Guest post: Five freaky and fantastic vegan Japanese foods you must eat now!  »

Japanese food is awesome. It’s light and healthy and after eating it, you usually feel pleasantly satiated rather than weighed down (unless it’s tempura, or okonomiyaki, or—let’s just move on, shall we?). But did you know that Japan is home to some seriously freaky shizzle? If your palate is begging for variety and you need your culinary world to be rocked, we invite you to check out some of these funky Japanese foods. You will not be disappointed.
1. Devil’s got your tongue? Check out crazy konyaku!

Sometimes translated as “devil’s tongue,” konyaku is a gelatinous paste made from yams. You can sometimes find it in big gray blocks with black flecks in them (which just may be one of the most unappetizing forms a food can take), and occasionally in little ribbon shapes that are tied into a bow. If you’re feeling brave enough to try the block, you can rinse it off, and then do whatever you like to do with weird gelatinous substances. You could throw some into a stir-fry or soup to make things more interesting, or even bread and deep-fry it for a batch of “down-home country-fried devil’s tongue.” It has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?

2. Can’t get enough of that jelly-like weirdness? Kick it with kanten!
Kanten is another freaky-deaky Japanese substance. Sometimes called agar, sometimes agar-agar (isn’t that the best?), this algae-derived white powder can be cooked up to solidify stuff and make some very interestingly textured jellies, custards, puddings, and aspics. This is also super-popular as a diet food in Japan because of its high-fiber, low-calorie content. So you can eat as much as you want! Just as long as you don’t mind, uh, going to the bathroom later.

3. It looks like a booger, but it’s snot. Yamaimo, y’all! 
Maybe it’s not polite to talk about boogers at the dinner table, but it’s really hard not to talk about snot when we’re talking yamaimo, or “mountain yam.” On the outside, it appears to be a long, thin, shaggy potato (picture Shaggy from Scooby Doo in potato form). However, once you start grating it, it turns into a white, gooey, mucous-like substance, which you can use to bind various things together, or you can just take it as is and throw it on top of a bowl of soba noodles for a dish called “tororo.” Which is probably more fun to say than it is to eat. Just sayin’.

4. Yes, it smells like feet, but it’s GOOD for you. Nasty natto!
Can you tell I’m not the biggest fan of the fermented soybeans known as natto? However, I’m adult enough to recognize that some people can actually get past the funky smell (like feet!), and texture (slimy, sticky, AND stringy!) and enjoy this stuff. Renowned for its probiotic properties, natto is said to help build a healthy digestive tract, and is even sometimes used to clean out bacteria-infested water. Well, like the old saying goes, “Good enough for bacteria-infested water, good enough for me!” If that describes your culinary philosophy, wrap some up with sushi rice in sheets of nori for nattomaki, or mix it with kimchee and rice (some people swear by this pungent combination).

5. Rockin’ renkon (a.k.a. lotus root)!

Compared to the other foods on this list, lotus root is rather mild. It doesn’t have a super-strange taste or texture, but just take a look at this and tell me it’s not freaky. Sure, the outside looks like a potato, but slice through it and you get a crazy cross-section that’s as beautiful as it is bizarre. Plus, lotus root is almost as versatile as its cousin, the potato (My apologies to any biologists who are shaking their heads in anger as they read this). You can deep-fry lotus roots for some kick-ass “potato-cousin” chips, toss them in the rice cooker along with whatever grain you’re cooking to add some variation to the mix, or chop them up into tiny pieces and put them in your rice for a crunchy and fun take on inari. Do you have any favorite recipes for these freaky foods? Feel free to share them here!

Melissa Feineman is a Japonophile writer and editor who is looking for work. You should totes hire her. Or just check out her shizzle on her rad website. You must especially read her AWESOME Japanese dating advice column, Let’s Dating!

[Renkon and kanten photos from author, natto from snowpea&bokchoy, konyaku from alecvuijlsteke!]


Anyone tried the vegan sushirito yet!?  »

It’s a sushi burrito and San Francisco is going apeshit for it. Sushirito (yes, that’s the name) is only open during lunch and the line is HELLA long so none of our SOMA working affiliates have indulged. YET. There’s only one vegan options but it sounds to be the bomb: it’s called the Buddha Boy and it’s a tofu cutlet, miso eggplant, shiitake mushroom, Japanese gourd, avocado, shaved cabbage, daikon radish, green onion, and crumbled rice crisps. It’s all wrapped up in a large sheet of nori and you go crazy on it like you’re Anne Heche and it’s a big bottle of crazy. Did that make sense? I’m so very hungry.

Anyone tried it yet? Thoughts? 

Here is a crappy photo from Yelp. I am so hungry on this cleanse that I will now spend the rest of the day slowly petting my screen.


