1290 Ninth Ave. (at Irving), 753-6045. Open 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. No reservations. Parking and Muni: same as Ebisu. Sound level: purr.
Once upon a time long ago, in a cozy little neighborhood called the Inner Sunset, there were no good restaurants! There were several no-good pizzerias, some barely palatable "Italian joints," and some dire "Chinese joints," along with the usual so-so sandwich shops. Then a Japanese merchant-prince named Ebisu appeared, proffering trays of jewellike sushi. People came from far and wide to sample Ebisu's wares, and soon other merchants arrived bearing delicacies. Over the years, Greasy-Spoonland became Restaurant Row.
But as Ebisu's fame grew, the dining room remained minuscule. Since the restaurant takes no reservations, devotees often shiver for an hour in the rain or fog before gaining entrance to the tiny waiting room, where they may huddle for another hour. Perhaps to catch the spillover, the owner has now opened Hotei, a small Japanese noodle emporium across the street. Both restaurants are named for Japanese prosperity gods -- Ebisu brings good fortune to fishermen, while Hotei is the familiar jolly fat "Buddha" of Asian souvenir shops. Patrons now have a choice of menus and waiting times -- an eternity at Ebisu or half that at Hotei.
Until last week, I'd never eaten a full dinner at Ebisu, given the glories of its sushi bar, where each chef serves only the patrons in front of him. After a few choices reveal your tastes, your chef can orchestrate the rest (a delight-filled traditional procedure, way more fun than ordering sushi from a waiter). This time, though, I vowed to try entrees. On the coldest night of 1998, we slipped right into the SRO waiting room. We printed our name on the long list posted on the wall, praying that no dastardly competitor would cross it out (as befell the couple before us) and that the waitress would yell it recognizably -- three shouts, you're out. Other hopefuls were mainly collegians (some with parents in tow) dressed "come as you are"; the waitresses, however, not only dress identically but apparently share the same hairdresser. They're so harried and hurried in the cramped room, you giggle all evening at the crashes of crockery and beer bottles hitting the floor. Meanwhile, the owner pads back and forth across Ninth Avenue bearing covered trays, carrying Ebisu's sushi to Hotei, and (I'd guess) Hotei's appetizers to Ebisu.
The entrees are restaurant standards (the Japanese equivalent of sweet-sour pork and almond chicken) -- there's sashimi, tempura, sukiyaki, teriyaki, yosenabe, and fried oysters, either singly ($9 to $17) or in combinations ($13 to $15). With dinner you get soup, salad, pickles, rice, and green tea. The home-style miso soup (made from soybean paste) is outstanding: Thick and cloudy, garnished with tofu and tiny egg-puffs, it's more rewarding than the typical thin restaurant broth. The beverage list centers on Japanese beers (including Kirin's premier version) and a few wines and sakes, among them fizzy unfiltered Nigori ($2.75/$4.75) and classy Ginjo ($8.75).
We started with some sushi, to make sure it was still up to snuff. Ama-ebi (raw sweet shrimp, $5) agleam with gems of orange tobiko were so tender that teeth seemed superfluous. Later, their heads arrived as crunchy tempura; just shut your eyes and enjoy! Hand rolls ($3 to $6.25), cones of paper-thin, crisp nori seaweed, were filled from top to tip (unlike cheapskate versions with all the goodies on top). Hosomaki (six-piece) choices (average $4.75) included Ebisu inventions such as the caterpillar, glazed with luscious mashed avocado and caramellike teriyaki sauce.
Our entree of tender salmon teriyaki had the same sweet house-made glaze. We had it in a combo ($14.50) with fried oysters, which, under a thick batter, had the iodine undertones of jar-packed bivalves and a traditional but rather harsh dark sweet-sour dip. Mushy, pale tuna sashimi was saved by briny freshness; our combo ($13) paired it with tempura of two prawns and numerous engaging vegetables in a greaseless but slightly undercooked light batter. For dessert, sake "sorbet" ($3) was more like a boardwalk slushee, with coarse shaved ice and a modicum of sugar.
Across the street at Hotei the next night, an attentive host kept track of incoming patrons (in contrast to the near-chaos of the mother ship). Couples were seated quickly, quads had a longer wait, and one sextet, losing patience, schismed into two separate parties. (You can call ahead to warn of groups of six or more.) After half an hour, our quartet was seated in a Japanese country inn, with sweeter decor, less noise, and an older, more international crowd than Ebisu. We plunged happily into engaging appetizers. Refreshing sunomono ($3.50) featured sliced cucumbers in sweet rice vinaigrette. Even the tofu-haters at our table were seduced by agedashi-dofu ($5.75), silky bean curd cubes lightly fried to form a paper-thin crust, served in a full-bodied, fishy dashi broth (of seaweed and dried bonito). And our octopus-shy tablemate was quite taken with takoyaki ($5.50), glutinous rice-flour dumplings containing tender bits of very young octopus. The globes are brushed with a sweet-sour dip, a subtler rendition of Ebisu's fried-oyster dip. Ebi gyoza ($7.50 for six pieces) are Japanese pot stickers of minced pork and vegetables, with special added "ebi" -- a whole shrimp is tucked into each wrapper, its tail sticking out as a handle. Gyoza by themselves tend to be bland, but they come to life once you compose your personal dipping sauce from table condiments -- soy, vinegar, toasted sesame oil, and spicy-sweet chile oil.
Most entrees here are huge brothy bowls of noodles, easily large enough to serve two. The noodles (which aren't house-made) include somen, vermicelli-thin rice noodles; hearty buckwheat soba the thickness of spaghetti; fat white udon rice noodles; and ramen, egg noodles adapted from Chinese lo mein. The majority of these dishes include garnishes of green onion tops, hard-cooked eggs, and mitsuba (Japanese parsley), so I won't keep repeating this list.
Our universal favorite was the unusual ankake ramen ($6.75), egg noodles in a "rich-flavored sauce" (per the menu), garnished with vegetables, shiitake, and bites of ground pork. The golden chicken-and-pork broth, cooked down until partly thickened, was rich indeed. Shoyu ramen ($5.75) featured cardboardy slices of roast pork (called cha shu, but lacking the moist sweetness of its Chinese namesake). The liquid was the unconcentrated version of the ankake broth, with a touch of gentle Kikkoman Light soy. Nabe yaki ($7.75) was an iron cauldron of rather goopy udon in a light miso broth, garnished with chicken breast bits, vegetables, and one tempura shrimp that sogged out swiftly. Somen comes just two ways, hot or cold. Hot somen ($6.50) had a light but still very fishy dashi broth. (As you may guess, I'm not a dashi fan.) The garnishes were pleasant soft-cooked fresh spinach and not-so-pleasant naruto-maki, the pink-striped white fish-cake slices that float through every Japanese restaurant in town.
The fun dessert here is mochi ice cream ($4.50), three balls (your choice of several flavors) coated with a thin, hard glaze of sweet glutinous rice paste, congealed when it hits the cold into something like a gummy version of the marshmallow surrounding a Hostess Sno Ball. This is a famous dessert at Manhattan's world-renowned Nobu restaurant -- but you can try it right here on Irving Street! (Or you can choose non-mochified ice cream in several subtly exotic flavors for $2.50.)
Sushi bars and noodle houses may be drop-in spots in Japan, where any busy street may hold several of each -- but the Sunset isn't Japan. Here, Ebisu's sushi is precious, and comfortable, affordable Hotei is an instant hit. Both restaurants would save their devotees a lot of pain if they'd just set aside at least a few tables for reservations. If the reservers don't show up on time, no problem -- hungry standees would instantly fill the void.