“If you want to eat the best Japanese food in the Bay Area,” the conventional wisdom has long held, “you should go to San Mateo.” For the tastiest ramen or the most traditional sushi, you drove down the Peninsula to the affluent suburb. But these days, the Bay Area’s Japanese food scene has exploded and dispersed. The latest splashy izakaya or ramen-ya is just as likely to open in Oakland — or Palo Alto or the Tenderloin — as it is in historic Japanese neighborhoods like the one in San Mateo.
What, then, is the function of an ethnic food enclave once the cuisine in question goes mainstream? Or, to put it another way, is there still any reason to endure an hour-plus-long drive through traffic to eat in San Mateo?
The short answer is: Yes, absolutely. San Mateo remains a singularly excellent destination for Japanese food. It’s got Japanese restaurants that specialize in hard-to-find culinary sub-genres. It’s home to what’s probably the Bay Area’s best-regarded traditional kaiseki restaurant, Michelin-starred Wakuriya. The ramen scene is more consistently solid than anywhere else in the Bay Area. And just in terms of sheer density, San Mateo is tough to beat: The bulk of the city’s 40 or so Japanese restaurants are concentrated in a four-block radius downtown, an outsize presence that belies the city’s actual Japanese population, which now hovers somewhere in the vicinity of 2 percent.
But for many Japanese Americans on the Peninsula, San Mateo is more than just a place to eat. It’s a community hub and a link to more than a hundred years of Japanese-American history. In Building a Community: The Story of Japanese Americans in San Mateo County, Gayle Yamada and Dianne Fukami document the lives of those earliest Japanese immigrants, many of whom settled in San Mateo in the late 1800s and worked as “school-boys” (domestic servants), gardeners, or laborers in the local salt mines. Later, many of these first-generation immigrants went on to start their own landscaping businesses and flower nurseries. Over time, grocery stores and restaurants opened to cater to the burgeoning Japanese community.
During the ’70s and ’80s, Tommy Cleary, the chef at San Francisco’s soon-to-open Hina Yakitori, grew up one town over in Belmont. But throughout his childhood, he remembers spending three days a week in San Mateo at the Japanese school and Buddhist temple that shared a building. For years, it was the same routine every Saturday morning: First, he’d go to his Japanese class. Afterwards, he’d walk down the street to Takahashi Market, the Japanese-Hawaiian grocery store, where he’d buy a package of rice-paper-wrapped Bontan Ame candy and the new issue of the Shonen Jump manga magazine, which the shop would ship in from Japan each week. The Japanese Americans he grew up with back then were mostly just friends with each other, Cleary recalls. They had their own baseball and basketball leagues, their own Boys Scout troops. They called each other’s mothers “aunty.” It was that kind of a tight-knit community.
“I think that’s very much an important testament to Japanese-American community resilience in the face of incredible adversity and injustice,” says Catherine Ceniza Choy, an ethnic studies professor who teaches Asian American history at UC Berkeley. The racism they endured was often extreme, expressed in prejudicial housing covenants, oppressive immigration restrictions, and, most egregiously, internment. The San Bruno shopping mall, just a few miles north, is built on the site of the horse track-turned-prison camp where about 8,000 Japanese Americans — nearly 900 from San Mateo County alone — were locked up for several months during World War II. From there, they were shipped off to longer-term concentration camps.
Too often, all that history gets lost in the shuffle. Today, a Bay Area food enthusiast might only know San Mateo for its on-trend, hype-heavy Japanese restaurant scene, which has risen, in part, because of the local clientele’s demonstrated willingness to stand in line for three hours to procure a coveted bowl of noodles. But the real charm of the city is the way its Japanese food community bridges the gap between the old and new. Walking through downtown, you might pass by a couple of sleek, modern-looking izakayas and the brand-new tsukemen shop with its line wrapping all the way around the block. But you’ll also see old-school Japanese bento shops and sushi counters that date back 40 years or more. The Takahashi Market, opened in 1906, is still going strong.
As Choy puts it, “Food is more than something delicious to eat. Food is also a pathway for us to learn about a community’s very deep history.” Fortunately, San Mateo offers both.
