The relatively new Iza Ramen in San Francisco’s Lower Haight neighborhood started out as a weekend popup inside Blowfish Sushi restaurant in the Mission. I never got the chance to visit the popup when it was around the last two years but was happy to check out the permanent location, which opened last fall.
Iza Ramen has a large, hip space for a ramen spot, and its menu reflect that with more options for appetizers to complement the soup noodles. But don’t get me wrong, the ramen from chef/owner Ritsuo Tsuchida makes it worth a visit, too.
Since opening, the no-reservations place has been packed so the trick is to try to get there when it first opens at 5 p.m. (It’s also open for lunch on the weekends.) The ramen selection is very basic with just three types: regular, spicy, and vegetarian. Along with ramen, you can get tsukemen, which is ramen noodles served without the broth but a separate dipping soup. (The tsukemen comes in regular and spicy, and that’s really talking about the dipping soup.)
There are about 13 additional toppings that’ll add to the cost.
In my first visit, I tried the spicy ramen ($13), which had a rich broth (a mixture of tonkotsu and chicken broth) that was indeed spicy, but not to the point that you can’t eat it. It was just right for me, and served with chashu (BBQ pork), marinated egg, spicy green onion, bean sprouts, nori and fresh seaweed. The noodles itself was cooked to the right al dente for me, although on a second visit my friend Jason said he felt the noodles were too al dente (he likes his noodles soft).
During my second visit with Jason, he got the regular ramen, which he felt was good but he liked his old standby in Japantown better. I tried the regular tsukemen ($12.50), and I was a bit confused of the presentation because the noodles came in a bowl with all the toppings, so it really looked like typical ramen but just without the broth (although if you looked under the noodles there was a little bit of soup).
The separate dipping soup wasn’t necessarily different than the regular ramen broth. The noodles were also warm since they were freshly cooked, but I always thought tsukemen should be served room temperature or even chilled since it’s popular in the summer months.
Both Jason and I did love the starter salmon tartar with house-made tortilla chips ($10) and said we’d come back for it, prepared with avocado and capers.
Appetizers are split between cold and hot and I literally couldn’t order anything in the hot section because everything was deep-fried, from the karaage fried chicken ($9) to even the chicken pot stickers ($7), which typically are just pan-fried (but my server told me they fry the whole pot sticker at Iza).
Of the four cold appetizer options, besides the salmon I also tried the tuna poke salad ($13), which was really more salad than poke since the poke (marinated raw tuna cubes) was just placed on a pile of arugula and other greens. I liked the poke and wanted it to be showcased better than being overwhelmed by the greens.
I also tried the sesame cucumber ($5) from the starter section, and it was nicely marinated with the soy-sesame dressing, but I didn’t like the presentation of thinly sliced cucumbers (I wanted more heft, either cubes or diced.)
Side note: Iza Ramen has a nice selection of beer, wine, sake and shochu, but both times I skipped the alcohol.
Iza Ramen has a nice mix of family diners to young couples. The service is quick, but sometimes it can be like a popup where the food comes out when it’s ready and not really coursed for a normal dining experience. For example, on my first visit, my ramen came out even before the “starter” order of sesame cucumber.
The last bite
Iza Ramen is upping the ramen quality in San Francisco proper, as well as expand the idea of what a ramen restaurant can be with its options for appetizers and starters. The space is welcoming and contemporary, but still gives off that neighborhood vibe. It’s worth a visit.
The rating: 2.5 out of 4 camera snaps
The deets: Iza Ramen, 237 Fillmore St. (near Haight), San Francisco. PH: 415.926.8173. Open dinner, Wednesday through Monday, from 5 to 10 p.m.; lunch Friday through Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Closed Tuesday. No reservations. Major credit cards accepted. izaramen.com
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