San Francisco Japantown Food Guide
When I moved to San Francisco in my 20’s, I only went to Japantown as the last stop on the occasional late night out. My friends and I would drink frosty mugs of Asahi and belt out karaoke tunes, along with all the other people who went there to do just that. At the time, Japantown was a sleepy place that hadn’t changed much in 40 years.
While only three businesses still being run by descendants of the original Japantown families remain, I’ve also noticed a few new spots that are breathing new life into this storied neighborhood. In the last few months, I've watched with eager anticipation as many Japantown businesses changed hands and new places have opened in several formerly empty storefronts. It might be the most change the neighborhood has seen since in recent history. I could not be happier to report that many of these new shops and restaurants are being run by new Japanese immigrants, Japanese-Americans or people who just love Japantown and are doing a great job of honoring the heritage of this neighborhood and community.
In honor of the launch of my Japantown tours through AirBnB experiences, I've created a guide to my favorite food spots in Japantown. One of these spots is on my tour and the others are favorites, both new and old. My hope is that this guide helps you feel more comfortable in the neighborhood, and that you feel inspired to explore it on your own time. Stay tuned for a list of my favorite shops in Japantown, coming soon!
Benkyodo- A traditional Japanese sweets shop that has been serving the Japantown community for 111 years, it’s one of the very few places outside of Japan that still makes hand-made manju. The classics like yomogiand chofu are excellent. The more modern flavors like strawberry, blueberry and peanut butter are also phenomenal. They wrap up the sweets so nicely, so it’s a great dinner party gift with a great story! Be sure to get there earlier in the day (they open at 8am), since they often sell out of the popular flavors by the end of the day. Pro tip: They only sell strawberry daifuku (mochi with sweet white bean paste, with an entire strawberry inside) on Fridays and Saturdays. You can call to reserve your order! I've heard that people traveling from Japan come here, since very few people still make manju by hand in Japan.
Marufuku- Having lived in Southern Japan for a couple of years, I have a soft spot for Hakata-style ramen: milky, rich, pork bone (tonkotsu) broth with thin, straight and perfectly springy noodles. Marufuku makes everything from scratch and their ramen egg is other-worldly. Also, the head chef actually hails from Hakata, Fukuoka!
Udon Mugizo- I have to admit I’m partial to udon noodles over all Japanese noodles. Udon is more commonly made for family meals by home cooks, so perhaps it’s nostalgia. Udon Mugizo serves up massive bowls of chewy udon noodles in a variety of preparations. Though they are known for their udon in mentai (cod roe) or uni cream sauce, my favorites are the more traditional preparations like kitsune udon, nabeyaki udon or the yamakake cold udon (the sticky yam is an acquired taste).
Uji Time- The second location of the popular Berkeley spot just had a soft opening a few weeks ago, but all the Japantown regulars have been eyeing it for months. The word has gotten out, so be prepared for up to an hour-long wait, with an additional 20-minute wait if you’re there to try the very Instagrammable black sesame, matcha or tofu soft-serve in a baked-to-order taiyaki (fish-shaped) cone, usually topped with everyone’s favorite Pocky. They also have fresh mochi ice cream in traditional and unique flavors!
Yasukochi’s Sweet Stop- This teeny but crazy popular bakery has been in the Super Mira Market on Sutter at Buchanan Street for 40 years. They make excellent matcha and strawberry roll cakes (another perfect thing to bring to dinner parties) and are most famous for their coffee crunch cake, which sells out by 11 am every day. Get there when they open at 9:30am for a slice or call in your order two days in advance for a whole cake.
Hinodeya- Like the three remaining shops still being run by the third generation of the original Japantown families, the third generation proprietor of this ramen shop is from a ramen family in Japan. They serve a lighter, dashi style broth with house-made thick and chewy, curly ramen noodles. Don’t miss the chicken karaage with matcha salt. The flour for the noodles is flown in from Japan and the noodles are made fresh daily.