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On an otherwise quiet Thursday night, during that stale hiccup of time before the actual weekend, everyone in Chome is already letting their hair down. Tunes by Chinese and Japanese pop groups blare in the dining room, the sound waves ricocheting off wooden walls decked out with recycled wine bottles stuffed with fake greenery. A happy hour crowd of young San Franciscans use chopsticks to pick through tiny platters of potato salad, the school cafeteria-size scoops pliant and stiff like the insides of a refrigerated casserole. An inverted melon-flavor popsicle the color of honeydew flesh melts into my glass of soju and ice, and I can’t do much else but take it all in.
This izakaya opened this past October, in a petite space next to a Chinese bakery in San Francisco’s Mission District, and it’s an endearing oddball of a pub that attracts crowds of diners waiting to snag one of its six tables night after night. It’s a place that doesn’t take itself very seriously at all, though Chome’s offbeat takes on Japanese food and drink are executed with a clear devotion to doing it right.
In the Bay Area, there are a few dozen izakaya-style restaurants, like Rintaro in the Mission District and Yuzu in San Mateo — enough to constitute a scene in itself. At their best, izakaya restaurants celebrate the proletarian, punk rock side of Japanese cuisine: They’re places where you might find yourself sitting on beer crates, swatting away the fumes of cigarette smoke while munching on chewy morsels of deep-fried chicken cartilage between frothy gulps of ice-cold beer. It’s about spitting out the bones of crunchy grilled chicken tails, swirling sashimi with wasabi and pesto, and tucking into fried durian for dessert. Though there are so many excellent izakaya-style spots in the Bay Area, few get the eclectic vibe as “right” as Chome.
There are hand-written signs everywhere, including one posted on the worst seat in the house attesting to its usefulness in achieving “fabulous posture.” A line on the chalkboard hanging by the entrance reads, “7 people on Yelp hate us!” I assume it’s updated live, as 1-star reviews roll in. World Market-worthy knickknacks fill out the wall space up to the super-high ceiling, and garlands of empty Japanese beer cans dangle overhead like aluminum wisteria blossoms.
That lightly chaotic energy extends to the five-page menu, too, with so many novel dishes clamoring for your attention.
There’s the Millionaire’s Green Bacon ($8), a play on Kitchen Story’s iconic sugar-crusted brunch dish. This vegetarian version features long, flat tongues of charcoal-grilled Romano beans, their skins wrinkled and crisp like Kermit the Frog after a long tanning session. The presentation is ironically simple, given the name, but it’s effective — just beans on a wooden block-like plate and a touch of salinity from a soy sauce glaze. It goes down great chased by a grapefruit beer ($9), a lager topped with a thick slice of fruit and teeming with fresh pulp.
And in the heat of summer, the tomato sunomono ($4), a blanched Campari tomato in a shot glass with a hit of vinegar, has the cooling properties of a chilly spoonful of gazpacho. You could easily turn your happy hour visit here into a series of satisfying cold bites: first a tomato, perhaps next a shot of slippery mozuku seaweed ($7) suspended in oceanic brine, then finally a Bubsy Berkeley-styled formation of petite peeled sweet shrimp ($18/$30) on ice with yuzu salsa.
Not all of the dishes are so elemental, though — this is a pub, after all. Chome’s take on okonomiyaki ($26) is a theatrical cousin to Cotogna’s superstar egg yolk raviolo di ricotta. Underneath a frilly cover of fluttering bonito flakes, the savory pancake is layered with tender bites of octopus, pork belly, cheese and MSG-forward Kewpie mayonnaise, and cutting into it causes a flood of golden egg yolk liquid to spill forth. Grab it with the suggested side of tart and musky pickled daikon radish ($5) to refresh your palate between bites.
The kitchen also makes good use of the time-honored tradition of the fajita plate-slash-sizzler, with dishes like the autumnal pumpkin ika ($18). The mixture of curly squid bits and simmered kabocha squash bubbles in a mild red pepper sauce on a hot stone plate, and the piece de resistance is a scoop of potato salad, because of course. It’s like an inside-out baked potato from another dimension, and I’m here for it.
The intimate space is matched by the slim staff, who do their best to hustle from table-to-table during service. On some nights, I counted four people maximum working at the restaurant, pouring glasses of fruit-infused tap water and dropping homey fresh melon skewers with checks. So expect the pace of service to be uneven sometimes, with food coming out before drinks — especially the more involved ones, like the Green Yoshi ($15), that cocktail with a popsicle tipped into it.
One other thing I should note is that this is one of the loudest restaurants I’ve been to lately, due to a combination of the very high ceiling and a truly cranked-up set of speakers. The restaurant takes on a pretty unhinged atmosphere when the song that’s blasting out of the speakers is, say, “Hot Poppin’ Popcorn” by Aussie kids’ band the Wiggles, and that does make the experience interesting, too. But just know that conversation is going to be rather difficult, especially when the other tables are also straining to talk over the noise.
I should also explain that, while I say that the restaurant opened in October, that elides the fact that Chome’s opening was somewhat of a mystery, actually. The restaurant became embroiled in a San Francisco-sized controversy when it debuted in the spring of 2021 as Blowfish Sushi, the name of the restaurant that previously occupied the space but closed in 2020. For their part, the staff said that opening as Blowfish was just the easiest thing to do, since the old sign was still up. From that experience, and from failing to convince the restaurant to let us take photos there, we’ve learned that the owners are pretty secretive. We don’t know much about them.
Regardless, in October the restaurant rebooted as Chome, in much happier circumstances than before. And in contrast to its early identity crisis, Chome is a restaurant that drips with personality. Sit there long enough and all that volume will seep into you, mentally cleansing you until you have no thoughts left to think. And if that’s not the primary function of an izakaya, what is?
2193 Mission St., San Francisco. 415-757-0922
Hours: 5-11:30 p.m. Thursday-Monday
Accessibility: Very tight squeeze into entrance, with narrow clearance for wheelchairs at tables. Physical menu. Gender neutral restroom.
Noise level: Extremely loud; conversation is difficult.
Meal for two, without drinks: $50-$75
What to order: Okonomiyaki, pumpkin ika, Millionaire’s Green Bacon
Meat-free options: Plenty, and clearly labeled
Drinks: Full bar
Transportation: On the 14-Mission, 33-Ashbury/18th Street and 49-Van Ness/Mission Muni lines. Close to 16th Street Station. Street parking.
Best practices: Go early to avoid the line. Happy hour specials are from 5-5:30 p.m. and 10-11:30 p.m.
Since 2019, Soleil Ho has been The Chronicle’s Restaurant Critic, spearheading Bay Area restaurant recommendations through the flagship Top Restaurants series. In 2022, they won a Craig Claiborne Distinguished Restaurant Review Award from the James Beard Foundation.
Ho also writes features and cultural commentary, specializing in the ways that our food reflects the way we live. Their essay on pandemic fine dining domes was featured in the 2021 Best American Food Writing anthology. Ho also hosts The Chronicle’s food podcast, Extra Spicy, and has a weekly newsletter called Bite Curious.
Previously, Ho worked as a freelance food and pop culture writer, as a podcast producer on the Racist Sandwich, and as a restaurant chef. Illustration courtesy of Wendy Xu.
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