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Izakaya Rintaro and Orenchi Beyond: A Very Good Case for the Upper Mission 

Wednesday, Jan 7 2015
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No doubt there are dozens of lengthy urban studies theses explaining this phenomena, but I've always been interested in the reason why certain parts of the city can be commercial and dining dead zones when they're surrounded by buzzing neighborhoods on all sides. Until recently, this was the lot of the upper reaches of the Mission, which had a handful of restaurants but had yet to experience anything approaching the density a few blocks south. But as Market transforms above and the neighborhood continues to develop below, it was inevitable that the streets intersecting with Duboce and 14th would become destinations in their own right. And new restaurants like Izakaya Rintaro and Orenchi Beyond are providing visitors a compelling reason to get out of BART at 16th Street and head north.

Both were much-anticipated openings. Rintaro comes from Sylvan Mishima Brackett, the Chez Panisse alum who has spent the past several years in Oakland running Peko Peko, his bento- and izakaya-food-focused catering business with the occasional pop-up. This is his first solo restaurant, set on a nondescript, industrial section of 14th Street, just around the corner from Rainbow Market in the former Chez Spencer space. He's built an elegant, warm dining room decked out in contrasting wood tones, with a handful of semi-private wooden booths in the main space as well as a few tables and a bar that looks into the open kitchen.

The best reason to go to Rintaro, and the reason I will almost certainly return, is the chicken. After spending a few decades being dismissed as boring by chefs and food writers alike, the bird is beginning to make a comeback as diners are learning to enjoy the savory dark meat, skin, and other bits that bear no resemblance to tasteless pieces of boneless-skinless popular in the '90s. The chefs at Rintaro understand chicken and serve up some of the best skewers in the city. Wings come deboned and butterflied, meaty and bursting with juices that have all of those delightful chicken-y flavors. Skin, thighs, oysters, and other parts of the bird are treated with respect. You'll want to try them all anyway, so to save time you might as well order all at once ($6-$7).

But save room for the whole fried petrale sole, which is as beautiful as it is delicious ($23). The fish is deep-fried whole and puffs up in sharp angles like a work of contemporary art. It's so thoroughly fried that you can crunch through the fish's bones and fins and head like they're potato chips. And two sizable fillets, admirably moist inside their crunchy shell, could be pulled off the bone for those at the table more squeamish about eating the nibbly bits.

Those were the highlights I found on a menu that for the most part was pretty good, to damn it with faint praise. There are perfectly fine Berkshire pork gyoza connected by lacy "wings" ($6.50) and a quite nice appetizer of black trumpet mushrooms sauteed in butter ($6.50), though both were a bit disappointing in their normality after that fish and transcendent, charcoal-scented chicken. I couldn't detect the promised curry in the kabocha squash croquettes, but they had the right interplay between smoothness and crunch. And a closing yuzu soufflé cheesecake is a light, floral, not-cloying ending to the meal ($10.50).

To drink there is a sake list, rice beer, and Peko Peko's own plum wine, which has a complex, not-too-sweet flavor that captures the taste of Japanese ume nicely. A glass or two of that, a half-dozen skewers, and you'd leave a very happy human.

You'd be pleased to just get a seat at Orenchi Beyond, the upper Valencia spinoff of Santa Clara's famed Orenchi ramen house, a place where two-hour lunch lines are the rule, not the exception. Orenchi Beyond is crowded, sure, but early reports of its USSR-caliber lines were greatly exaggerated. It's possible to go near opening at 5:30, get your name on the list with only a half-hour wait — longer than most of us want to stand around hungrily, to be sure, but the time goes by relatively quickly with a drink at the restaurant's outdoor bar at Orenchi or across the street at Zeitgeist.

The one benefit of waiting is you can spend those minutes fantasizing about the bowl of soup that will be in front of you shortly, and the good news is that the ramen holds up to the hype. The original version, Orenchi ($12), is a wonderfully porky tonkotsu broth, with resilient noodles, fatty (but not too fatty) broth, a perfectly cooked runny egg, and all the elements of the ramen symphony coming together beautifully. The tonkotsu-based Beyond Ramen ($12) has a garlicky broth topped with fried garlic and peppery mizuna greens. Neither bowl features much pork belly, but I found the richness of the soup to more than make up for it. Soy- and salt-based ramens are also available. Someday I might be able to tear myself away from the pork long enough to order them.

Unlike the original ramen house, Orenchi Beyond also has a decent selection of appetizers — you could forgo ramen entirely and make a meal out of appetizers, though you'd be insane to make that choice. I liked the crunchy, spicy fried chicken wings ($7.80) quite a bit, but perhaps fermented squid ($5.80), with its slimy, cartiligeous texture, is an acquired taste. Cold, smoky, deep-fried eggplant ($6.50), like a Japanese baba ganoush, is a good way to get your vegetables in before diving headlong into a bowl of pork.

All of it can be washed down with Sapporo served in metal cups ($5.80) and a selection of one-cup sakes. Both fit in with the jaunty look of the room: Patrons perch on tree stumps, the décor is more modern-industrial than traditional, and the major design element is the wooden beehive pattern crisscrossing its floor-to-ceiling window. It's the opposite of Rintaro's refined restraint, but the focus of both is the same: the open kitchen, in this case a glassed-off room where huge cauldrons of broth bubble merrily away. If this is the future of the Upper Mission, I welcome the upward creep.

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About The Author

Anna Roth

Anna Roth

Bio:
Anna Roth is SF Weekly's former Food & Drink Editor and author of West Coast Road Eats: The Best Road Food From San Diego to the Canadian Border.

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