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Izakaya Style

SF’s Japanese Pub Grub

In Japan, the universally appealing combination of food, drink, and amity come together at izakayas; casual hangouts (literally, Japanese for “cozy drinking place”) earmarked by copious quantities of beer and sake soaked up with honest home cooking.

You won't usually find sushi or ramen on the menu, but you will be confronted with a wide variety of shareable plates like grilled skewers (kushiyaki), fried foods (age), pickles (tsukemono), and to finish it off, carb-loaded goodies like noodles and okonomiyaki (savory griddle cakes). Izakaya eating means gathering with friends, ordering drinks, choosing a few tempting plates, and repeating this formula for several rounds. And although San Francisco only has a few true Japanese taverns, it's possible to eat izakaya-style in numerous neighborhoods.

Two years ago, husband and wife team Gil Payne and Mari Takahashi opened Sozai Restaurant and Sake Lounge in the Sunset, and recently opened the similarly-themed Nombe in the Mission. Sozai's impressive sake service includes 50 options (as well as flights), along with beers and shochu. Among the standouts on the menu is the Kurobuta pork belly ($8): rich, soft, fatty chunks of pork cooked over two days using seven preparations and crusted with shichimi, a red pepper blend.

Chef Takahashi's California-inspired plates, such as organic strawberry mizuna salad dressed with balsamic vinegar ($8) and tender-crisp beets with minced wasabi root ($5), gives the menu a fresh side and complements the restaurant's modern atmosphere. Payne, who fell in love with Japan during his study-abroad days, works the front of the house and helps diners navigate the extensive food and drinks menu. Izakaya novices will be well-cared for here, and can opt for the "rookie set" ($35 for one), featuring a hand-picked selection of 11 chef’s choice dishes.

Oyaji, in the Outer Richmond, is another solid izakaya destination with a cozy tavern feel. Although sushi is popular, a good portion of the menu is given over to small plates, including plenty of vegetarian choices.

Separated into classic izakaya categories, the lengthy menu includes items such as sunomono ($4), paper-thin slices of cucumber and ruffles of seaweed bathed in vinegar and smoky bonito broth; and ankimo, a thick disc of rich monkfish liver bathed in ponzu and topped with a tangle of scallion ($7). Like Sozai, Oyaji offers a good selection of drinks, and the rows of decorated personal sake boxes and name-tagged shochu bottles attest to a loyal neighborhood following. Try the excellent yaki onigiri ($4), rice balls seasoned with soy sauce, speckled with dried salmon and seaweed, and grilled.

True to its moniker, Druken Sushi, in the outer Richmond, is as much of a drinking destination as it is a sushi spot. Although it may not have a huge variety of pub fare, bar-friendly noshes still abound. The hamachi goma, or broiled yellowtail collar ($10), is perfection: Simply grilled, the beautifully charred and crispy skin sets off the unctuous meat of this prized part of the fish. One house specialty, fish-stuffed fried jalapeños ($5) is proof that in any culture, pub-goers love jalapeño poppers.

In keeping with its "freestyle sushi" motto, Drunken Sushi offers a variety of inventive rolls to match its similarly whimsical drinks list. The Geisha cocktail ($7) features Calpis, a yogurty uncarbonated soft drink from Japan, garnished with a carved turnip slice. With its 2:00 a.m. closing time and jovial ambiance, Drunken Sushi is a good place to close out a night of hashigo sake (ladder drinking, or pub crawling).

Another sushi-joint-gone-izakaya is Sebo in Hayes Valley, which completely gives itself over to tavern food on Sundays. The format allows chef Michael Black's Okinawan roots to really excel, as Okinawa is not a particularly notable area for sushi (fattier, tastier fish are found in the colder waters in northern Japan). Dishes like sokibuni ($10), simmered spareribs and kelp, and goya nanpuruu ($7), sautéed bittermelon, are well-known regional specialties that can be found on the limited but thoughtful menu.

More familiar items, such as beautifully blistered and chewy-skinned gyoza ($7) also appear. Sebo also pares down it drinks selection on Sunday, and although this prevents the place from taking on some of the hallmarks of a traditional izakaya, you get the real deal here at a relatively affordable price for this otherwise spendy locale.

Tucked away behind a modest blue noren (doorway cloth) the Outer Richmond’s Miki is a gem of a place that merits a trip across town. Its kaisen chawanmushi ($7), a steamed seafood custard, is gorgeously silky and light, and arguably the best in the city. It also serves satoimio agedashi, deep fried taro in dashi broth, a crave-able treat that can even be hard to find at izakaya in Japan. Many menu items at Miki don't have much explanation, but the staff are happy to explain; those who are too shy to ask won't go wrong with more familiar items like the perfectly executed fried oysters ($7). While Miki is more of a restaurant than bar, it offers a familial atmosphere, a decent selection of drinks, and a tempting tavern menu, all prepared in an improbably tiny kitchen.