It's rather strange for a restaurant to be directly across from UC Berkeley campus, yet has gotten very little attention from locals for years, but Vansan-kan is definitely it. This lovely Japanese restaurant sits on Oxford near Center, next to Ben & Jerry icecream. They have the best udon, teriyaki sauce, and beef+onion in my opinion, infact, anything that has a sauce/broth there is good. For my taste, most udon tend to be quite bland, and even when they are not bland, they taste either kinda salty-brothy with no memorable distinct flavor. Same thing with teriyaki sauce, many of them are just too sweet for my liking. At Vansan Kan, I'm wondering if the chef is all together from a different region, because his food seems to be just down right simple in the most flattering way of saying.
back to the udon - the broth has darkish color, smelling of shitake mushroom, soy sauce, and wakame. It is salty and savory, minus the rich-brothy flavor which I don't like at other places'. It was like slurping yummy sea-water, heh, you know, it's that simple. I often order niku-udon, which has beef slow-cooked in onion, but they have many choices. I think they have chicken udon too, but I don't think you should try - seawater and chicken just don't go well, I swear.
Other good stuffs include the hot tofu with beef and onion - delicious on a cold day, but this is a small side dish, won't make you full. Sometimes when I feel rich, I would order this dish, finish the tofu+beef, then pour the rest of the broth into my udon, yum (same type of beef). lunchtime Bento boxes are also good, with rice, teriyaki-choice of meat (more on teriyaki sauce later), plus some lettuce salad, choice of sides (tempura, gyoza, etc., can't remember), and usually california rolls or spicy tuna. I enjoy their sushi and sashimi at night too.
My summary of their strengths:
Vansan-kan has perfectly cooked rice.
their teriyaki is more salty than sweet, the texture is thickener-free, it is very close to eating soy-sauce, but more savory.
their tempura is very good, the batter is thin, crispy, just right.
their sushi is good. The rice is just plain rice, as opposed to vinegar-rice. It just let the fish speak for itself more eloquently, in my opinion. And the fishes are fresh.
the japanese chef does most of the cooking, with his main waitress helping on the side (we think she's his daughter). Sometimes I like to sit near the kitchen to watch him lovingly prepares each plate. This guy's an artist, and it shows in the neat, simple presentation of the courses, the decor of the restaurant, and the taste of the food.
now, on to the bad and the ugly (long).
If you are looking for quantity and nice prices don't go there. That is to say, if you order their sashimi special that costs around $20 (more or less, can't remember), you will be outraged by how hungry you will still be after you lick the plate clean. Same thing can be said for any portion. Damn the portions are small!! Five bucks for the beef + tofu side dish, and you end up with one spoonful of meat plus 4-6 pieces of tofu. The portions are just plain moody. Some days you get a decent amount, other days the chef thinks he might not have enough supplies to last, so your portion gets cut in half! Last time went with 3 friends, first round of tempura had 2 shrimps and about 4-6 pieces of vegies, yum, ordered some more, and second round had 1 shrimp and about 4 pieces of vegies, grrrrr... 20% of the time I would get "bad day food," where I'm almost certain that the very few pieces of chicken in my bento have been left sitting in the fridge since the day before, then feebly reheated into a dry ugly mess that no artist can retouch to bring solace. This uneven quality of the food (due to plain stinginess and lack of heart from the cook) is the reason why I just usually go there on my own or with my boyfriend, who has equally resigned to these ugly things so we don't get pissed as others would.
Furthermore, 2 years ago when the restaurant was still sleepy, the food was much better. A donburi would have rice, meat, teriyaki, some lettuce, a slice or two of the yellow japanese pickled daikon, a bit of the pretty green seaweed salad, some lettuce salad,and some thin flakes of toasted nori. A bento box would have miso soup, rice, meat, side order, some sort of sushi roll. The rice is usually a nice, smallish dome shape pile, with a bit of salt and some black sesame sprinkled on top. Little things, little details like that make the restaurant special and of course the artsy chef can present them much better. Recently, maybe due to the recession or whatnot, the restaurant has gone CRAZY. They put up flyers everywhere, praising themselves as the most healty, nutritious, wholesome, delicious blah blah, then advertise "super sale on food" like some shoestore. In reality, they have done away with all the little side things, a damn donburi now just has rice, meat, and some lettuce. Bento boxes now have miso soup added as an optional item ($1 more). My pretty sushi rolls used to have tobiko in them, now, no more!
Service is also crazy. While everyone is extremely nice, polite, and attentive, including the chef who always say thank you and good bye to everyone who leaves, yet they are s-l-o-w. Twice I got a record waiting time of 45 minutes during lunch (between having ordered and actually receiving my food). Not enough staff. The chef looks up from his dreamy creations from time to time to survey the dinning room, but even when he catches my longing-to-pay-my-bill eyes and calls the waitress, she is somewhere too buried among 3 other tables to run over. I just hear a pitiful "haiii something something in japanese" and then more waiting. I love the staffs and like the chef personally though, and they know me. Once in awhile they would send out some complimentary food to apologize for the wait.
anyways. Did I mention that the food is more on a pricey end ? If you are a poor starving student like I was, or a lowly office worker like I am, only pure optimism and devotion will keep you coming. I don't know what to say. I love the taste of their simple austere food, and would put up with so much crazy things the the chef(owner) has been/is currenly doing, but in general, I'm very fearful of recommending it to others. Well at least try the udon. They have the best udon ever, and I have only had 1 bad udon day, where the waitress was responsible for concocting the broth and put too much water in there - bland.