A new series that urges SFoodie readers to get their butts out of the Mission. For a couple hours anyway.
It may sound strange, but Japanese-style Chinese food (known as "Chuka Ryori") is one of the most popular cuisines in Japan. Over time many Chinese dishes have been incorporated into Japanese cuisine: ramen, gyoza (pot stickers), chahan (fried rice), yakisoba (stir-fried noodles), and mabo (or mapo) tofu.
The first Chuka Ryori restaurant outside the South Bay is currently attracting hordes of Japanese expats. Yu-Raku opened near downtown San Mateo late last year, in the space once occupied by Kaimuki Sushi and Grill. (The only other Bay Area Chuka Ryori is Hana in San Jose, which specializes in handmade dumplings and noodles.) What to expect from Chuka Ryori? No MSG, no black bean sauce, and compared to local Chinese restaurants, a bit of sticker shock. In truth, prices here are moderate, but many of us have been spoiled by the Bay Area's bargain prices, unaware that Chinese food can command a premium in other cities.
Yu-Raku's menu includes about two dozen appetizers and side dishes, a few salads, fried rice, donburi, and a dozen ramen featuring house-made noodles ($8-$12.50) with a choice of many extra toppings ($1-$4). Ramen fans' favorite, buta no kakuni (braised pork belly), is available both as an appetizer ($9) and a ramen topping ($4). SFoodie had fun searching the menu to see how many popular dishes we could recognize, like sweet and sour pork (subuta, $9.50), and veggie egg rolls (harumaki, $6.50). The signature dish here is probably the Yu-Raku chahan ($9.50), pork fried rice with snow crab sauce.
And local fans of the original Iron Chef TV show, can finally get a taste of chef Chen Kenichi's famous Sichuan shrimp chili dish ebi chiri, made with house-made ketchup. An appetizer portion is a mere $11.50.
We started a recent culinary adventure here with a side order of ban-ban-ji ($5.50, named for the tenderizing method, i.e., pounded chicken), a cold dish of shredded chicken and cucumber with sesame dressing. It's a simple dish we remember from our travels in Japan, where we it had amazingly tender chicken and a well-defined flavor of sesame paste. Yu-Raku's version was not as tender, and the dressing tasted more like miso than sesame paste, but it was still enjoyable. Yu-rin-chi ($9), fried chicken with sour sauce, topped with grated ginger and green onions, rounded out our first incursion. We love anything panko-fried, and the tangy sauce was a good complement.
The lunch special here usually features a ramen ($9.50) or rice dish ($10.50), plus a mini side. We also noticed a special posted at the counter area, champon for $9.50. Compared to San Francisco's congested streets, we adore San Mateo's easy street parking and 50 cents-per-hour meter rates, both of which help make a return trip to sample more dishes a no-brainer.
Yu-Raku: 104 S. El Camino Real (at Crystal Springs), San Mateo, 650-558-8239. Open Wed.-Mon., 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5:30-10 p.m. (Fri.-Sat until 10:30 p.m., and Sun. till 9 p.m.). Closed Tue.