1. Sasa for all that sushi
There are three excellent sushi places in Japantown Mall (all included here), with Sasa being the most spacious, a calming dining room with a view of sushi-making, but aloof. Sasa offers a balance of exquisite fish from Japan’s legendary Toyosu Market (formerly Tsukiji Fish Market) shaped into proper nigiri and maki (buns), but at a mediocre price among many of the city’s tiny Michelin-starred sushi bars Has. For take away or delivery, the silky fish, chirashi bowls and sushi feel like a treat. Must try: divine scallops from Hokkaido in a scallop roll with snow crab and cucumber, creamy with Kyoto white miso aioli.
Info: Japan Center East Mall (2nd floor, via Daiso), 22 Peace Plaza, Suite 530, sasawc.com
2. Grandma San Francisco Station is Omakase heaven
Tiny Grandma San Francisco Station recently reopened and appears to be transported straight to Japan, where superb sushi bars line the subway stations. This sushi counter with eight seats offers a casual yet first-class atmosphere, from the selection of fish to a small sake collection. It is an omakase format (お 任 せ: “entrusting the chef”, tasting menu) that is only used with the meal, as well as a few plates of oshizushi (pressed sushi) on the takeaway menu. Here you can talk to the sushi chefs and ask questions.
Info: Japan Center West, 1737 Post Street, Suite 337, omasfstation.com
3. Kissako tea
What started as a small stand under the stairs of the Japantown shopping mall in 2007 has grown into a larger seating area where Japanese tea, candy, bento, dango, udon and onigiri can be enjoyed. Kissako Tea wowed me primarily with their homemade, irresistibly tender mochi (my lifelong best friend said they tasted just like her grandmother from Tokyo used to make). But this is where I fell in love with Japanese delicacies like Mitarashi Dango, chewy sweet rice dumplings skewered on a bamboo stick in a sweet soy sauce glaze – ideal for those of us who like hearty desserts. Their onigiri (triangular rice balls) are the perfect snack, especially salmon or unagi (eel).
Info: Japan Center West, 1581 Webster Street, Suite 195, sfjapantown.org
4th Marufuku Ramen SF
Although soba or udon are my favorite Japanese noodles (for udon in Japantown Mall, go to Udon Mugizo), ramen is the national favorite. And Marufuku Ramen is arguably one of the best in town and often forms lines within the mall to get into its cozy shop. Now with five locations, they offer a sturdy take-away and delivery game, but they also have extensive indoor dining. Known for their hakata-style tonkotsu ramen (milky, umami-rich broth made from hours of boiling pork bones), their thin but luscious noodles and hearty cha-shu pork and chicken paitan ramen signatures are.
Info: Japan Center West, 1581 Webster Street, Suite 235, marufukuramen.com
5. A Japanese restaurant
The humble, cozy Japanese restaurant, which only reopened on March 2nd, has been a sushi gem under the radar since 2015. The look is old-fashioned, as is the warm but low-key service, but the Toyosu (formerly Tsukiji) fish market is untouched with options that go well beyond the basic tuna, salmon, and yellowtail kingdoms. A [庵] means a cottage where monks and artists would rest and retreat, and this nigiri break feels like an escape, one with tiered omakase tasting menu options and a la carte sushi, plus a to-go menu.
Info: Japan Center East Mall (2nd floor), 22 Peace Plaza, Suite 510, sushiansf.com