Friday, May 05, 2006

miraku, walnut creek

whilst on a visit to my mom's in the extreme east bay (even more east than the 'crick) we got a hankering for some japanese food. moms is japanese. moms like japanese food. so we grabbed her false teeth, jumped in the car, and stared blankly at each other. where to go?

as we mulled over the local choices we became increasingly dispirited. there was that newish japanese restaurant in a strip mall that made their sushi with long grain rice and poured a strange sweet and sour sauce over their fried rice. "no good", sayeth moms. and there was that kinda crazy expensive and just okay place that kept changing it's name but wasn't worth the price. "no good", sayeth moms. and then there was that new japanese place with the service that was so bad our food didn't arrive after an hour of waiting and at least five requests to our server to check with the kitchen. "mighty bad", sayeth moms. casting our net a bit further afield, we agreed to make the drive to walnut creek (aka "the 'crick") and see what miraku had to offer.

located in a strangely industrial stretch on north broadway, just a few blocks away from the freeway, miraku is easy to miss. the restaurant is tucked along a very long and narrow driveway that wraps around the rear of the newly constructed miraku noodles annex with no outlet. be forewarned that you will have to drive around the rear, do a u turn, then pull out the only driveway, hoping no one is heading toward you. the main restaurant is cozy with a big fountain gurgling away in the center of the room and kimono clad waitresses navigating the space. at the rear of the building is the new ramen house annex. if industrial, cold, gleaming and stark isn't your style you can order off the ramen menu in the main restaurant.

cold noodle salad

at lunchtime all the usual suspects can be found on the menu, including bento boxes at around 6.95. i ordered the cold noodle salad from the noodle-house menu (7.95, i think), and was delighted to see a giant plate of vegetables prettily mounded over well sauced, chewy mound of ramen noodles. the vegetables included pickled ginger, tomato, spinach, sugar snap peas, bean sprouts, corn, bok choy, mushrooms, topped with a sprinkling of nori and a generous dab of karashi (yellow mustard). tossed with the perfectly cooked, still chewy ramen noodles they provided the perfect contrasting crisp snap and sweetness to the dense noodles. the dish was well dressed with a tasty sesame seed vinagrette. the folks at chowhound seem to disagree with me, but i like miraku's noodles. the ramen, even when served in a hot broth, is always pleasantly chewy and never mushy. having said that, it's the udon noodles that moms likes best. she says they are chewy and taste like the noodles her sister's husband makes.

speaking of moms, after she put her teeth in, she heartily dug into a lunchtime sushi platter, served with soup and rice. i can't remember the price, maybe twelve bucks or so? the assortment was right up her alley since she doesn't like any of that "weird" stuff, meaning tako or fish eggs. the assortment of the day was maguro, tai, salmon and white tuna. she was especially impressed with the white tuna, saying it tasted a lot like fatty tuna. the fish was very fresh and the pieces were good cuts and not straggly end pieces. both meals were served with miso soup and salad. moms usually says "pretty good" after a sashimi meal (rather indiscriminately, if you ask me), but today she said "mighty good". now that's saying something.

sashimi platter (salmon, tai, white tuna and maguro)

for more opinons on miraku, you can go to:
citysearch, yelp and chowhound

miraku and miraku noodles
2131 north broadway
walnut creek, ca
925 932 1112

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

the nicaragua

about to head off on a long jungle trek with no provisions? or maybe you're looking at the ass-end of a fourteen hour day of uber heavy manual labor? or maybe you just want a leaden, siesta-inducing feed. if so, the nicaragua restaurant may have something to soothe your hungry, calloused soul.

located on mission street just before cesar chavez, the nicaragua has little to distinguish itself from all the other little central american and mexican joints that run up and down mission street. a little boxy room, plastic sheeting over flowery tablecloths straight from your granma's double wide trailer, little paper mache fruits dangling from the ceiling...this is no fancy-pants kinda place. and since these pants ain't so fancy these days i feel quite at home.

if you are a vegetarian, what you will find here are giant plates of deep fry. everything is deep fried. gorgeous thick slabs of plantain. fried. brick-sized rectangles of a queso freso type cheese. deep fried. rice and beans, a little fried.

if meat is more your thing, you will get all the coronary-inducing vegetarian deep fry delights plus giant hunks of pork in a spicy sauce.

