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"What are these called again?" I asked, scooping up a second mouthful of gravy-, chili paste-, and mayonnaise-drenched fries. "Gamja fries," said our server. "It's like ganja but with an M." We shoveled another forkful. "They were a big hit on 4/20," she deadpanned, referring to the recent marijuana legalization activities. These glorious fries ($11), like Korean-barbecue poutine flecked with green onion and small bits of marinated short rib, are a secret menu item during dinner at Namu Gaji. (They're on the lunch menu, but only available in limited quantities at night to those who ask.) My friends were already in the know, realizing as soon as they tasted them that they'd be back for more.
499 Dolores St.
San Francisco, CA 94110
Region: Castro/ Noe Valley
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The restaurant is the izakaya-style reincarnation of Namu, the genre-defying Asian restaurant that chef Dennis Lee opened with his two brothers on Balboa Street in 2006. This year, having gained a following via street-food events and at the Ferry Building, the brothers decided to relocate to the buzzier, more voracious Mission. They landed a spot that anyone would envy at one end of the gourmet ghetto of 18th Street overlooking Dolores Park.
The new space, mostly polished wood with white subway tile around the open kitchen, is handsome, with counter seating on each side of the narrow room, a long communal table down the center, and a few smaller tables in the back. Small details add charm: the stark, striking tree-branch sculpture ("gaji" means "branch") hanging over the central table; the thoughtfully arranged flowers in ceramic bud vases dotting the room; and even the heavy canvas storage boxes for stowing coats and bags under your stools.
The food goes beyond the drinking snacks of a true Japanese izakaya and aims for a hybrid of refined vegetable and seafood plates with well-sauced and addictive comfort foods, like those gamja fries, and Japanese- and Korean-inflected dishes with a more rustic sensibility. You should start with oysters ($16 for six), served with yuzu ponzu and chojong Korean chili sauce on the side, along with an optional palette of wasabi. With a welcome kick and the subtle tang of the yuzu, the sea flavor still breaks through, and it's a good toe-dip into the tension of sour and spice that characterizes most of the menu.
Slightly spicy, well-seasoned housemade kimchi finds its way onto a lot of Lee's dishes, starting with the complimentary banchan (fermented vegetables), and popping up in the vinaigrette on the cucumber-based bibim salad ($12). It's also on the lunch menu in Lee's signature street-food dish, the "real Korean taco" ($3) — a cheeky play on the Korean-taco trend featuring short ribs and kimchi atop two sheets of seaweed instead of a tortilla. It's in a relish topping the fantastic burger ($16), made with a juicy, labor-intensive Marin Sun Farms patty; and it tops another street-food-inspired item, the okonomiyaki ($16), a Japanese fried rice-flour pancake that's also piled with scallions, cabbage, bonito flakes, a fried egg, and sweet Kewpie mayonnaise, which is like Japan's version of Miracle Whip. Kimchi is again the dominant flavor in the bright-red, hot-dog-filled ramyun (ramen, $16), of which only 24 bowls are made each night. And it also figures in the menu's most dramatic presentation, the stonepot ($16), a sizzling bowl of crispy rice, a fried egg, banchan, optional protein, and house-made gochujang, a sweet red chile sauce.
An unlikely highlight is the fried tofu ($14), which comes served in a deeply satisfying dashi broth I could drink by the mugful. Then there's the Korean Fried Chicken (KFC, $12 at lunch or by special advance order at dinner), where the juicy fried bird is tossed in sweet tareh sauce and dusted with sesame seeds. It's like sweet-and-sour chicken, but redder and somehow classier. The star of the menu, though, is easily the beef tongue ($18). Lee brines and then pickles the meat over seven days before grilling it slowly in cubes over low heat. It's tenderer than any tongue you've had, and the flavors are strange but elementally satisfying, the mild beef meeting with a twang of soy and fermentation, barely crisped at the corners by flame. My only complaint is that with just five cubes on the plate, there isn't enough.
If that all sounds like a flurry of incongruous food, it is. Smaller plates like the mixed tempura ($14), featuring a shiso-wrapped and battered uni that tastes like an excellent urchin doughnut, are good additions, and dining in a group of three or more is best because there's a lot to taste, and things don't come cheap. Skip the raw scallops and grilled octopus, which came out on the fishy and bland side, respectively, and go for dumplings or the terrific braised cabbage instead.
Pacing is Namu Gaji's biggest early flaw. On one occasion we were told to order everything at once and that the chef would course it out for us, but we ended up with ramen fighting for counter space with a huge stone bowl, and starters we still hadn't finished. The kitchen works fast, so it's best to set the pace yourself. Unless you're after a quiet place for a date, you probably won't mind the frenzy. After some sake and a glass of what was dubbed the "best oyster wine on the planet" ($10), I was happy to dip my chopsticks into whatever landed in front of me.
Stepping back out into the bustle after dinner, the perpetual line for Bi-Rite Creamery snaking past Namu Gaji's windows, I couldn't help but feel like this new place fit right in. Location is never a guarantee of success, but some restaurants manage to get most everything else right from the start, serving unusual food that speaks to the times, and striding confidently onto the scene like new neighbors from far-flung towns who, sporting their layers like pros, look like they've found their true home.
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