cents, several slices of rare steak are served on a separate plate with an additional bowl of broth, allowing you to personally customize how much to cook the meat.

In addition to the rare steak, our bowl of pho dac biet had plentiful and tender chunks of tendon, strips of tripe exhibiting a nice snap and bounce, and several slices of well-done brisket. The noodles were a bit clumpy but pleasantly chewy. The broth was a touch murky, but generally good, as flavors of anise and cilantro rounded out the substantial beef base. Fresh slices of onion supplied a welcome touch of crispness.

If we had to go one way or the other, we personally prefer the clean purity of the Northern Vietnamese broths (such as those found at Turtle Tower) to the more dressed-up Southern-style broths, and we are partial to Turtle Tower’s fresh wide noodles. However, Southern-style pho is also very nice, and Pho Tan Hoa serves up a quality version.

RATING:

COST:

431 Jones Street (between O’Farrell St. and Ellis St.)
San Francisco, CA 94102
Phone: 415.673.3163
Hours: Daily, 8:00 am – 7:00 pm.

Cash only. Takeout available.

Cuisine: Vietnamese
Neighborhood: Tenderloin

How to get there: Muni lines 2, 3, 4, 19, 27, 31, 38, and 76. Pho Tan Hoa is 4-5 blocks from both Powell and Civic Center BART/Muni stations (lines F, J, K, L, M, N, T).

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El Burrito Express on Taraval (Ed Jew Edition!)

June 21, 2007

These days, Short Exact can’t get enough of the scandal surrounding Ed Jew, the recently-elected supervisor for San Francisco’s 4th district. This district consists of the Outer Sunset and Parkside neighborhoods, so it’s all the more surprising that this usually quiet, mild-mannered section of the city has been taking the forefront in terms of local politics. If you haven’t been following along, it’s not too late to get started. Local news blog SFist has done a ridiculously thorough coverage of this story, in their series “Oh No, Ed Jew!”, which typically receives a few updates each day.

Ed Jew claims to live in this bungalow on 28th Avenue, just south of Taraval,

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but neighbors who have been parking in his driveway because it’s always empty are pretty sure that isn’t the case. And of course, it makes perfect sense that very little water is being used in this house, since Ed Jew showers at his Chinatown flower shop!

Even sketchier are the shady business dealings between Ed Jew and Quickly,

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a chain of tapioca milk tea shops that generally serve milk tea which is decidedly mediocre, at best, or in the worst case, essentially inedible. In this case of “Bobagate”, SFist-dubbed “Tapioca Ed” required $40,000 in exchange for help solving a problem relating to permits. Now, Quickly is a huge chain of stores, and their tea is often rather poor. Not only that, but their insistence on distinguishing between “large tapioca” (i.e. standard issue tapioca pearls) and “small tapioca” (a horrible perversion of the first order) is completely misguided. Under no circumstances should we have to utter the words “large tapioca” just to get tapioca pearls. Anyway, sorry for the digression; we do not feel especially sorry for Quickly, but, to say the least, Ed Jew probably could’ve handled this more gracefully. Just to be clear, the above picture is of the Quickly store on Taraval Street, which Ed Jew — “living” as he does on 28th Avenue right off Taraval — no doubt visits quite frequently. However, the specific store exploited by “Tapioca Ed” is actually on Irving.

Given the preponderance of evidence against him, it seems pretty clear that Ed Jew’s house on 28th Avenue has been completely unoccupied, and that the supervisor of District Four has been living with his family in Burlingame — a completely different city, and nowhere near District Four. Anyway, you’ve probably been wondering why we’re talking about Ed Jew instead of a restaurant. To be honest, we really just wanted an excuse to check out this mysterious 28th Avenue house, and also to make fun of Quickly (an activity we like to indulge in semi-frequently). A blog post seemed like just the ticket. Still, this post would be incomplete without mentioning a restaurant in “Ed Jew’s neighborhood,” the Parkside district.

Had Ed Jew actually spent any time at “his” 28th Avenue house, he would have certainly run across El Burrito Express,

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a charming little taqueria at 26th and Taraval. This restaurant is mostly a take-out operation, since it only has a few cramped counter seats. There is often a line here, as it is a popular choice for residents in this not particularly burrito-laden neighborhood. The menu is a little cumbersome in terms of the terminology (regular burrito, super burrito, bronco burrito, super bronco burrito, and “expresso burrito” — to say nothing of tacos and the specials), but it all comes down to choosing the combination of ingredients you want. Rather than describe all the details, we figured it’d be easier to just provide a photo of the menu,

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and, as usual, you can click the photo for a larger, more readable version. On this Ed Jew-instigated visit to El Burrito Express, we ordered the grilled steak bronco burrito,

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which included the grilled steak, tomato, cheese, onion, avocado, and pinto beans; the regular bronco burritos do not include rice — making them somewhat more reasonably sized than the monster super burritos, and a good deal at $3.85 for a bronco burrito with meat. The beans and vegetables here were good (with several chunks of fresh avocado), and the steak was quite flavorful, but there was an abundance of excessively chewy pieces. We would have appreciated more uniformly and thoroughly melted cheese, but at least the tortilla was nice and flaky-grilled. The biggest strike was that in spite of our request for heat, this burrito almost completely lacked all spice and heat. All in all, this burrito was certainly not bad, but it lacked punch and a unification of flavors. In an excellent burrito, the combined effect of the interior ingredients is greater than the sum of its parts, but that was just not the case here. Still, you could do worse, and El Burrito Express is a decent choice for the neighborhood. If you come here with high hopes to find Ed Jew, though — well, let’s just say you may want to catch the next train to Burlingame instead.

