UPDATE: Nakano and his investors had a falling out and Hapa was abruptly closed in March 2015.
The story: Chef Richie Nakano is one of the early chef pioneers on social media, known mostly as “linecook” through his blog about his early days working the line at San Francisco’s Nopa restaurant and then his Ferry Building farmers’ market stand, Hapa Ramen. After several years of planning and development, he finally opened his own restaurant, Hapa, in the Mission District.
Why I went: I gathered some foodie friends, Sandy of Foodhoe’s Foraging, Christina of East Bay Dish and Brenda of Bites & Bourbon, so we could check out the new restaurant. Like Christina said, we’ve all followed Nakano’s trajectory in his personal food career because of his social media musings so we all felt like we had a vested interest in his success.
The vibe: Hip lounge-like vibe with a huge bar and wooden booths to give the feel of a Japanese izakaya. Christina was really getting into the groove of the playlist, although it started to get louder as the night went on. While the crowd is young like the Mission District, the evening turns toward a family vibe, especially when Nakano’s young sons come to visit and hang out with dad in the kitchen.
The menu: About seven dishes in the “shared” portion of the menu, serving as starters or appetizers, and then three main ramen bowls and a slew of additional toppings. The early word is that much of the creativity can be found in the shared plates, with a variety of items from buttermilk fried chicken steamed buns ($4 each) to pork dumplings (six for $11) to and okonomiyaki (a savory Japanese pancake, $14). We ordered most of the shared dishes and shared the “tonkotsu” chicken ramen ($17).
The booze: I found the cocktail program, developed by Justin Lew and Ian Scalzo of Future Bars, to really be the star. About 10 specialty cocktails are spotlighted, with a few having a Hawaiian twist (such as the Big Island Buck that Christina ordered or the Hilo Gimlet). I really enjoyed my Skipper’s Sour, reminiscent of a Pisco sour with the creamy top of egg whites but made with Zucca Amaro, Smith and Cross, mango black tea syrup, lime and orange bitters. All cocktails are $11 each, and there’s also a nice selection of beer and wine.
My favorite dish: I joked on Twitter that my favorite dish was my cocktail because it was quite delicious and memorable, but if I had to choose, I also enjoyed the pretty raw plate of kanpachi ($15) that was lightly cured but beautifully plated with uni sauce, trout roe and a few pieces of chilled Dungeness crab. Sandy’s favorite dish was the shaved brussels sprouts ($9) that was nicely compact in presentation but delicious with smoked enoki and crispy brussels sprouts leaves on top.
Insider tip: There’s a lot of rumblings on social media about the “secret menu” so you kind of wonder how secret it can be. But apparently you have to be really demanding to get the servers to spill the beans. Our server was hesitant when we asked about a special chicken nugget platter we saw on Twitter, but we passed when we found out it was $40. Later that evening we saw people tweeting about a “secret menu” item of foie gras, which our server didn’t mention. So be aggressive in finding out all the options.
The last bite: I noticed on the signage and menu that Nakano has dropped the “ramen” part of the restaurant’s name, calling it simply “Hapa.” And that kind of makes sense because the ramen plays more of a supporting role to the more interesting plates on the “shared” dishes portion of the menu. The ramen we had tasted more like soba than ramen, and the broth wasn’t as rich as we would expect from traditional tonkotsu broth. But that’s the thing with Nakano. He takes inspiration from the past, but he breaks traditions to create something new and more personal. Hapa is a little bit of everything for everyone.
The rating: 2.5 out of 4 camera snaps
The deets: Hapa, 2293 Mission St., San Francisco. PH: 415.202.6333. Open daily for dinner from 6 p.m. to midnight (till 1 a.m. on Friday and Saturday). No reservations. Major credit cards accepted. haparamensf.com
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