the food is by no means gourmet and certainly not subtle, but for about nine bucks per person you will get enough calories to fuel you through that long jungle trek.

citysearch reviews
dinesite reviews
sfsurvey reviews

3015 Mission Street
San Francisco, CA
415 826 3672

Monday, February 06, 2006

cha-ya vegetarian japanese restaurant

five little itty bitty tables + room for maybe six at the sushi bar + all-vegetarian japanese food =
cha ya.

this place rocks my world. i like this place way more than minako on mission street in san francisco, which is just a little too expensive and situated on the most crack-laden stretch of mission street. it's kind of a bummer to watch the scaberous drug-addled denizen doing that crazy herky-jerky crack dance through the window while savoring 1988 vintage, hand pickled umeboshi plums.

if you've read any of my other reviews of japanese restaurants here, you might notice that i eat a lot of noodles when dining out. what you might not notice is that i do so with one thumb and forefinger pinching my nose in order to pretend the stock is not made with mr. bonito "hon dashi" stock. all the while eyeing my dining companions' saba. and their maguro. sometimes their hamachi too.

now don't get me wrong, it's not that i want to eat the sashimi or chicken katsu or saba shioyaki, it's just that i'd like to have more choices. more vegetarian choices. and this is why cha ya rocks: everything on the menu is vegan! it double rocks because the food is so damn tasty! i'll have to throw in an extra half-rock for low prices. that's 2 1/2 rockings of my world. not bad for a lazy saturday afternoon.

but be forewarned 'cause this place is tiny. and popular. we went on a saturday afternoon, around 1:00. when we walked in only two tables were occupied, by the time we left at about 1:45 every seat in the place was taken and people were signing up on the waitlist. they say it's even worse at normal dining hours...

the menu is quite comprehensive with four soups, six salads, four small dishes, eight a la cart items, seven hot noodle dishes, three cold noodle dishes, thirty-six different types of sushi, a variety of dinner sets, and six desserts. whew! i didn't know i could count that high, the california public school system being what it is and all...

for $7.50 we each ordered a lunch set that came with a choice of two items (from a specified list), soup, rice, salad and tea.

haru maki
i ordered haru maki and ten bou, neither of which i'd ever heard of before...maybe a cha ya invention? according to the menu, haru maki are "spring rolls with asparagus, shiitake, carrots, long beans, silver noodles and atsuage tofu rolled in rice sheet". i was expecting a fresh vietnamese style roll and was quite surprised when it came out deep fried with a sweet dipping sauce on the side. the rolls were tight, compact, colorful, and surprisingly non-greasy. the dipping sauce was a bit too sweet for my taste but i found that the tempura sauce went quite well with it. the filling, although quite pretty, was a bit on the bland side and definitely benefitted from a gentle saucing.

ten bou
the ten bou (deep fried veggie sticks) were: "sticks of yam, carrots, banana squash, atsuage tofu, and green beans lightly battered and deep fried". how this differs from tempura i'm not sure, except that the vegetables were not sliced in the cross cut that tempura vegetables usually are but in more a matchstick shape. the batter was fairly light and crispy and the vegetables well-cooked (i always harp on this because on many, many occasions i've gotten tempura that was not cooked at the proper temperature resulting in soggy, overcooked vegetables, or worse, crispy raw ones). this dish was okay but i was hoping for something a little different.

agedashi tofu
my dining companion ordered the lunch combination with agedashi tofu and sushi. the tofu was the clear standout of the meal. big, fat, creamy, juicy slabs of tofu dredged in a light batter and fried to golden crispy perfection sat in a broth so perfect, so flavorful, i literally licked the bowl clean. the broth was full of punch with grated ginger adding a noticable brightness. garnishes of shredded green onion, daikon sprouts and toasted nori sat atop this beauty like the crown it deserved. if you go to cha ya, you must order this dish.

sushi sampler

the sushi plate was comprised of one piece of vegan roll, three kappa maki and one inari. the sushi was a bit bland owing to the lack of flavor-packing ingredients (except for the sweetness of the inari) but well executed, well intentioned and completely passable. also on the menu (but not included in the lunch box selection) were some much more intriguing rolls such as the summer green roll: "large reverse roll with avocado, cucumber, and kaiware sprouts, topped with sea vegetable salad". if that doesn't grab your fancy by the pants, how about a soba sushi roll: "instead of sushi rice, the roll contains buckwheat noodles, along with spinach, atsuage tofu, asparagus, cucumber, pickled burdock, and seasoned kampyo gourd and shiitake."

