Sunday night a group of friends joined me to check out the new Izakaya Roku. What I’d read about it gave me some inkling that it might be what I’ve found missing in the City’s attempts at izakaya atmosphere or cooking. While I loved the izakaya offerings that Sebo used to have on Sundays, my experiences at Chotto and Nombe had soured me on the genre in San Francisco. Eating this style of Japanese drinking food in San Jose and Los Angeles has been far more satisfying. Yes, the consensus on Izakaya Yuzuki rates it highly, but the price point and cooking refinement are not what I seek. To me, izakaya is a crowded pub with rustic, moderately priced food and that’s what I found here.
Our party of nine ordered a huge variety but still less than half of Roku’s extensive menu. Before diving into the yakitori section we asked first if the grill was gas or charcoal. Our server said that Roku uses bincho tan. We asked her to let the kitchen decide whether to salt grill or use sauce (tare) on the various skewers to show each at their best . . . this might have been a mistake on our part.
Here’s a rundown from worst to best.
Crispy chicken wings, $7 – Grilled, seriously underseasoned, not crispy. Some said their wing was undercooked, others were overcooked.
Yaki onigiri, 3x$3 – Not grilled enough, barely colored and not crisped on the exterior. Not packed tightly, fell apart.
Smoked salmon and mozzarella crostini, $7 – Garlic toast base so hard could barely bite through, not enough salt, hot melted cheese made the avocados slimy.
Gyu skewers, 2x$3.50 – Thin slices of beef loin seriously overcooked and tough like jerky, boring sauce.
Tsukune, 3x$3.50 – Cold in the middle, bland, too firm. Possibly better with sauce instead of salt.
Salt grilled hokke, $9 – Overdone surprisingly as mackerel is pretty forgiving of overcooking.
Karaage, $7 – Nice crunchy crust, meat too dried out, underseasoned, not juicy.
Grilled chicken skin skewers, 2x$6 – Flabby, very pale and no color development.
Ban ban ji, $9 – Interpretation of Sichuan dish, little chile spice other than some threads on top, slices of chicken dried out, would prefer pulled meat, sesame sauce lacked focus and fell flat.
Mochi bacon, 2x$3 – No bubbling on surface of mochi, bacon could be crisper, sauce more complementary to this skewer.
Pork belly skewers, 2x$4 – Good meat to fat ratio with about 2/3s lean, little smoke influence or color, underseasoned. Served with a pile of coarse salt on the plate, tasted as if none added to the meat before cooking.
Kimchee pork, $7 – Very fresh kimchee with little character other than primary chile and crunchy cabbage stir-fried with pork slices.
Stir-fried pork and sprout, $6 – Homely, homestyle dish, large portion for the price and meat heavy, coarse-textured pork slices, Chinese chives cooked thoroughly.
Salmon skewers, 2x$4 – Not overcooked, served with a tartar-like sauce on the side.
Ingen goma ae, $4 – Less than inch-long lengths of green beans cooked just right to develop the flavor and keep their snappiness, small portion for the price, tasty sesame sauce.
Tako wasabi, 2x$4 – Strips of raw octopus dressed with pungent wasabi and ginger, packs a wallop.
Takoyaki, 2x$7 – Dubbed “octopus beignets” by our group, griddled puffs with scant amount of octopus, should be crisper, five to an order.
Roku’n octopus, $6 – Deep-fried baby octopi lopped into head and leg portions, very chewy and verging on tough, spicy sauce option was delectable.
Tuna tartar, comped – Kitchen sent out an extra dish that is not on the menu yet, very pretty non-izakaya presentation with dots of wasabi cream decorating the plate. Thin fried shell holding the cubes of dressed red tuna turned soggy.
Kurobuta sausage, 2x$5 – Not grilled here, but delicious nonetheless. Curious that the menu says “five pieces” and what is sent out is three whole sausage and two halves. Served with spicy ketchup and Dijon mustard, would have preferred hot Korean-style mustard that other places provide. I recommended to my friends who really liked these wienies that they can buy them in the freezer section at Japanese grocers.
Gyu suji nikomi, $5 – From the Mama’s cooking section of the menu and comforting as all get out. Cylinders of beef tendon braised overnight with miso, stewed softer than a Chinese or Vietnamese cook might.
Udon carbonara, $8 – Even though I don’t care for straight up mentaiko (spicy cod roe) on my ramen, I adore spaghetti mentaiko where the addition of butter, cream or egg yolk’s richness rounds out the chile bite. So I was looking forward to trying Roku’s take on the dish. Incorporating cheese, bacon and eggs makes this version richer still and the better for it. Could have used more spicy cod roe and the udon’s somewhat overcooked, but there’s still a lot to love about this dish.
Roku pot, $14 (serves 2) – We called this pork and chicken nabe the “golden pot”. Very delicious, round and deep stock base but not nearly enough of it, as we drained all the delicious soup and left the meat and other fixings behind behind. One ding, Chinese chives not cooked, neither sautéed nor steamed under the lid.
Devil tofu, $7 – Highlighted in Tasting Table’s review and deservedly so. Light but packed with flavorful seaweed, sesame, chili oil, ginger, and dried chile shreds.
Torikawa ponzu, $5 – The dish I was tempted to bogart. We tried to order a second but already sold out for the night. Thin strips of chicken skin fried to a crackly chicharon-like crunch dressed with tart ponzu that cut through the richness.
After a couple service mis-steps we were also comped a salmon dish that had strawberries and a huge pile of onion shreds with a sauce that tasted like balsamico to me. I missed seeing or tasting it before the salmon and most of it disappeared so can’t comment.
My advice on ordering here is to skip the yakitori skewers, as technique and seasoning was abysmal. Those were the dishes that fell to the bottom of the heap and make this meal seem worse than it was. There were enough successes that I’d return for the favorites and explore more.
My friends were curious that I did not try the ramen here. Too hard to share with a group, but I'll return some time to give it a whirl. The depth of the non-ramen soup stock in the nabe was encouraging.
Roku deserves a special mention for the ladies room that features a Toto Washlet. Not so the men’s room, I’m told.
To drink we went through a bottle each of Kubota and Nanbu Bijin, plus some Sapporo beers. Our tab came to $346 with tax and a generous tip. Food cost was $26 per person, and those of us who had alcohol paid a total of $44 for food and drink.
What have others tried here?
1819 Market St