by Patrick Heig - 324 Reviews - 95 List
Built almost entirely of concrete in the 1970s, Japantown is a vibrant neighborhood, a cultural landmark, and a complete eyesore. But unlike our prettier, more popular neighborhoods, where everything has already been discovered, homely J-town still has hidden gems to unearth. From a tiny, hard-to-find sushi spot with a brilliant/crazy "soup nazi" chef to a soothing spa where you can get buff to a boutique where you'll browse the latest in bike messenger couture, check out our Japantown treasure map.
Updated: May 20, 2009
Deep in the bowels of the labyrinthine Miyako Mall--through a deserted mezzanine, up a short escalator, through an unmarked curtain door--this pocket-sized sushi spot might be known as one of the best in the city if anyone could find it. Ino is run by a husband-and-wife team (he a prickly sushi master, she a hostess in traditional kimono) and is famous in sushi circles for its ankimo (monkfish liver), otherwise known as "Japanese foie gras." Tips: Call ahead for reservations, order omasake (chef's choice) and be prepared to get the stink eye from the chef for various imperceptible sushi-etiquette infractions.
As you might've guessed, there are plenty of karaoke spots in J-town. Do Re Mi, despite having a less than up-to-date song selection and Clinton-era electronics, is the best option for two reasons: private rooms and a super-late closing time (they say 3am but sometimes go much, much later). Less responsible advisers than we might even encourage you to smuggle in a bottle or three just before the bars close and keep your night going. (They?d also advise you to keep the hooch hidden--the staff do periodic checks like overzealous dorm hall RAs.) No amount of illicit hard alcohol, however, can compare to the exhilarating humiliation that comes from belting out a tearful falsetto rendition of "I Will Always Love You" shortly after a bad breakup in '04. True story.
If you are feeling: a) hungry, b) impatient and/or c) cheap, this ramen house is what you're looking for. Walk in and the one waitress--a sort of Japanese version of "Flo"--will seat you at the bar or one of the chintzy vinyl booths, from which you'll be able to see both blaring Japanese game shows and Tanpopo's foreboding health code scores. Ignore those--health inspection failures are badges of honor for joints like this--and do like the regulars and order some of the excellent ramen, which comes in bowls big enough to dunk your whole head into, or share with a friend, whichever you prefer.
Dimples is the kind of place you have to sort of dare yourself to go into, but you won't be sorry you did. Sure, the drinks are expensive (about $10 a pop), the mood lighting is strange, and the crowd is not particularly cool (older Asian gentleman, pretty young girls waiting to be bought drinks, random lonely men), but this is one of the weirdest bars in the city, and we promise you'll never forget--or regret--that one time you stopped into Dimples.
Though it's organized like an American supermarket--aisles, carts, beeping checkout stands--Nijiya is an exotic bazaar of all Japanese food; almost nothing you would find at your local Safeway can be found here, and vice versa. Look for sashimi-grade tuna and a dozen types of seaweed to wrap it in, kiwi, lychee and honey dew gummies, organic daikon, Japanese curry mix and 87 varieties of rice crackers. Even if you're not in the mood to buy, stop in to check out some of the strangest food imaginable, like donut holes stuffed with octopus and smothered in mayonnaise, a.k.a. takoyaki. (It's huge in Japan.)
At this 50s-style Japanese-American diner, nothing seems wrong when kimono-clad Issei and Nisei women (first and second generation of Japanese in America) sit at the counter to order hot dogs and burgers from the grill, while non-Asian Japanophiles order traditional Japanese mochi. The strawberry, peanut butter and red bean mochis are legendary, and though none of the American diner food is the stuff of legend, a well-made tuna sandwich for $3 is worth telling stories about.
Started by a crew of street racers, track bike fanatics and designers, this minimalist boutique stocks a carefully curated collection high-end streetwear and accessories from the likes of Pendleton, HellzBellz and Stussy, plus Fatlace's own custom-designed clothing, and super slick accessories: basically everything you need to nail that elusive San Francisco style. Unlike most uber-hip spots, the fellas that work at Fatlace are super friendly--most customers are on a first-name basis--and it's worth stopping in even if you're not shopping.
For $20 ($25 on weekends), you'll get all-day access to this immaculate and serene Japanese-style spa, with a hot pool, cold plunge, steam room and sauna, complimentary sea salts, chilled cucumber slices, warm towels and teas and a chance to show off your birthday suit. Only women are admitted on Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays, while Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays are reserved for guys. Tuesday is the only coed day, and don't get your hopes up--bathing suits are mandatory.