A casual omakase
Downtown San Mateo holds a whole range of sushi experiences: the pristine and intimate omakase; the procession of dirt-cheap, unagi-sauce-topped rolls; the unexpectedly solid nigiri served inside an old-fashioned diner. But the best known — and easily the most idiosyncratic — of the bunch is Sushi Sam’s Edomata (218 E. 3rd Avenue), where Osamu Sugiyama has presided over the 10-seat sushi counter since the early ’90s. The eight-piece omakase will set you back around $55, which is a steal when you consider that every single nigiri comes off a seasonal specials board that can go toe-to-toe with any high-end sushi spot in the Bay. No run-of-the-mill hamachi or salmon here; instead, rarity after rarity: sweet blue shrimp; baby lobster tail crowned with aioli and flying fish roe; the best snow crab, delicate and briny-sweet, dabbed with miso; and, maybe if you’re lucky, some of the lush Copper River salmon the restaurant gets in for just a couple weeks each year.
But the most endearing thing is how casual it all is. Sure, you might be eating some of the most delicious nigiri in Northern California, but it’s loud and chaotic; the sushi is slammed down in front of you helter-skelter, on plastic dishes, at a rapid-fire pace; and half the people in the dining room are wearing shorts and flip-flops. In that way, it’s the quintessential San Mateo dining experience. Pro tip: Show up at least a few minutes before the shop opens at 11:30 a.m. to avoid the line and assure yourself a seat at the counter.
Groceries and nostalgia
One of the best ways to judge an immigrant food enclave is by its grocery stores, and in that respect, San Mateo passes with flying colors. Naturally, there’s a perfectly serviceable outpost of the Nijiya Market chain, but it’s the two mom-and-pop Japanese markets that are worth planning a special trip.
When Tokutaro Takahashi first opened Takahashi Market (221 S. Claremont Street) in 1906, it was a general store that sold boots and clothing in addition to groceries. Beyond that, in those early days, Takahashi routinely trekked out to Half Moon Bay via horse and buggy to sell supplies to the Japanese farmers who lived there. In the early 1960s, the market started carrying lau lau, kalua pork, and other Hawaiian foodstuffs to cater to the influx of Hawaiians who moved to the San Mateo area around that time. That’s why current owner Gene Takahashi, Tokutaro’s grandson, says he grew up loving those foods even though no one in the family has any direct connection to the islands.
It also helps explain why, these days, the market is best known for the Hawaiian plate lunches and musubis that come out of its kitchen, headed up by Gene’s son, Bobby. Everything’s good, from the tender, impeccably seasoned kalua pork to the exquisitely simple poke, like the kind you get in Hawai‘i proper. On any given day, it’ll have not just Spam musubi, but eight or more different kinds of musubi on offer, all made to order, including a tobiko-dotted salmon-and-crawfish number that might be the most delicious menu item in the entire city.
Meanwhile, Suruki Supermarket (71 E. 4th Avenue) doesn’t have quite as long a history, but dates back to the mid-’70s, when Shuji Suruki started the business as a grocery store on wheels. Cleary, the Hina Yakitori chef, remembers the van pulling up in front of the Buddhist church when he was a kid, and all the Japanese moms would come out to do their shopping. Now, Suruki is more of a conventional Japanese grocery store — if one with an uncommonly stellar seafood counter, with big slabs of sushi-grade hamachi and toro that you can buy as is or cut into nigiri- or hand roll-sized pieces.
A little after 5 p.m. every day, a line starts forming next to the front display case filled with trays of sushi, bento boxes, and various prepared foods. Regulars know that at 6 p.m. (5:30 p.m. on Sundays), everything in the case gets slashed to half-price, so the tension is palpable, everyone eyeing the goods and mapping out a plan of attack. When the time comes, all hell breaks loose — but also, $20 will buy you a veritable sushi feast.
Ramen, old school and new
San Mateo remains a destination noodle town thanks in large part to Kazunori Kobayashi’s triumvirate of ramen houses — Santa Ramen, Ramen Dojo, and Ramen Parlor — which have been dominating the scene ever since Santa first opened in the ’90s. All things being equal, go to Ramen Parlor (901 S. B Street), where you can score the same spicy garlic pork ramen broth that has made Ramen Dojo a favorite among Bay Area ramen heads, but with less waiting in line. Open since 2011, Ramen Parlor is the newest of the three sister ramen restaurants, even if it looks like the kind of place that’s been around forever, housed as it is in a quaint, brick-lined building that could easily be confused for some all-American diner. The restaurant has somewhat of a seafood slant, which means you can get your garlic pork ramen spiked with lobster oil and topped with a fried soft-shell crab. It’s a flavor bomb of a bowl, compulsively slurpable, with briny, oceanic notes that take things over the top.