the verdict: as arnie says, "i'll be back..."

menu side 1 (click on image to enlarge):

menu side 2 (click on image to enlarge):

citysearch review

cha ya
1686 Shattuck Avenue
Berkeley, CA
510 981 1213

Friday, January 27, 2006

sushi banzai, berkeley

sushi banzai is a little family-run japanese restaurant tucked into a professional building just a few blocks from tokyo fish market. the interior is no-frills yet homey with a small sushi bar that can seat maybe four and around seven or eight small tables taking up the rest of the interior.

during a recent shopping excursion to the newly expanded tokyo fish market, moms and i decided to get a bite to eat. i'd read good things about sushi banzai on the chowhound board and decided to give the place a go. lunch prices are very reasonable ranging from 5.75 for chicken teriyaki up to 7.50 for the daily special. sushi prices go range from $3.00 for 3 pieces of inari to $11.oo for something called the b-29 roll which includes hamachi tempura, ebi and unagi.

lunch special of the day ($7.50)
moms ordered the lunch special of the day which included salmon maki, chicken cutlet, shredded cabbage salad, rice and miso soup, all for $7.50. even though the cutlet was white meat, the chicken was reported to be extremely succulent and flavorful with a crispy, surprisingly non-greasy panko crust. as you can see, the cutlet was not completely drowned in the ubiquitous overly sweet teriyaki sauce. the fish was very fresh. the only disappointment was with the rice. moms is very particular about her rice, favoring koshihikari, which is the cadillac of sushi rice. it is highly polished into perfect fat little grains that cook up beautifully in a rice cooker. it's incomprehensible to me that japanese restaurants use low-grade rice when it is the backbone of any japanese meal. rant aside, the rice at banzai was cooked and seasoned just fine, but the grains were on the longish side and many of them were broken. for me, it didn't detract too terribly from the meal and if you're not too picky, you might not even notice. if you're my moms though, better watch out!

the truly vegetarian options at sushi banzai are extremely limited. there is a vegetable curry on the menu but ( if you want to be able to continue to eat japanese curry then do not read further my fellow vegetarians) most of the stuff is made with beef fat. yep. lard. these currys are almost always made with the house-curry type bars you can buy from the grocery store and all but one brand (can't remember which one) use el-lardo. sorry. sushi banzai has udon and soba noodles also on the menu, the soup bases of which use the ubiquitous bonito stock. being a bad vegetarian i just pretend that maybe it's not true and eat the soups as long as they don't taste too fishy. and so i ordered a vegetable soba. the server came back and informed me that it would be a 20 minute wait for my order to be preparred and so i began rooting through the appetizer and maki sections of the menu. and i'm glad i did because it forced me out a noodle-rut i've been in lately.

hiyayakko ($3.00)
i chose an order of hiyayakko and an ume-kyuu maki. hiyayakko is nothing more than cold cubed tofu sprinkled with negi and ginger. my dish came out, very dramatically, floating on a bed of ice which kept the tofu well chilled throughout my somewhat spartan meal. the tofu tasted freshly made, not quite on par with san jose tofu but a cut above the grocery store variety.

ume kyuu maki ($3.50)
the next surprise was the ume-kyuu maki, which the menu described as ume and cucumber. it did not mention the shiso leaf which took the roll from "whatever" to "oh wow". the cucumber was thinly sliced with just enough ume to add a tart saltiness that was not overpowering. the shiso flavor really held the roll together and made it shine. the only (minor) criticisms of my maki were that (1) the seaweed was a little too short and some of the pieces flopped open when i picked them up. (2) the rolls had a square-ish shape that makes me think they were not rolled by hand but rather in one of those plastic thingamajigs. i don't know why that bothers me but it does.

overall this is a cozy little neighborhood place whose strength seems to lie in their sushi. as a vegetarian you can cobble together a meal (or just go to cha ya); if you're a deal-seeking omnivore get the lunch special; if you're a fish freak, order a la cart from the sushi menu, which seems to be sushi banzai's stronger point. dinnertime prices are significantly higher with dishes ranging from $9.50 for oyako donburi to $17.50 for two-item dinner boxes to around $18.00 for a variety of sushi dinners.

