The story: Nojo opened a few years ago in San Francisco’s Hayes Valley neighborhood, building on the izakaya craze for Japanese grilled eats. But the owners sold the restaurant last year to a Japanese conglomerate called AP Company, and it reopened earlier this year as a ramen restaurant with small bites.
Why I went: The cold weather makes me crave ramen, the popular Japanese soup noodles that often generate lines at various ramen joints around town. I’d been to Nojo in its original izakaya rendition, and wanted to see what the ramen was like from Japan.
The vibe: The contemporary decor of Nojo remains, so it doesn’t feel much different. But like any ramen spot around town, it gets crowded with a mix of diners from old to young and mix of cultures. With it’s no reservations policy, there’s often a wait as people sign in at the front. The large hi-top tables, though, attract families and groups of friends, which adds to the bustling atmosphere.
The booze: There’s an interesting alcohol menu of beer on tap, wine, sake and shochu, and there’s also a monthly drink special (November’s special is a Gainey Sauvingnon Blanc from Santa Barbara). I tried the Fort Point Westfalia ($7), a red ale from San Francisco that was hearty and less hoppy than an IPA, which made it a nice complement to Nojo’s rich ramen broth.
The menu: Going against the ramen trend of tonkotsu (pork) broth, Nojo specializes in the chicken based broth known as paitan. With the broth, the menu offers a variety of chicken ramen, from soy sauce to tan-tan spicy broth. There’s also a veggie miso ramen and a unique tomato-based ramen. I tried the signature Chicken Paitan Soy Sauce Ramen ($18.50), which is often Instagrammed because it’s topped with a braised whole chicken leg so savory that it will remind you of duck.
But the menu is more than ramen, with several starters from salads to raw fish to rice bowls. The yuzu miso cucumber ($6, pictured very top) was fresh and crunchy though lacking in a strong yuzu flavor, and spicy hamachi with green onions ($12) was soft and easy to eat, served with a sweet chili ponzu sauce that you drizzle yourself.
My favorite dish: While I did enjoy my bowl of ramen for its fall-of-the-bone chicken meat from the leg and the rich broth, I was more enamored by my quick bite of the Nikumaki rice ball ($4.50), a unique comfort dish from Japan’s Miyazaki region. I’ve had rice balls before, but this is a rice ball that’s wrapped by a thin sheet of pork belly and then glazed nicely with a sweet soy ginger sauce. I could make a whole meal of four of these and be happy (and stuffed).
The last bite: If you’re looking for nicely composed ramen bowls with a menu that offers a few other interesting bites, Nojo Ramen Tavern is a solid choice. The noodles might not be perfectly cooked (mine seemed a bit overdone), but the variety of menu offerings is surely the reason why the crowds keep coming.
The rating: 2.5 out of 4 camera snaps
The deets: Nojo Ramen Tavern, 231 Franklin St. (at Linden), San Francisco. PH: 415.896.4587. Open Tuesday through Saturday, 5 to 11 p.m.; and Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; 4 to 7 p.m. Closed Mondays. No reservations. Major credit cards accepted. nojosf.com
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