If, on the other hand, standing in line is your thing, or you at least have a decent stamina for it, don’t hesitate to add your name to the waiting list at Taishoken (47 E. 4th Avenue), the current title-holder for buzziest restaurant in San Mateo. The specialty here is tsukemen, a style of ramen in which you dunk cold noodles into a thick, intensely flavorful dipping broth, which is wildly popular in Tokyo but only available at a handful of Bay Area ramen restaurants, hence the crazy lines. It helps, too, that this is the first Taishoken to open in the U.S., and that the original Taishoken, in Tokyo’s Nakano neighborhood, is generally credited as being the place where tsukemen was invented.
Chef Yoshihiro Sagakuchi is the grandson of the founder of the original Taishoken in Tokyo, but here in San Mateo, he’s largely doing his own thing. He makes his own noodles in-house — for the tsukemen, they’re nice and thick, with a great chew and bounce to them — but, in a departure from the family recipe, he also adds a little bit of buckwheat to the mix, giving the noodles another layer of flavor and aroma. The tsukemen is legitimately delicious, with its deeply porky, fish-powder-spiked dunking broth, and even the side dishes are more than just an afterthought. A dish of creamy potato salad, crowned with mullet roe shavings and half a soft-boiled egg, is as memorable as the ramen.
The glitter of a Japanese chain dessert
At times it feels as though Japanese dessert chains are taking over the Bay Area, and San Mateo, with its large customer base of trend-savvy Asian Americans, is no exception. So, within a block or so of each other, you’ll find a Beard Papa’s Sweets Cafe (365 2nd Avenue), with its selection of delectable cream puffs, and a branch of Uji Time Dessert (106 S. B Street), the Bay Area-based purveyor of Japanese-style soft cream (a kind of soft-serve ice cream) served atop eminently Instagrammable fish-shaped taiyaki cones. Each store opened with its share of pomp and circumstance; each is now far enough past that initial hype phase that you can stroll in for a quick afternoon pick-me-up without worrying about having to fight a crowd.
But perhaps the most notable of San Mateo’s glittery Japanese dessert chains is the first and only Bay Area outpost of Uncle Tetsu (72 Hillsdale Mall), located in the Hillsdale Mall’s swanky, revamped food court. The specialty here is a soufflé-like Japanese cheesecake, a dessert you may have seen at a handful of other Japanese bakeries in the Bay Area. Uncle Tetsu’s version sits at the top of the heap, just impossibly jiggly and airy and light.
Nighttime izakaya vibes
On its own, Yakitori Kokko (509 2nd Avenue) isn’t necessarily the kind of place where you’d drive an hour from Oakland or San Francisco for the express purpose of eating there — but for those who live or work in the area, it could easily be a once- or twice-a-week standard for a cold beer or whisky highball and a few plates of binchotan-grilled meat. The yakitori is solid enough, though counter to the norm, it’s the non-chicken skewers that made the biggest impression: the quail eggs wrapped in a special kind of Japanese bacon, for instance, or the well-seasoned slices of beef tongue. More than anything, the restaurant captures the feel of going out for yakitori in Japan—the smell of the smoke, the brisk efficiency of the servers, the conviviality of everyone crowded into a too-tight space.
Yu-Raku (104 S. El Camino Real) might have the distinction of being the one restaurant in San Mateo that feels the most Japanese, in part because it’s so popular with recent expats, who come to satisfy their nostalgia for chuka ryori, or Japanese-style Chinese food, a genre of cuisine that’s wildly popular in Japan but is otherwise almost non-existent here in the Bay Area. Sakae Yuizumi, the chef, grew up in Shanghai before opening a Chinese restaurant along with his father in the Shizuoka prefecture of Japan. At Yu-Raku, he puts his own stamp on all of the classics of the cuisine, which takes recognizable Chinese dishes and adapts them for the Japanese palate: say, a cold salad of shredded chicken topped with a garlicky sesame dressing; or an extra-savory, cornstarch-thickened version of mapo tofu; or, perhaps most famously, the champon, a gravy-like noodle soup overflowing with pork, cabbage, and bean sprouts, which combines the best qualities of ramen and a Chinese stir-fry. This is probably the single most charming restaurant in San Mateo — the kind of place where you grab a seat at the bright-red diner counter, listen to the sound of jazz tinkling over the speakers and the other diners conversing in Japanese, and just make yourself feel at home.