the verdict: sushi banzai is a decent little neighborhood japanese joint with some good lunch specials. while i wouldn't drive across the bridge to dine there, i'd drop by again for a quick lunchtime bite if i were in the neighborhood.

sfcitysearch review
yelp review

sushi banzai
1019 camelia street
berkeley, ca 510 524 6625
lunch: 11:30 - 2:00 tue-fri
dinner: 5:30 - 9:30 sun-thurs & 5:30 - 10:00 fri-sat

Wednesday, January 25, 2006


ever since i was a little girl my moms and i would go to san francisco's japantown to do a little grocery shopping every few months. and ever since i can remember we would stop by one of those little restaurants in the mall for some lunch, usually at oskaya. if you're not familiar with osakaya, it is one of those restaurants that exemplify what people mean when they say that in japantown the japanese food is mediocre at best. recently (as in the last ten years or so) new restaurants have appeared in the mall that have their loyal followers like ino sushi, maki, takara, etc. but i still had yet to find a decent place to grab lunch with moms.

that is until a fellow chowhound recommended kansai. at 1:00 on a saturday the place was jammed to the rafters with busily noshing japanese people. my moms took this to be an excellent portent and i didn't bother to remind her that the sub-mediocre osakaya was also always full of people from the motherland. upon entry we were ushered past the long gleaming sushi bar to a cozy little table near the rear of the restaurant..the last available table. the host and waiter were one and the same, a nervous-seeming japanese man full of stammering little bowing motions and a manically ernest gleam in his eyes. i've been back several times now during the lunch hour and he is always there, comical, stressed out, stress inducing, fluttering about and making sure everyone is well attended to.

anyhow, you won't find any $4.99 bento boxes here. lunch choices range from $7.25 for zaru soba and top out at $19.50 for the chirashi deluxe. there is a daily lunch special that costs around $9 but we usually order either the lunch combination (choice of two items plus salad, soup, kobachi, rice and pickles) for $12.95 or the lunch set (one item plus salad, soup, rice, pickles) that average around $11.00. the courses are numerous, portions generous, presentation immaculate and ingredients top quality. all things considered it is an incredible value.

a small bowl of miso soup and a salad begins the meal. the miso soup is light and flavorful, not overly salty or ham-fisted. the salad is comprised of finely shredded carrots, red and green cabbage atop romaine leaves studded with cherry tomatoes and cucumber slices bathed in a creamy miso-ginger dressing. i was particularly pleased with the absence of iceberg lettuce, the presence of the finely shredded cabbage and the fact that flavorful little cherry tomatoes were used instead of those giant, pale, watery hunks of pink tomato-ish wedges.

our meals also came with kobachi, which if i recall correctly, my moms said just meant "small plate". in this instance it was a vinegared cucumber salad and kampyo. for the "japanese pickles" dish we were given lightly salted and pressed napa cabbage.

i ordered the vegetable tempura lunch set ($11.95) which came with rice in addition to the above mentioned dishes. the tempura was perfect. a light coating of batter fried to a golden brown. all the vegetables were cooked to tender perfection inside.

my moms ordered the lunch combination with the kaki (oyster) fry and maguro sashimi. four generous sized oysters fried with a panko coating came accompanied by japanese potato salad, shredded cabbage, steamed broccoli and a dab of karashi (yellow mustard) on the side.

on a separate plate came five pieces of maguro on a bed of shredded daikon, shiso leaf and radish sprouts. the fish was reported to be very fresh. it certainly was very pretty.

my man ordered the lunch combination ($12.95) with saba shioyaki and hamachi sashimi. the mackeral was perfectly grilled and came with japanese potato salad, cabbage, broccoli and grated daikon radish.

and then there was the hamachi. beautifully presented and very fresh.

i've eaten at kansai for lunch several times now and the food is consistently good. highly recommended.

citysearch reviews
yelp reviews

1737 buchanan mall
san francisco
415 775 2770

Thursday, January 19, 2006


hanabi sushi is a cozy little neighborhood japanese restaurant located in the lower haight. the music is usually good and eclectic in a fantastic plastic machine way, for which you can thank the sushi chef. the owners are warm and welcoming and the is food fine. not fine as in fine dining or the finest sushi, but fine as in consistent, warming and relatively inexpensive. and as an added bonus, there are lots of options for vegetarians. we usually order the dinner box which goes for around $12. sounds like a lot but you get your choice of three items, plus soup, salad, a little tofu salad plate, rice and tea. the tofu salad plate consists of salted and vinegared bean sprouts, daikon radish shreds and cucumber with a few pieces of firm tofu. very tasty.