Gimme gimme gimme Onigilly’s onigiri!  »

Oh my goodness gracious you guys, am I dreaming? Possibly, possibly I am dreaming. Just look at this photo from SFoodie and tell me it doesn’t look like a meal heaven would serve (if there were a heaven, etc. etc.)

[photo by John Birdsall for SFoodie]

Do you know onigiri? It is only the most delicious and perfect savory snack in the entire world, is what it is. I learned of it lo these many years ago, on a trip to Japan to visit a beloved friend of mine. On a courtesy break during a bus ride from Matsumoto to Tokyo, she bought snacks, and when she got back on the bus she handed me a sort of three-dimensional triangle of rice, the middle wrapped in nori, covered in plastic. I unwrapped it, bit into it, and Oh, oh! It was amazing. But when I got to the middle, that’s when I fell in love with onigiri forever: hiding in the center of that perfectly shaped triangle was an umeboshi. A whole one, its little pit intact. The flavor! The tangy rice, the roasted nori, the sharp salty umeboshi—and the textures! And the size of the onigiri, just right to hold in your hand, the rice shaped and packed and wrapped to prevent spilling! I swear, with enough fillings—no, let’s be honest—with enough umeboshi I could live on onigiri forever.

The glad tidings SFoodie brings us today, of a new food cart in Justin Herman Plaza called Onigilly, about blew my mind. And that two of the three onigiri fillings are vegan? O glorious day! Even better: Onigilly specifies which of their daily dishes are vegan! Seriously, I am dead. Dead of anticipatory happiness.


A recipe for deep-fried tofu balls. HAHAHAHA but also, delicious!
Making this tonight in my DEEP FRYER. Hate on, haters.

A recipe for deep-fried tofu balls. HAHAHAHA but also, delicious!

Making this tonight in my DEEP FRYER. Hate on, haters.


Cha-Ya!  »

Being vegan, most of the time it’s easy to make decisions at restaurants. Usually at most there’s two or three vegan or veganizable items on a menu. With years of practice, it takes about three seconds to flip through a menu and zero in on what I can eat with pinpoint accuracy. (It also “helps” if your parents are there: “Look honey, they have tofu!”)

It can be a little daunting to eat someplace with a really big vegan menu. Cha-Ya's menu is about six pages long and everything on it (over 50 items) is vegan. I’ve eaten some meals here that were oddly disappointing, and others that were “fuck yes” amazing.

My advice for navigating Cha-Ya is this: only get things you’ve heard of before at other Japanese restaurants. Simpler is better. Their tempura is awesome. Their gyoza is amazing. The miso soup and sushi are really good, too. Things like cold soba salad are OKAY, but wouldn’t you rather have something fried? They also have something called “Moon Garden.” Don’t get that. Just don’t. And though you might have heard of natto before, don’t get that unless you’re sure you know what you’re doing. Do enjoy some warm sake with your meal. Do get the ice cream sundae for dessert: it’s vanilla So Delicious with green tea sauce, adzuki bean sauce, pineapple chunks, and toasted nuts. Um, yes.

Cha-Ya has sort of a weird ambience, though. It’s bright and clean and sterile in there, like a cafeteria in the future. This is the case at all three locations so it must be what they’re going for. Japanese people are crazy! I can say that because I once dated someone Japanese, that’s how it works. They only accept cash so be sure to bring some. At the Mission location, they were kind enough to install an ATM inside, but that also makes it feel like you’re eating in a liquor store. The other two locations have ATMs nearby. In other news, ACCEPT A FUCKING CREDIT CARD WHY DON’T YOU IT’S 2009 GODDAMN.


Sushi Bistro opens second location in the Mission!  »

Sushi Bistro opens a second outpost tomorrow (July 23) at 24th Street and York Avenue and looks to have some decent vegan sushi offerings. Obvs you’ll be seeing our fat asses in line tomorrow night.

Here’s the entire veggie section of their menu, (almost entirely) copy-and-pasted because it all looks so g-d delicious:

Crunchy veggie roll
Lightly deep-fried vegetables with crunchy tempura batter outside, drizzled with sweet sauce.
Tuscan roll
Avocado and Tuscan dried tomato wrapped in a seaweed, flash-fried and served with spicy sauce.
Shiitake veggie roll

Grilled vegetables, topped with shiitake mushroom and house sauce.
Fortune roll

Avocado with crunchy outside drizzled with sweet soy.
Asparacado roll
Avocado and asparagus, served with ponzu sauce and garlic onion aioli.
In the sun

Avocado, cucumber and mango wrapped in soy paper topped with thin-sliced tomato.
Classic veggie

Cucumber, mixed greens, avocado and salad dressing.
Avocado and/or Cucumber

Shiitake mushroom nigiri

We were lamely scooped on vegan happenings in the Mission (Mission) AGAIN. I’m ashamed/lazy. Ugh.


