Saturday, just shy of midnight, and the squat sandwich board on the Mission Street sidewalk bears a wrinkled paper sign advertising street-food ramen. Like a strip club barker, Gil Payne is standing in front of Nombe's inset double storefront, looking like he's trying to drum up a little business. He's a big guy, with the nervous energy of a man anxious to move product. "We got ramen," he says. "You can have a street-food portion out here for 4 bucks, or sit inside where it's warm for 8."
We look around: There's no place to sit out here besides, literally, the sidewalk. Inside it is.
Street food was bigger than Jesus or the Jonas Brothers in San Francisco in 2009, so it's no surprise that, at the end of the year, a restaurant would attempt a mashup of pavement foods and table foods, and in the Mission. It was the Mission, of course, that nurtured the city's new wave of food vendors. And it was Mission Street Food — the pop-up spawned from a taco truck — that gave Mari Takahashi and Gil Payne the idea for Nombe, one night last spring when Takahashi (who grew up in Yokohama, Japan) was guest chef. Nombe offers its late-night street foods — so far, one or two dishes only, and mostly ramen — Fridays and Saturdays from 11 p.m. to 2 a.m.
In fairness, the two had help with Nombe, which calls itself a practitioner of "contemporary izakaya" cooking. In summer, they threw their lot in with Nick Balla, formerly executive chef at O Izakaya Lounge in the Hotel Kabuki. As Payne puts it, both parties (Takahashi and Payne are married) had a separate notion to launch an izakaya place in the Mission. A mutual friend hooked the trio up and the rest, well: The rest is Nombe.
While the style of Japanese pub cooking known as izakaya trended hard in New York and L.A. early this decade, it never quite crossed over here. Truth is, if a bomb should — god forbid — take out Nombe one night, it'll take out the city's biggest cheerleaders of the genre. Takahashi and Payne were double casualties of the tech implosion; in 2007, they career-changed into Sozai Restaurant and Sake Lounge, a modest place at the Inner Sunset's extrafoggy western extremity. But as Payne says with apparent pride, it was the first place in San Francisco dedicated to izakaya dishes. Which, given the city's ambivalence, might damn well have doomed it.
Back on that Saturday night, we're seated at a semicircular booth inside Nombe, which took over the space from Tacos Santana. The narrow double dining room feels disjointed. On the left — where we're waiting for our ramen — Nombe feels like a diner, with an open cook line and an abundance of tile with the flavor of a DIY buildout. On the right is a hushed and dimly lit room packed with tables, where there's not much to look at but your companion. It's the sort of room that, if you're on a blind date, you want to avoid like cancer.
When it arrives, the ramen is pretty good: murky broth the color of semidark ale, with a clump of egg-yellow noodles, leaves of housemade cabbage kimchi, and slices of chashu (pork belly simmered in soy sauce and sake). The noodles are toothsome, the pork tender enough, and the broth has a kind of beery complexity that echoes the gently yeasty funk of the kimchi.
Izakaya cooking might be unique among food genres, since being hammered is a sort of precondition for enjoying it, a kind of essential seasoning in the dimension of the psychotropic. Indeed, "nombe" is Japanese for "drunk guy," like the wasted-looking dude on the restaurant's logo. You get the feeling Payne — a confessed Deadhead who assembled Nombe's sizable roster of sakes and curates the Phish- and reggae-heavy playlist thumping over the sound system — understands just how important getting fucked up is to the izakaya experience.
A buzz wouldn't have been a bad thing with which to approach a dish of grilled black cod ($11), served one night on a scant bed of wilted spinach, fennel, and leeks seasoned with white miso, fortified with a bit of butter. The Japanese-Cali hybrid existed somewhere between delicate and boring.
Neither of those words could describe grilled skewers of chicken thigh ($5), smeared with a mash of tart, salty pickled ume plums and scattered with shredded shiso leaves, with their mingled aromas of anise and cinnamon. It's the kind of dish Balla did well at O Izakaya. A bowl of fried German butterball potatoes sprinkled with bits of ponzu-doused nori and scallions ($5) got tastier the more of it we ate. The spuds seemed as if they'd been preroasted, then dipped in fry oil to order: greasy, but delicious in a snarly way, especially dunked in aioli.
A similar mix of outsize flavors and bold execution turned a bowl of vinegary pan-fried Brussels sprouts ($5) irresistible. There was a sort of black, gravelly taste of sauté pan mixed up with the flavors of mint and the seed-and-spice mixture known as togarashi. Likewise, a taste of char infused yaki-onigiri ($6), a hefty pair of grilled rice cakes with a healthy scattering of gomasio (sesame salt).
These dishes have lots of homely appeal, but you come away from Nombe's izakaya noshes with the impression that the food is more gutsy gesture than nuanced delivery. That's the case with grilled ribeye ($14), pinkish fanned slices and a nugget of well-done cap served over a plouf of starchy grated nagaimo (Japanese mountain yam) mixed with wholegrain mustard. The meat isn't quite juicy or succulent enough to make the dish work. And hunks of long-cooked pork belly ($11) are as dry and charmless as three-day leftovers, despite the deliciousness of the accompanying shoyu tamago (a jelly-yolked egg simmered with soy sauce).
All the same, there's something about Nombe's ambition to spark a hybrid of street and restaurant that makes you want to see it thrive. Even if, like some 2 a.m. bar hookup driven more by need than attraction, you have to strap on beer goggles first.