these days we don't go to hanabi much since we don't live in the neighborhood but, during a recent drunken promenade around town, we found ourselves gripping an empty flask of bourbon with gurgling stomachs in the old 'hood. right in front of hanabi, as it so happens. and so in we went.

and it was like stepping back a fistful of years. same faces, same food, same, to be honest the music was bad on that night. japanese pop ballads al la celine dion. maybe shinya the sushi chef was feeling old, or nostalgic, or just has a twisted sense of humour. or all of the above.

anyway, out came the miso soup, tofu salad and beer. the beer was very good.

and then our dinner boxes. and some more beer, which continued to be very good. i won't say how many of these very good beers we put away, but you can judge for yourselves by checking out the rapidly degrading quality of the pictures. suffice to say the image in the viewfinder looked as sharply defined as did my dining companion across the table.

my blurry companion ordered his equally blurry dinner box with tuna sashimi, saba teriyaki and california roll. the california roll was basic - the rice isn't the greatest quality but is passable and not overly seasoned, the crab was really surimi (but this is the norm, even in japan) and the avocados were quite ripe. the mackeral was nice and fatty and bathed in your standard teriyaki sauce. the sashimi was reported to be okay...neither great nor awful.

i selected the natto gyoza, vegetable tempura and stir fried tofu. the tempura is of the type with a heavier batter, not the delicate lacy type found at less homestyle restaurants but i like it both ways. the coating was crispy when it came out and stayed crispy through the last bite with the vegetables cooked thorougly. the gyoza, i don't know why i ordered it, i don't like gyoza. it was greasy and flaccid and i wouldn't recommend it. the tofu stirfry however was very tasty. lots of vegetables and firm tofu slices bathed in a slightly sweet and spicy sauce. we finished with a green tea ice cream ($1.50) which came out in it's little single serve carton. very creamy with a strong green tea flavor.

hanabi is the quintessential neighborhood japanese restaurant. it's not someplace to get the most sparkling still wriggling fresh sushi, the best rice, or the most daring flights of culinary fancy, but if you're in the neighborhood and crave a nice comforting box of japanese food in a warm environment and (hopefully) good music this place is a good bet.

citysearch reviews
yelp reviews
sf survey reviews

hanabi sushi
509 haight street
san francisco
415 621 1500

Monday, January 16, 2006

tokyo fish market, berkeley

tokyo fish market in berkeley has finally expanded! well, this is not hot off the press as the store moved into its new digs sometime during the early fall, but it came as a surprise to me as i pulled into the old, tiny, unexpanded parking lot and was greeted by this fresh, gleaming, big structure. the old building now houses a housewares/miscelleaneous department, which is half empty and has yet to hit its stride. the inventory is sparse and kinda random with such items as overpriced japanese pottery (for better deals on japanese pottery, try to hit the pottery section of mitsuwa grocery in san jose during one of their sales), hawaii aprons, bobble head refrigerator magnets plus a few hawaiian and japanese cookbooks. it seems a waste of space when a little video/bookstore or, dare i say it, an ichiban kan would be much more interesting.

that fish counter is bigger than my apartment

for those of you who aren't familiar with tokyo fish market, it is probably the best place to purchase sashimi fish in the area. prices are reasonable, quality is consistently good, service is excellent. in their old building they also stocked what was an astounding inventory of japanese groceries and produce in a space not much larger than a tiny one bedroom apartment. it felt like a rush hour tokyo subway, minus the chikans . the new supermarket is big, gleaming and immaculate with enough room to blithley wheel around shopping carts.

yes martha-san, to the left is an entire refrigerater case filled with japanese pickles!

if you, like me, don't indulge in the gustatory pleasures of the flesh-colored rainbow, tokyo fish market stocks everything you need to prepare your vegetarian or vegan japanese-insired meals.

for more talk about tokyo fish market, go to this chowhound search page.

tokyo fish market
1220 san pablo avenue
berkeley, ca
510 524 7243
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