Two trends have converged once again on Divisadero Street: fast-casual and Divis itself. Namu Gaji, the pan-Asian restaurant anchored in Korean cooking that’s next door to Bi-Rite Creamery on 18th Street and which has had the Mission’s best okonomiyaki for several years now, opened a slightly more casual restaurant across the street from Bi-Rite No. 2.
It’s called Namu Stonepot, and it runs on counter service rather than table service to bring a slightly stoner- and dudebro-inflected menu of hot, meaty dishes to the neighborhood. A project by David, Dennis, and Daniel Lee, it’s been teasing passers-by along a heavily foot-trafficked block ever since Jay’s Cheesesteak vacated the space in late 2015. And with only one significant exception, Stonepot’s menu is rigorous and well-thought-out.
To get the one piece of bad news out of the way first, the Raging Ramen ($15) is merely OK. Its broth is under-salted and wants for richness, and there are way too many bean sprouts and not enough garlic or chicken — plus it’s a shade pricey. But that’s not a big deal, since there are already dozens of excellent ramen shops around town, and far fewer that could hope to equal the Original Namu Stonepot Rice ($10/$19), with its irresistible melange of textures and flavors, from tofu to kimchi to a fried egg — and, of course, the rice searing to a crisp at the bottom of the bowl. So yes, #GetItStoned. Throw on some bulgogi beef for $5, and it becomes an eminently satiating meal, especially when slathered in a house gochujang that sits at the triple junction of smoky, sweet, and spicy.
I almost had to will myself to order something else after eating it twice in a row, and then I settled on a new favorite, the mochiko chicken ($10). Coated in flour made from the same sticky rice that’s used in mochi, these pieces of thigh have just the right chew — especially in the K.F.C. (Korean fried chicken) variety. I couldn’t tell if the lead-in to the menu description of the $19 sisig — “rich, crispy, sticky, rendered, chopped ground pork” — was a little tongue-in-cheek or if it’s really just jowl-in-cheek. Either way, it has just the same crust as the rice but with the right balance of salt and lime as well, and adding cauliflower rice for $2 might make its constituent flavors stand out even more.
In the same vein, the (cold) tofu taco let the kimchi salsa and remoulade pop in a way that the (hot) chicken and beef did not. Being small and relatively expensive, Korean tacos usually make me cranky, but these $3-to-$5.50 puppies are worth your time. Nestled in two types of nori, they’re essentially blanketed in umami, structurally sound without coming off as frou-frou.
If you’re wondering where else the gochujang is, it shows up on the gamja fries ($9), which also come with Kewpie mayo and a kimchi relish. As Namu Stonepot stays open until 1 a.m. six nights a week, they’d be a good excuse for a late-night pit stop. And the Napa salad ($9.95), which I ordered solely out of a sense of duty, surprised me with its flavor. There’s a temptation to add bulgogi to almost everything on Namu Stonepot’s menu, but I’d rein in that impulse here and let the mustard greens, cabbage, cucumber, and toasted seaweed carry their own weight.
Dessert contained a final stunner, the burnt sweet miso on the butter mochi ($6), alone among the sweets for containing zero matcha. I honestly had no idea miso was that versatile, and over baked mochi and a dark chocolate ganache, it was almost improbably good.
Like another new, chef-driven fast-casual spot — Rich Table’s RT Rotisserie — the Lees did their homework to plot out the menu’s breadth and variety exactly right, squeezing the maximum yield out of limited space on the stovr. Watch the kitchen in action for 60 seconds and you’ll see what I mean. But like a shower stall with an exposed hot-water pipe running through it, there are a couple of awkward edges — and it’s easy to burn yourself on almost everything. It’s hard to fault the Lees for trying to shoehorn dishes with an involved setup into limited square footage. They’re clearly dead set against compromising anything on the culinary end, and that’s to be commended. Plus they have to turn a profit, or else no more stonepot for us.
Still, it’s not so much singed elbows and feeling cramped as it is about waiting 10 minutes or more for ramen whose broth is poured into the sizzling vessel at the table to cool off so you can spoon it up — and there’s no doubt in my mind this slows down the joint’s turnover. Utensils are also placed away from the counter, and you need to exercise some forethought to be ready for your (occasionally messy) food. On two of my visits, I got up at least four times, for spoons, for share plates, for extra napkins. When it’s crowded in there, extricating yourself from your seat can be a delicate act; you don’t want to bump the chair of someone who’s chowing down while leaning over a cast-iron skillet heated to above the temperature at which water boils. (Keep that in mind if you want to pop in when it’s warmer than about 72 degrees outside, too. And don’t even think about going on a Friday night, when the wait might be longer than an hour.)
So, moments of tension exist, but this kitchen is a well-oiled machine — at lunch, in particular. The menu is fully fleshed out, food arrives quickly, and apart from the ramen, I would argue that you’re definitely getting what you pay for across the board. If your wallet is particularly moth-eaten, there’s even a “Budget Bap” for $5.95. Ultimately, if the worst thing you can say about a place is that it’s too beloved right at the beginning, then it was worth waiting for — and it’ll be worth the wait on every subsequent visit.
Namu Stonepot, 553 Divisadero St., 415-926-8065 or namustonepot.com