Let Izakaya Sushi Ran Introduce You to Awamori

The follow-up to the Castro's Nomica, both of them offshoots of Sausalito's Sushi Ran, emphasizes this distilled rice spirit from Okinawa.

Tsubugai. Photo by Peter Lawrence Kane.

A question often worth returning to is what makes the struggling Castro and the booming Mission so fundamentally different, as dining destinations? Beset by closures and vacancies of its own, it’s not as if the Mission is a utopia. But compared to its western neighbor, it’s an islet of stability in a tumultuous world.

With a few exceptions at the very top end — such as Frances, although Chef Melissa Periello’s attention has shifted toward its sister restaurant, Octavia, in recent years — the Castro functions best at the one-dollar-sign level, or for places patronized by people who are ready to party. Something about it resists much fancification, restaurant concepts that don’t have a four-second elevator pitch, or even the prioritization of food above alcohol.

Its residential demographics may be incrementally less queer every year, but the Castro is primarily where you get drunk with your gay friends and let loose. It’s always going to be full of vodka-and-sodas and the clean-cut people who drink them because they think they contain zero calories.

But in sourer moments, I think a lot of the neighborhood’s troubles can be attributed to gay misogyny. A certain percentage of gay men, mostly but not necessarily middle-aged, mostly but not necessarily on the affluent side, sit down for a quiet dinner at a place that’s aiming to be “tasteful,” however you may define that slippery term. They then hear boisterous voices emanating from a table populated by younger women — with or without their gay friends — and bristle through the meal until it’s time to get the check. Out come the mean-spirited assumptions: They’re definitely Marina girls. They think they can invade our space and get drunk and act all uninhibited. We’ll be lucky if we make it out the door without being puked on. And on and on.

It’s worth asking these questions because of the curious case of 2223 Market St., which is now Izakaya Sushi Ran after a two-year period as the slightly avant-garde Japanese restaurant Nomica. Before that, it was Pesce, after Pesce relocated from Polk Street. Before that, it was the short-lived Jake’s on Market. And before that, it was 2223, the iteration with the blandest name that lasted the longest. Meanwhile, next door, the chafing dishes in the buffet line at Tara Indian Cuisine have been replenished every day since time immemorial.

Izakaya Sushi Ran, like Nomica, is an offshoot of the Sausalito powerhouse Sushi Ran, and its predecessor officially closed late last year after Chef Hirro Nagahara did what everyone else is doing and moved to L.A. If the concept was successful, they probably would have retained it, but the interior got a redo — a good one, at that — and now yellowtail sashimi and spicy tuna maki rolls are on the menu.

But this Sushi Ran isn’t running for safety. Rather, it’s all about awamori, the indica rice liquor from Okinawa that’s distilled (as opposed to  sake, which is brewed). It’s heady stuff, served at 90 proof, perhaps in $30 to $36 flights of three one-ounce pours or in sample micro-pours if you’re curious and friendly enough. Consequently, Izakaya Sushi Ran’s awamori-centric specialty cocktail list is three items long, although not especially focused. Avoid the unbalanced, $13 Naha martini with its cucumber garnish and waves of solvent-y sweetness, for instance. The bar takes obvious pride in sourcing this rare spirit, but it doesn’t seem to have put to good use yet (and there are many other cocktails, too).

For the most part, the food is doing all right. Elegant treats like a flavorful and almost pastel-colored ramen deviled egg with a strip of uni on top bang against clunkers like vegetable tempura without any lightness or crispness at all. Don’t want to sense more than a faint whiff of anchovies in your seafood salad? You got it. Care for a wan, unfinished-seeming bowl of Okinawa soba with pork soki (bone-in pork ribs)? That can be yours for $15.

But some dishes are novelties that don’t feel like novelties. Consider the magnificent tsubugai, a whelk from the opposite end of the Japanese island chain, that’s fancied up like a vigorous escargot with cordyceps mushrooms and yuzu garlic butter. The seaweed salad, for all its too-faint fish accents, combined no fewer than half a dozen sprightly forms of marine vegetation into a web of textures, and the eggplant consisted of three baby bites shaved down to look as though they were wearing little hats.

Tori, a chicken tempura served with chipotle-tartar sauce, wasn’t as doughy as the vegetable equivalent, but in this age of ubiquitous karaage, it just feels lackluster. (The kitchen should have hung onto Nomica’s karaage-and-beer waffle, with matcha butter. Was it proprietary?) Jyushi, a bowl of rice with carrots, shiitake, and rafute — or Okinawan pork belly — was very satisfying; they should serve a full portion. The very best and most satisfying thing across multiple visits was the goya champuru, a scramble of tofu, egg, and spam with bitter melon and quivering shavings of bonito flakes.

But the biggest hurdle is that Izakaya Sushi Ran, yet another restaurant that calls itself a “gastropub” in spite of having zero connection to that term, doesn’t know who it’s for. Is it fair to say that they need less Golden State Warriors on TV and more Queer Eye? Or that the somber palette suggests an anniversary dinner while the awamori selection points to upscale pre-gaming? Admittedly, no — that’s an oversimplification. But in the simmering battle between Castro locals and fun-loving visitors, Izakaya Sushi Ran might end up pleasing no one.

Izakaya Sushi Ran, 2223 Market St., 415-655-3738 or izakayasushiran.com

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