New Cha-Ya Location!  »

We’ve just become aware that a third Cha-Ya is opening this weekend! It’s in the Inner Sunset at 1386 9th Ave. at Judah, where Empress Garden used to be. If you’re not familiar with Cha-Ya, it’s a lovely all-vegan Japanese restaurant, with locations already in the Mission and in Berkeley. And it’ll get a proper review around here sooner or later.

This is especially good news considering the Cafe Gratitude serving the Inner Sunset closed last week. Hippie fail.


Review: Eiji!  »

Eiji is a super-tiny sushi place on Sanchez at 16th Streets. It would be easily missed if it weren’t for the gigantic sign-flag out front that screams, “TOFU!!!!!” How is a vegan supposed to resist? You can’t fly a flag the size of a sperm (hee) whale that says only “TOFU!!!!!!” and not expect to be descended on by my people. And we vegans would be oh-so-right in doing so because the homemade tofu is phenomenal and unlike anything you can buy in the stores (even hippie stores like Rainbow!). There are several kinds, most of which can be served vegan. I know you’re like, “SOME? it’s TOFU, bitch.” and I’m like, “A) you gotta relax with calling me names and B) Yes BUT this is Japanese food made by Japanese people and these fools be lovin’ to put fish flakes on everything, you know?!” So sometimes they can all be made vegan (depending on if you get the nice waiter or the mean waiter) and sometimes only some of them can be made vegan. The hot tofu dish is by far the best and is naturally vegan, kinda like a vegan chawan-mushi (hot savory custard, DUH). UGH SO GOOD. Hot and sweet and it just melts in your mouth and send you straight to heaven. It’s the whole package. It’s the massage and it’s the happy ending.

Apart from the homemade tofu and bizarrely inconsistent service, you must go for the mochi. The mochi is so in demand that you must actually eat in the restaurant to get it. And you can’t just order mochi, you must eat a meal. And even with these crazytown rules, they still sell out of mochi pretty early so put your order in when you arrive to ensure that there will be mochi waiting for you at the end of the meal. Oh man, that pisses the other tables around you off SO MUCH. They are like, “WAH WE FINISHED FIRST, I THOUGHT YOU WERE OUT OF MOCHI, HOW DID THOSE PEOPLE GET SOME WAH” and I’m like, “It’s because we’re better-looking than you.” And that is both a truth and a lie. You see? Anyway, the mochi is house-made with huge fresh strawberries and adzuki bean paste. It’s the best in town and worth the trip. From Mars, even.

Other than that, the veggie sushi options are pretty pedestrian, although high in quality and freshness: cucumber, avocado, squash, etc. They are expertly rolled too and it’s nice to see sushi that is packed tight like an 18-year-old’s ass. What? I’m so sorry.

Oh and make a reservation. And be on time. If you’re not on time, your table will be given away and you will be scolded. It’s no fun.

[sign and tofu photos by pengrin; mochi photo by qf8]


Review: Minako Organic Japanese Restaurant!  »

Admittedly I love giving every restaurant high ratings because I want everyone to just be fucking happy (I am a classic middle child) but Minako really does deserves the heaps and heaps of praise I’m finna heap on its tiny ass. If you understood that last sentence, bravo!

1) In a city where Japanese cuisine = sushi = FISH TIME IN GROSS-ASS DEAD FISH TOWN, there aren’t tons of choices for us vegans. Sure, if you want another cucumber roll, you can go to Red Box or wherever the fuck the omnivore retards of this city are freaking out about, or you can head to Minako for some fucking SELECTION. An entire special vegan menu full of selection! Thas right! I love the fried veggie eel (the veggie eel = worth living for and you MUST try!) and avocado roll and the grilled eggplant with miso glaze appetizer. The tofu house dish is basically hollowed out (I believe it’s house-made) tofu stuffed with a million surprises. The miso soup is vegan as is the tempura (which is the best I’ve ever had). My parents lived in Japan for a few years and are crazy-picky about their sushi and they love it here. Even my dad eats vegan happily at Minako. This is saying a lot since my dad would happily dine on the tears of human babies if given the option. He’s delightful. Oh and they are constantly adding vegan dishes to the menu and there is always a delicious vegan special or two.

