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Hotei Whispers Luck

To Inner Sunset Diners

'Hotei' is sometimes worshipped as a god of good luck and prosperity. In Chinese Buddhism, Hotei ("ho-tay") is known as the Loving, or Friendly One. Hotei, the Inner Sunset Japanese noodle house, doesn't need any luck, and it has perfected the art of friendliness.

The serene haven on the Irving Street restaurant stretch specializes and succeeds in wonderful, expertly prepared, no-nonsense Japanese noodles. Situated across the street from its renowned sister restaurant and San Francisco's most popular sushi house, Ebisu, Hotei serves a wide variety of standard Japanese cuisine, as well as Ebisu's world famous sushi.

The simple Japanese-style decor is subtle, tasteful and inviting; rust hued walls with dark wood accents, and perfectly dimmed lights create an immediate sense of calmness, even though tables are within close proximity of one another, and the acoustics of the dining room can be daunting. The Asian waitstaff are courteous and friendly, eager to make suggestions, and super efficient. You will never feel rushed at Hotei, and although the staff may be scurrying around the maze of tables with steaming bowls of noodles and artful plates of sushi, it's a non-stop parade of visual entertainment.

This neighborhood favorite is a serious Japanese noodle house, specializing in soba (buckwheat), udon (rice thirteen gooey styles), gyoza, and ramen (egg). Hotei owner and head chef Steve Fujii has been perfecting his craft at Ebisu for over 17 years, and it's the noodles that keep people coming back (and perhaps the reasonable prices).

Start off with Yudofu ($4.75): fresh hot boiled tofu, green onions, and grated fresh ginger with dipping sauce. If you like gyoza (Japanese style dumplings with pork and vegetable fillings), you simply cannot find better (6pcs $5.25/10pcs $8.50/20pcs $16.00). The reason I return to Hotei over and over again is for the soba, or cold buckwheat noodles. The noodles are served with a light, sweet soy-based dipping sauce and a healthy side of wasabi and minced green onions, all garnished with finely minced, dry seaweed. The cold soba can also be served with tempura or salmon roe among other variations. As far as sushi is concerned, especially delicious are the kasuzuke (grilled black cod), seared albacore tuna tataki, and many complex rolls like the Dragon Roll or 49ers Roll. The menu also includes fried rice dishes and delicate tempuras.

Hotei is an excellent choice for vegetarians, and a good place to experience authentic Japanese food at delicious prices. Generous portions, honest and flavorful food, and a no-fuss atmosphere, make this the perfect spot to fill up on a cold, rainy day for well under a ten spot. Reservations are not accepted, and off-street parking can be a difficult task, but the experience is well worth the effort.