Japanese restaurant

Chome, a quirky Japanese restaurant in San Francisco, is a hidden gem

On an otherwise quiet Thursday evening, during that hiccup of stale weather before the actual weekend, everyone in Chome is already letting loose. Tunes from Chinese and Japanese pop bands echo through the dining room, the sound waves ricocheting off wooden walls adorned with recycled wine bottles stuffed with faux greenery. A crowd of young San Franciscans at happy hour use chopsticks to choose from tiny trays of potato salad, the school cafeteria-sized balls soft and stiff like the inside of a refrigerated casserole dish. An inverted melon flavored popsicle the color of honeydew flesh melts into my glass of soju and ice, and I can’t do much but absorb it all.

This izakaya opened last October, in a small space next to a Chinese bakery in San Francisco’s Mission district, and it’s a quirky, endearing pub that draws throngs of diners waiting to snag l one of his six tables night after night. It’s a place that doesn’t take itself seriously at all, although Chome’s quirky Japanese food and drink is executed with a clear desire to do it right.

In the Bay Area, there are a few dozen izakaya-style restaurants, like Rintaro in the Mission District and Yuzu in San Mateo — enough to make up a scene in itself. At their best, izakaya restaurants celebrate the proletarian, punk rock side of Japanese cuisine: they’re places where you might find yourself sitting on crates of beer, fuming cigarette smoke while munching on chewy morsels of Fried chicken cartilage between frothy sips of ice-cold beer. It’s about spitting out the bones of crispy grilled chicken tails, swirling wasabi and pesto sashimi, and enjoying fried durian for dessert. While there are so many great izakaya-style spots in the Bay Area, few get the eclectic vibe as “right” as Chome.

There are handwritten signs everywhere, including one posted on the worst seat in the house attesting to its usefulness in achieving “fabulous posture.” A line on the board hanging by the entrance reads: “7 people on Yelp hate us! I guess it’s updated live, as 1 star reviews come in. World-market-worthy trinkets fill the wall space to the towering ceiling, and garlands of empty Japanese beer cans hang overhead like aluminum wisteria flowers.

Wall decoration at Chome in San Francisco.Sun Ho / The Chronicle

That slightly chaotic energy also extends to the five-page menu, with so many new dishes clamoring for your attention.

There’s Millionaire’s Green Bacon ($8), a play on Kitchen Story’s iconic sugar-crusted brunch dish. This vegetarian version features long, flat tongues of charcoal-grilled Roman beans, their skins wrinkled and crispy like Kermit the frog after a long tanning session. The presentation is ironically simple, given the name, but it works – just beans on a wooden block-shaped plate and a salty touch of a soy sauce glaze. It’s perfect followed by a grapefruit beer ($9), a lager topped with a thick slice of fruit and bursting with fresh pulp.

And in the heat of summer, the sunomono tomato ($4), a Campari tomato blanched in a shot glass with a dash of vinegar, has the refreshing properties of a cold dollop of gazpacho. You could easily turn your happy hour visit here into a series of satisfying cold bites: first a tomato, then maybe a glass of slippery mozuku seaweed ($7) suspended in ocean brine, then finally one Bubsy Berkeley style training small sweet peeled shrimp ($18/$30) on ice with yuzu salsa.

Left to right: Sweet shrimp cocktail, grilled skewer sampler, and kimchi udon carbonara at Chome in San Francisco.
Left to right: Sweet shrimp cocktail, grilled skewer sampler, and kimchi udon carbonara at Chome in San Francisco.Sun Ho / The Chronicle

Not all dishes are so basic, however – this is a pub, after all. Chome’s take on okonomiyaki ($26) is a theatrical cousin of Cotogna’s superstar egg yolk ricotta ravioli. Beneath a frilly blanket of floating bonito flakes, the savory pancake is layered with tender bites of octopus, pork belly, cheese and Kewpie MSG-forward mayonnaise, and cutting it causes a stream of egg yolk liquid Golden. Take it with the suggested side of tangy and musky pickled daikon radish ($5) to refresh your palate between bites.

The kitchen also makes good use of the centuries-old tradition of the fajita plate-slash-sizzle, with dishes like autumnal pumpkin ika ($18). The mix of curly calamari chunks and kabocha squash bubbles simmered in a mild red pepper sauce on a hot stone griddle, and the piece de resistance is a scoop of potato salad, of course. It’s like an upside-down baked potato from another dimension, and that’s what I’m here for.

The intimate space is matched by the thin staff, who do their best to jostle from table to table during service. Some nights I counted up to four people working in the restaurant, pouring glasses of fruit-infused tap water and dropping off fresh melon skewers with checks. So expect the pace of service to be uneven at times, with food coming out before drinks – especially the more involved ones, like the Green Yoshi ($15), that cocktail with a popsicle.

The Green Yoshi cocktail, with melon soju and a Korean melon popsicle, at Chome, an izakaya in San Francisco.
The Green Yoshi cocktail, with melon soju and a Korean melon popsicle, at Chome, an izakaya in San Francisco.Sun Ho / The Chronicle

Another thing I should note is that this is one of the noisiest restaurants I’ve been to in recent times, due to a combination of very high ceilings and a really pushed set of speakers. The restaurant takes on a pretty lopsided atmosphere when the song blaring from the speakers is, say, “Hot Popcorn” by Australian children’s band The Wiggles, and that also makes for an interesting experience. But just be aware that conversation is going to be rather difficult, especially when the other tables are also trying hard to talk over the noise.

I should also explain that while I say the restaurant opened in October, that begs the fact that Chome’s opening was a bit of a mystery, actually. The restaurant was embroiled in a San Francisco-sized controversy when it debuted in the spring of 2021 as Blowfish Sushi, the name of the restaurant that previously occupied the space but closed in 2020. , the staff said opening as Blowfish was just the easiest thing to do, since the old sign was still in place. From this experience and the failure to convince the restaurant to let us take pictures there, we learned that the owners are quite secretive. We don’t know much about them.

Anyway, in October the restaurant started up again as Chome, under much happier circumstances than before. And unlike its early identity crisis, Chome is a restaurant dripping with personality. Sit long enough and all that bulk will seep into you, mentally cleansing you until you have no more thoughts to think about. And if that’s not the primary function of an izakaya, what is?

Chromium
2193 Mission Street, San Francisco. 415-757-0922
Hours: 5-11:30 p.m. Thursday-Monday
Accessibility: Very tight entrance, with narrow clearance for wheelchairs at tables. Physical menu. Gender-neutral toilets.
Sound level: Extremely loud; conversation is difficult.
Meal for two without drinks: $50-$75
What to order: Okonomiyaki, pumpkin ika, millionaire’s green bacon
Meatless options: numerous and clearly labeled
Drinks: Full bar
Transport: on the 14-Mission, 33-Ashbury/18th Street and 49-Van Ness/Mission Muni lines. Close to 16th Street Station. Street parking.
Best Practices: Get there early to skip the line. Happy hour hours are 5-5:30 p.m. and 10-11:30 p.m.