Mission Dolores already lays claim to some of San Francisco’s most notable culinary destinations — and has welcomed a handful of hot newcomers in recent months as well. Now there’s yet another restaurant set to debut on 18th Street just a couple of blocks from the park, and there’s a good chance it’s going to be a line-inducing kind of situation. On Wednesday, May 18, Handroll Project will officially open its doors to diners, transforming the former Al’s Deli space into a lofty, white-walled pitstop for temaki, those easy-to-hold sushi rolls wrapped in shiny sheets of nori.
But this isn’t just another neighborhood spot for fish and rice; the hotly anticipated causal restaurant comes from partners Tan Truong and chef Geoffrey Lee, best-known for being the forces behind Michelin-starred omakase restaurant Ju-Ni in NoPa. The duo says they’ve actually had their hearts set on opening a handroll restaurant since before they opened Ju-Ni, but it wasn’t until the pandemic that they found the right space (Truong was driving down 18th to Ju-Ni when he saw the corner spot up for lease) and enough time to make it happen. “There were opportunities based out of COVID,” Lee says.
There are similarities between Ju-Ni and its more laid-back sister spot, for example the commitment to using high-quality ingredients. But make no mistake: Handroll Project is designed to do volume — a new challenge for a team known for serving multi-course omakase meals to a small number of guests each night. “The idea here is to come in and get a quick bite,” Truong says. To make that possible, the menu (below) is streamlined: 10 different types of handrolls or the option of a predetermined set.
The smallest set consists of five pieces ($35) including salmon and sesame, spicy tuna, spicy crab, smoked hamachi, and chef’s poke, made with a blend of tuna, salmon, and yellowtail mixed with chives and sesame. Bigger eaters can opt for a seven-piece set ($54) or a 10-piece set ($95). The price jump accounts for the fact that the last option includes all three of the restaurant’s special handrolls, which will be available for dine-in only once the restaurant begins offering takeout. They feature more lux ingredients like A5 wagyu, uni, and ikura; the ikura and ankimo handroll in particular serves as an echo of Ju-Ni’s signature dish.
Lee says the restaurant is using the same sushi rice and preparation as at Ju-Ni and is particularly proud of the thick but supple nori he’s using to wrap each roll. Only a small number of other restaurants in San Francisco have it in the kitchen, Lee says, and he’s sourcing it from Japan’s famous Toyosu Fish Market — along with much of the fish. There are also a few small plates to round out a meal including a cucumber salad and miso soup. But the menu won’t change much and the drink list, when it’s finalized, will be similarly tight. Expect wines, sake, and Japanese beers including one option on draft and cans available to-go.
Those who want to dine-in will have to vie for one of 16 seats and one of two bars, which sandwich the high-ceilinged, simply designed space. Truong and Lee say they’re not sure yet if they’ll take reservations and are considering using Yelp’s digital waitlist. For now they’re opening with just dinner and plan to add lunch service down the line. Mostly the duo says they’re excited to bring an idea they’ve had on their minds for years to fruition. They used to serve handrolls for staff meal at Ju-Ni, then offered them to some customers as a part of the omakase experience. The pandemic — during which the restaurant pivoted to selling some of the city’s most photogenic takeout — opened the door for the team to start playing with higher-volume and more casual food, which led them to the idea of making the Handroll Project a reality. And as for why handrolls, it’s pretty obvious if you ask Lee. “I mean, they’re just delicious,” he says. “And easy to eat.”
Handroll Project (598 Guerrero Street) celebrates its grand opening on Wednesday, May 18.