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Pub-Grub With Chopsticks

Izakayas are the ubiquitous pubs of Japan; casual and convivial drinking spots fueled by lengthy drink lists and the small plates they complement. The Mission welcomed its first interpretation, Nombe, in November; a first collaboration between Mari Takahashi and sommelier Gil Payne (both from Sozai Restaurant) and chef Nicholas Balla (of O Izakaya and Lounge).

"Nombe" refers to someone who enjoys the drink, and the restaurant's icon — a drunk fisherman sitting cross-legged with a bottle of sake in hand — serves to bridge the language gap. Copious drinking is intrinsic to an authentic izakaya experience.

Nombe’s baffling interior design reflects its past personas. The space was formerly a taquería, and a 50s-style burger joint before that. It's oddly split by a dividing wall that makes the long, narrow dining hall feel lanky and disjointed, and black and white checkered tiles mingle with stone floors.

Round paper lanterns with red light bulbs cast dim light over mint walls and massive arched mirrors. A six-seat wooden bar awkwardly elbows a small open kitchen. And the architectural piece de resistance? The flower-filled urinal past the women's bathroom and porcelain tiles haphazardly covered in lavender paint.

The effect is to create a dining experience that's quirky, and at times off-kilter. But all restores to normalcy when it comes to the food. Agemono (fried items), yakimono (grilled skewered items) and house plates arrive on beautiful earthenware dishes studded with artful and elegant presentation; seasonal, sustainable, and locally sourced ingredients throughout. Salads, rice dishes, miso soup and pickles round out the options with prices that encourage diners to sample widely.

In portions meant for sharing, the menu is rooted in tradition but shines with some contemporary twists. Crispy chicken wings ($9), lacquered in a honey and serrano chile sauce and topped with cilantro are reminiscent of Mexico and Thailand, while pork spare ribs in a black bean chili broth with baby bok choy ($14) borrows its braise from China.

The black cod ($12), though meager in size, flakes at the slightest touch, and its bed of fennel, leek, and miso purée with threads of wilted spinach are a refreshing play on the simpler, miso-marinated standard. Deep-fried Brussels sprouts ($5) with flecks of mint, carrot, and togarashi (a mild Japanese green pepper) are unexpected and entirely successful, while satsuma imo korokke ($7) is a predictable but comforting Japanese sweet potato croquette.

Sadly, the thin, curly noodles in a murky, medium-hued chasumen (pork ramen, $9) were overcooked, but the grilled pork belly ($9) — a pillowy white slab with a smoky, shichimi togarashi crust — was perfect; the seven-spice blend with red chili pepper, roasted orange peel, and sesame seeds spiking the crumbs with the right amount of heat.

True to the izakaya spirit, the drink list is extensive, with wine, shochu, and over 75 brands of sake. Prices range from $9-$19 for a glass, and sake bottles in three sizes can quickly rack up your bill. There are six beers in bottles — Echigo ($7), a Japanese microbrew made from rice a perennial favorite — but there are also six Japanese and local beers on tap. Single pints ($5-$6) are fine, but pitchers ($15-$18) are the smart way to go. And with a bottle of the Wakaribune “Ferry Boat” sake ($60)? Even better.

For a drinking establishment, it seemed wrong that they were out of first three sakes we ordered. And though the dining room was not particularly busy, the kitchen’s pacing was uneven if not absent-minded. But our server, with her raspy voice and winged black eyeliner was truly a doll and steered us right with her recommendation of beignets ($7), served with Seville orange jam and a dollop of créme fraiche for dessert.

Keeping with the drinking theme, Nombe offers a late night menu of Japanese street food from 11 p.m. until 2 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights, either eat in or to-go. They've also added brunch on Saturday and Sunday to promote drinking to a full-time affair.

It’s that raucous promise and good intention that is part of Nombe’s charm; a makeshift stage full of heart and poised for fun. As we paid our check and mulled over the restaurant’s potential, five 20-somethings donning paper headbands a la The Karate Kid stumbled in, one yelling, “I need a drink,” before even sitting down. That’s the spirit.

2491 Mission St. (at 21st)
San Francisco, CA 94110

Reservations Essential? No.