2) The cranky chef mother/super-fresh waitress daughter combo can’t be beat. Plus, mom makes her own ume. I’ll pass (gross!) but it’s cool that she does. Some people (read: assholes) complain about them being too up in your business or curt or cranky or whatever but fuck it, eating at Minako is an experience worth having. And if you’re good to them, they’ll be good to you. It’s like family. Or the mob. You choose. They don’t need more customers so why would they put up with a bunch of jerks? I really wish this was how it worked at my job. I’d be such a lunatic to people who gave me any attitude or tried to get me to work period. I’d get hooks for hands and force people to let me give them back massages. I’m off task here.

3) On my last visit the music included Barry Manilow, Air Supply, Pavement and Eazy-E.  YES, PLEASE!

4) It’s tiny, best for a date or a small group. There is always a wait for a table and your food. Just know and accept this.

Once when I was eating here, this guy—who, by the by, was a DEAD RINGER for a black Chuck Norris. You know when you see people but they are like the Chinese version of your white friend or the Mexican version of your Korean friend? It’s a trip. Well, this dude was Chuck Norris’ straight-up black twin—ordered and ate half the menu and when he was done, a Michael Jackson jam was turned way up and he and the waitress dirty-danced (!) for a couple of minutes. It was so great. This is the kind of magic that Minako holds. If you’re not into that, there is an Applebee’s in Stonestown you should hit up.

5) It’s on my top-five favorite restaurants in San Francisco list. I really love this place and would eat here at least once a week if my checkbook allowed. Currently my checkbook doesn’t allow for much more than a generic Vitamin Water at Walgreens but you know. I’ll get back on top sometime soon. I just gots to work hard and I will achieve my dreams! This is the land of plenty! USA! USA! USA!

[photos via yelp]


Review: Medicine Eatstation  »

At first I thought that I could not find the words to describe how much I loathe stupid Medicine stupid “Eatstation” (it’s not even a word and no I will NOT teach my browser to learn it, as I did my name and the various permutations of “vegan”), but then I discovered that yes, yes I could.

I used to work right next to the Crocker, and I didn’t have to technically leave the building to get to Medicine from my office. Now, if I hadn’t been stuck with shitty insurance* that charged me a zillion dollars for my various medications and therapy, and refused to cover my nutritionist costs even though I have a medical diagnosis that should allow me free nutritionist visits for the rest of my crazy life, I would buy lunch more often. Still, after a year of employment at my that job, I felt as though I’d plumbed the depths of the third-floor food court (OF HELL), including Medicine. In fact, I tried it three times. Why? Because I am incapable of learning my lesson the first time, is why.

Each time I’ve gone, the service has been slow, and the staff at the counter has always been rude. They ignore the customers, they keep one register closed despite an out-the-door line (people, NO, just, go get soup), and two out of three times I’ve seen them stop taking orders to chat with each other. Just flat-out stop working! Christ, it was just terrible.

The food is also BAD. I’ve had their signature Medicine roll, the miso-braised eggplant—which is no longer on the menu—and a cold soba salad, and they were equally yet singularly yucky, not to mention overpriced. The worst offense was the limp, squishy, tasteless soba. My mother, a white lady from south Jersey who now lives in a Bay Area suburb and teaches spinning classes to other suburban white ladies, can make better cold soba salads, and she hasn’t been to Japan since 1984. Truth. [NB: do not be fooled by the picture, that food is the opposite of delicious.]

Also, the prices are astronomical. Wonderful Japanese restaurants like all-vegan Cha-Ya and very-vegan-friendly Minako don’t charge so much for such simple dishes, and when their prices do match Medicine’s, the food is incomparably better.

FURTHERMORE, after a much-ballyhooed temporary closing, Medicine reopened and was no longer vegan, instead serving local, wild-caught, long-lived, guaranteed-happy, volunteered-to-be-murdered-so-honored-were-they-to-be-part-of-Medicine’s-cuisine fish as well. Maybe this isn’t so bad—now it’s not a shitty overpriced pretentious vegan place, it’s just a shitty overpriced pretentious place, so it isn’t contributing to our bad reputation. But no, think of the fish!

The last time I went in, the day of the terrible soba, I waited for 45 minutes for it. I know, right? After all that I still wasted three-quarters of my unpaid-yet-mandated lunch hour waiting to get food I couldn’t even manage to finish once I got it. About 30 minutes in, another front counter girl ended the personal phone call that she’d been engaged in when I arrived, and handed me a “Sorry About the Wait, Let Us Make It Up to You” card, good for a whole 15 percent off my next purchase at Medicine, expiring that Friday. Because of course I was going to come back, I am a stupid, stupid person.

Truth: I did not.

*Never complain about your insurance, because one day you may find yourself with two weeks’ of pills left and zero medical coverage, and then you will miss the days of paying a lot of money for those medications, because whatever “a lot” was, it wasn’t as much as the retail price.

[photo via yelp]

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