As anyone who has watched even a stray episode of Terrace House knows, people in Japan eat a lot of curry — to the point that the dish has a strong case as the country’s most widely consumed everyday comfort food.
In the U.S., however, Japanese curry hasn’t taken off to that extent, Northern California natives Barry Louie and Thomas Uehara observed after spending the past 25 years living and working in Japan. This month, the two will try to change that: They’re opening the first U.S. outlet of Hinoya Curry, one of Tokyo’s most popular curry chains, in San Francisco.
Located at 3347 Fillmore Street in the Marina district, at the former site of a Mac’d fast-casual macaroni and cheese restaurant, Hinoya Curry will open for business as early as this Saturday, February 13. To Uehara and Louie’s knowledge, it will be the first established Japanese curry brand from Japan to open a restaurant in the Bay Area.
Uehara tells Eater SF that during recent visits to San Francisco, he was struck by how rapidly Japanese food culture had expanded — how ramen shops, for instance, had taken the Bay Area by storm. Restaurants specializing Japanese curry, on the other hand, still seemed to be a relative rarity, despite the success of a handful of independent spots — Muracci’s in the Financial District, for instance. But in Japan, Louie and Uehara say, curry is just as popular and ubiquitous as ramen. The two foods both occupy the same tasty, inexpensive comfort-food niche.
So, Louie and Uehara asked themselves, why couldn’t they make Japanese curry the next big thing in the U.S.? And because Hinoya serves a very classic version of the somewhat sweeter, milder style of curry that’s popular in Japan, they believed it would be the ideal ambassador for the cuisine.
“We want to make Japanese curry more mainstream — like ramen or sushi or wonton noodles,” Louie says.
In Japan, Uehara explains, far and away the biggest curry chain is Coco Ichibanya, which has more than 1,400 locations around the world, including a handful in Southern California. It is, in terms of the scale of the company, like “the McDonald’s of curry,” Uehara says. According to Uehara and Louie, Hinoya is the second biggest brand, but with just over 60 locations, most of them in the Tokyo area, it isn’t quite as much of a mega-chain. The restaurant is well regarded enough, for instance, that it’s one of two curry restaurants that the popular Japanese cooking blog Just One Cookbook recommends to people visiting Tokyo.
It also has the luster of a championship pedigree: Kanda is Tokyo’s most famous curry district — “a war zone for curry chains,” with hundreds of shops concentrated in the area, Uehara explains. Every year, the district holds a “Curry Grand Prix,” and in 2013, when it was still a relative newcomer with only a couple of outlets in Tokyo, Hinoya won the top prize.
“The taste of my grandmother’s curry was familiar since my childhood, but when I ate curry dishes at various places, I realized my grandmother’s curry was the best,” founder Masaru Hiura told the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper at the time, explaining the inspiration for his recipe.
It’s that curry recipe — a closely guarded formula — that will be the SF outpost of Hinoya Curry’s main point of distinction, Uehara says, noting that the shop will have the roux blocks it’ll use shipped directly from Japan. The base of the curry will be a beef broth, and the whole thing will cook in the pot for anywhere from 48 to 100 hours depending on the size of the batch.
“The initial impression that you have [when eating Hinoya’s curry] is that it’s actually sweet,” Uehara says. “The spice kicks in on second or third bite.” But he says the curry encompasses all of the different flavors: sweet, sour, spicy, salty, umami.
Many of Hinoya’s Japanese locations serve the curry in a wide variety of formats — mapo-style curry, baked cheese curry, or curry topped with a raw egg, in addition to the standard curry rice. The San Francisco shop, on the other hand, will stick with a very concise menu, especially when it first opens: curry rice, pork katsu curry, chicken katsu curry, and chicken karaage over curry — just those four dishes to go with a selection of Japanese beer and sake. Prices will be comparable to what diners would spend at a ramen shop in San Francisco, Uehara says — $12 to $16 for most menu items, topping out at around $20.
For now, Hinoya Curry will open for takeout and outdoor dining only, but Louie notes that the restaurant is actually quite spacious compared to your typical curry shop, where diners are typically “banging elbows” with the person seated next to them at the counter. Once indoor dining is allowed, the restaurant will be able to seat about 49 people inside — and it’ll launch a more extensive menu that will include vegetarian options.