It’s been more than a year since Bon Appetit named Izakaya Rintaro one of the top 10 Best New Restaurants in America. But after a recent visit for dinner with my brother who was visiting, this San Francisco hot spot is still one of the best restaurants in the country, albeit not so new any more.
Rintaro sits in the space that was the longtime home of Chez Spencer in that odd area bordering the Mission and SOMA, providing an authentic izakaya experience, which is like a Japanese pub serving up yakitori (grilled skewers) and udon (Japanese noodles). On a cold night, you can see a flurry of steam from the hot udon pots right at the long bar that lines the entire space of the restaurant, facing a row of booths all made with cedar.
An izakaya makes it easy to snack on a variety of small bites while drinking, typically sake, sochu or beer. Along with my brother, we were joined by my nephew and my niece (and her boyfriend). I started with a “chu-hai” cocktail, which are fruit infused sochu. Mine was the passionfruit with housemade ume shu, lemon and sparkling water ($11), which was light and refreshing.
For the food, there’s not a very extensive menu, with maybe one or two items for each sections, except the grilled sections where you can order various parts of the chicken. Of course, being a bar menu, there was a section of deep-fried foods, which most of you know I avoid. But we did order teba no karaage ($12), the fried chicken wings with smokey tare, sansho pepper and wasabi arugula.
The sashimi was long line California swordfish, which was soft and fluffy to eat, but were just a few pieces for $18. The yuzu tofu ($12) is the house-made silken tofu with yuzu peel and wasabi, served cold but elegant and sophisticated, like most of the dishes. Our favorite was the house special Hanetsuki Gyoza ($14), presented in the classic way where the crispy pan-fried bottoms of the gyoza are flipped upside down so they’re on top when it comes to the table, creating almost a thin crunchy layer holding each gyoza to each other.
After experiencing the crispy edge, the filling was a luscious tasty pork filling made with Riverdog Berkshire Pork with chicken foot jelly and “wings” to provide more complexity and flavor. We liked it so much we ordered it again later in our meal.
The yakitori were all done well, including the chicken oysters ($10) and breasts ($7). The tsukune meatballs ($7) had a nice texture and delicious glaze.
For the udon to end our meal, we had two types: the kama tama udon ($10), which is a Japanese carbonara because the hand-rolled udon is mixed in a sauce of raw egg, butter, ginger, scallion and shaved katsuobushi. For the soup version, we had the satsumaage udon ($14), with two fish cakes and boiled egg. The udon in both bowls were extremely fresh, but it was more enjoyable to have the soup udon than the carbonara.
There are several dessert options, and we tried most of them, including the hojicha panna cotta ($9), a green tea flavored panna cotta that looked like the housemade tofu we had earlier, and the choco-miso keiki, which is a rich chocolate cake with yamaki miso mousse with mango-passionfruit sauce and whipped cream. We also had an order of black sesame flavored ice cream that was creamy and intense with the toasted sesame flavor.
The last bite
While the menu is limited, the quality is fresh and pure, adding a real sense of authenticity to the plate. With first-rate service and a hip and intimate environment, Izakaya Rintaro is a nice representation of what I imagine a Japanese izakaya should be, a gathering place for drinks and delicious bites.
The rating: 3 out of 4 camera snaps
The deets: Izakaya Rintaro, 82 14th St., San Francisco. PH: 415.589.7022. Open daily for dinner. Reservations and major credit cards accepted. izakayarintaro.com
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