RATING:

COST:

1601 Taraval Street (at 26th Ave.)
San Francisco, CA 94116
Phone: 415.566.8300
Hours: Mon-Sat, 11:00 am – 9:00 pm. Closed Sundays.

Credit cards accepted. Takeout available.

Cuisine: Mexican
Neighborhood: Parkside/West Portal

How to get there: Muni lines 66 and L.

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Sushi Delight

June 19, 2007

The other night, Short Exact and a friend were on the escalator leaving Church Street station on the hunt for dinner, when our friend revealed that we would be eating at her new favorite sushi bar. At that point, Short Exact groaned both inwardly and outwardly, recalling a lackluster experience from the last time we went to her “new favorite sushi bar” (somewhere different at that time) — an opinion, it turned out, was formed exclusively on the basis of a few Yelp reviews, rather than any sort of personal experience. This time we were quick to make sure that a prior visit had occurred at some point.

When it was further revealed that the restaurant in question this time around was next door (and actually connected) to The Mint karaoke bar, and that it had the somewhat corny name Sushi Delight (rather than having a name which is, you know, Japanese or something) — well, suffice it to say that of all the emotions we were feeling at that moment, delight was nowhere on the list.

So imagine our surprise when we walked in to find a white board list of specials that included items such as uni (sea urchin) and ankimo (monkfish liver). Not that these items are particularly rare, but seeing as how this restaurant also has a long list of huge Americanized rolls with “crazy” ingredients, we were expecting lots of fusion, and not as much in the way of our favorite, more traditional items. It was, of course, necessary to try out a few of these specials:

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The hamachi belly (middle, in the above photo) was pretty good quality with a somewhat buttery texture, but it should have had a stronger flavor. The mound of sushi rice on which the fish slice rested was too large, and the rice itself was not very flavorful, and did little to support or complement the fish. An uninteresting sort of ponzu sauce largely overpowered the mild ankimo (on the right), but the liver did have a reasonably nice, creamy texture. The uni (on the left) also had a pretty good texture, but only brief wisps of uni’s characteristically briny flavor. Not a bad sample, though, and best of all, it was not the least bit bitter, which is the usual worry when ordering uni at an unfamiliar restaurant. So, while none of these special items were stunning, they were all of at least decent quality, and as we said earlier, finding them at all was a pleasant surprise.

We also tried the maguro sashimi,

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which, despite the attempt at a slightly creative presentation, was completely unremarkable; the fish was tasteless and was served too cold. For kicks, we sampled one item from the extensive roll menu,

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the “gari saba” roll, consisting of mackerel, ginger, and a little scallion. This was a pretty good roll, but the mackerel was unusually sweet, and the overall flavor of the roll turned out to be surprisingly mild, considerings its core ingredients, perhaps in part due to the outer layer of the rice, which was disproportionately thick. It wasn’t bad, but we probably wouldn’t order it again. (Readers should also note that this is one of the more conservative rolls on the menu. If you’re interested in the more complicated rolls with lots of ingredients, Sushi Delight has plenty of those you can try.)

Service here was fine, although the restaurant was not that full, so we’re not sure how the service holds up under pressure. Still, the number of patrons can be deceiving, because it looks like quite a few people from the karaoke bar next door also put in orders, even if they do not sit in the actual restaurant. The karaoke bar The Mint, which is connected to the restaurant by a door, is a little noisy, but not horribly so; the soundproofing still makes it easy to have a conversation. The restaurant’s late hours are definitely a plus.

Sushi Delight is in a location such that the exact classification of the neighborhood largely depends on who you ask. Upper Market for sure, but is it Hayes Valley? Essentially, but not especially close to the heart of that neighborhood. Duboce Triangle? Close, but it seems just outside of the traditional boundaries of the Triangle. We’ve filed this post in those two neighborhoods, figuring that this restaurant might be of interest to people in both locales. Whatever you call the neighborhood, Sushi Delight is a decent neighborhood joint. For us, it would be a stretch to call it delightful, but it’s a good choice if you’re in the area with a hankering for sushi.

RATING:

COST:

1946 Market Street (between Buchanan St. and Laguna St.)
San Francisco, CA 94102
Phone: 415.621.3622
Hours: Sun-Thurs, 5:00 pm – 11:00 pm; Fri-Sat, 5:00 pm – 12:30 am.

Credit cards accepted. Takeout available.

Cuisine: Japanese
Neighborhood: Hayes Valley/Civic Center, Castro/Duboce Triangle

How to get there: Within a few blocks are Muni lines 6, 7, 22, 37, 71, F, J, N. Church Station (lines K, L, M, T) is a short walk away.

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