Can you make a culinary silk purse out of a sow's ear? (Or how I try to force in as many ear references as possible in a post.)
Only a few weeks ago, Nombe, the Japanese izakaya near the corner of 21st and Mission streets, underwent another chef change. The restaurant, which opened a few years ago with current Bar Tartine superstar Nick Balla in the kitchen and then shifted to a more ramen-centric menu with Ramen Bull's Nori Sugie, now finds itself the home to Brandon Armstrong, who previously found work at Michael Mina and Bourbon Steak. Guided by co-owner Mari Takahashi, he has crafted a new 7-course kaiseki menu ($39.95) and brings along a few new menu items, one of which would make Mark Antony ask his friends and countrymen to lend him their pigs, so he could steal their ears and have them fried up by Armstrong.
This is not a dish for people that aren't adventurous eaters, although, it could be argued that crispy pig ears are a great gateway into the world of offal and other odd, but delicious meat products. (And at least you, as a diner, won't have to be the one to tie the pig to the chair and slice off its ears as "Stuck in the Middle with You" blasts from your too-cool-for-retro-school Creative Nomad MP3 player.)
An order of fried pig ears ($6) nets you about eight strips of sliced ear served with a side of tabasco made by the chef using his own blend of togarashi and various spices. Even though the sauce could be a little hotter, it plays nicely with the saltiness of the ears. Too often fried pig ears end up a crapshoot, with a fair number of ears in the batch failing to find a delicate crunch, ending up more tough and chewy, like a soggy piece of corrugated cardboard. This is not the case with Armstrong's. On several occasions, the lot has been perfectly fried, a crispy delight of skin and cartilage mixed with tooth-sticking, melt-in-your-mouth pork fat and collagen; it is a playground of textures.
While lovely on its own, these delectable ears make a pleasing accompaniment to Nombe's petite tonkotsu ramen ($7), with its magical chunks of pork belly that dissolve on your tongue leading you on a transcendent pork trip. Want to make it even better? Add on a salt bomb in the form of a soy-marinated egg for an extra dollar to boost the flavor and pair it all with an Almanac Honey Saison beer, or one of the 70+ incredible sakes curated by "sake sommelier" Gil Payne. As chilly evenings begin their move in to San Francisco, it would be a highly logical and affordable way to start a night.