Family Cafe: Healthy Japanese Food in Little Italy

The tomato katsu sando does not disappoint.

Jessica Furui ties a pale blue ribbon around one dish in my takeout order, a gyoza bento ($16). Each section of the lunch box contains something surprising. Like the pickled daikon radish that emerges electric yellow from a bath of chili oil and turmeric. She, alongside the Family Cafe chef Tadayuki Furui (her ex-husband), arranges each item I’ve ordered like a present. When I get home, there’s a personalized note addressed to me at the bottom of the bag. It’s cut out in the shape of a heart. 

Despite all the setbacks of the pandemic, Furui is trying to maintain the original mission at Family Cafe: “to enrich life and to create community.” She co-founded the restaurant with Ray Lee, who owns Akiko’s Restaurant on Bush Street. After working for a number of years at San Francisco’s Ozumo, Furui left to concentrate on her sake consulting business. She also wanted to slow down. Around the same time, Lee had finished renovating his family’s restaurant. Furui asked herself, “Where could I go that had the same quality and attention to detail as Ozumo?” She called Lee, whom she’d known for over a decade, and he said he’d love to work with her.    

In late 2017, after six months of working at Akiko’s, Lee handed her a pair of keys and said, “Let’s open a sake bar and restaurant.” The first concept they had was called Hakkō — or “fermentation” in English. They were going to create food pairings with sake, beer, and wine. But the liquor license had lapsed at the previous restaurant in the space, and it became too tricky to acquire a new one in North Beach. So they decided to flip the concept by making “hearty and healthful Japanese food in the middle of Little Italy.”   

Furui started her career in Japanese cuisine around 1999 after coming across a newspaper article. She was living in Truckee at the time and read about a restaurateur named Gary Flood. It intrigued her to hear that he was opening a sushi bar in the area and that he was sourcing organic vegetables from the Bay Area. She applied for and got a job working for him. She then proceeded to study up on fish, sushi and the Japanese culinary world.    

“Nothing is on the plate by chance,” Furui explains. “Even the smallest garnish could be a seasonal addition that’s complementary in color or texture, or definitely in flavor, and how that can make the whole dish.”  

In addition to the years she devoted to becoming a sushi chef and a sake connoisseur, traveling to Japan has formed the essential, philosophical core of Family Cafe’s mission. “I would go there and come back with a renewed sense of hospitality,” she says. “The whole concept of omotenashi — to do things for others without expecting anything in return. When I go there and have even the most simple interactions, there’s so much pride in what people do there. It just makes you feel good.” 

Furui’s vision was to create a warm space so that when you walk inside, “it gives you a hug.” Post-COVID-19, she says, it’s a whole different ball game. “Before, we were really promoting the idea of neighborliness and communion with others. At times, we’d have the whole bar full of people who didn’t know each other having conversations.” Now they’re applying that way of thinking to this “temporary reality” rather than trying to fight against it.

They recently partnered with Oakland’s Soba Ichi, which, she says, is having a hard time like most restaurants. They decided to sell their home preparation soba noodle sets. Family Cafe ended up selling about forty orders. “Then I wrote a check to them. We were really happy to do that, as part of this community, to help support them.” 

As for Tadayuki’s background as a chef, Furui says that a lot of it comes from his mom. His family is from Nagano, where she says, “they have a very wholesome, simple approach to food. Nothing like the kaiseki style of Kyoto dining.” When he’s plating the food, it’s about the dynamics of the dish, the food shapes and subtle color combinations. 

While they miss being able to plate their dishes in the cafe, they’ve been able to cross the bridge to takeout. Furui says cheerfully, “We’re just making a good sandwich, really well.” 

Family Cafe 
Tue-Wed, 12-5 p.m. and Thur-Fri, 12-7 p.m.
362 Columbus Ave., San Francisco415-872-9449

Family Cafe Kara-Age Marinade

Kara-age is a style of fried chicken that’s dusted with potato starch (katakuriko), it’s crispy and crunchy. The chicken is first marinated, which gives it a richness of flavor. At Family Cafe we also use chicken thigh meat because it’s juicier and more flavorful. (Recipe by Tadayuki Furui)

Marinade for 2 chicken thighs:

— 2 teaspoons soy or tamari

— 2 garlic cloves, minced or grated

— 1 tablespoon fresh ginger, grated

— 2 teaspoons shio-koji (this can be purchased through Family Cafe) or at your local Japanese or Asian grocer)

— Marinate the chicken thighs for at least thirty minutes. 

— Fry till golden brown and enjoy with a yummy garlic mayo.


Family Cafe Garlic Mayo

— 1 cup homemade mayo (use rice bran oil or even olive oil with a squeeze of lemon, make mayo according to any easy aioli recipe you can find)

— 1 teaspoon shoyu or tamari

— 1 teaspoon shichimi (seven spice, or other chili pepper if you like)

— 2 garlic cloves, grated

— Pinch of salt

— Mix well and apply liberally

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