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Talking Tsukemono with Erik Aplin of ICHI Sushi

Photo: Alanna Hale

Japanese cuisine is perhaps my favorite, or at least certainly in my top three. If I were stranded on a desert island, I’d be just fine so long as there was ample seafood, rice paddies, and someone to turn it all into perfect sushi every day. Hands down our favorite sushi place in the city is ICHI Sushi, and its izakaya bar, NI, in the back. We’ve been fans since their early days, occupying a tiny and fairly charmless space that housed our previous favorite, Yo’s Sushi Club, on a nondescript corner of Mission Street in Bernal Heights.

The current space is airy and slick. As you enter the hallway covered with an Erik Marinovich mural outlining the practice of eating sushi, the staff collectively belts out an enthusiastic Irasshaimase!”

You’ll more often find us in the back at NI, ordering their deservedly famous yuzu chicken wings and whatever vegetable they’re turning into a goma ae with black sesame. It used to be that there was no sushi at NI, as the chefs at the front work at capacity to keep the sushi bar fed, but lately they’ve been offering rolls from the back kitchen, which they will also make as hand rolls. And we always, always order the tsukemono, or assorted pickles.

When ICHI was still at the old space, I once asked chef Erik Aplin whether they were doing any tsukemono; they didn’t list it on the menu. He gave me a knowing look, and promptly poked into the fridges. Moments later, he presented a dish with a small selection of pickles. They were just beginning to really delve into tsukemono, and at that time weren’t ready to list it on the menu. I don’t remember everything on the plate, but I’ll never forget a small dollop of creamy white stuff that could have passed as some kind of cheese. It was tofu that had been fermented in miso, and I had never had anything like it before, or since.

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Things I learned from Rick Bayless

Disclosure: I was compensated by Negra Modelo to attend this event, post about it on social channels, and write this blog post. 

I'm not going to mince words about it: Sometimes being a food blogger has pretty awesome perks. Like when your go-to Mexican beer approaches you with an opportunity to take a culinary tour of the Mission District with Rick Bayless, and pay you for the privilege. Twist my arm. 

We kicked our tour off at a well-known "Mexicatessen" on 24th street, a place I know well thanks to my affiliation with Edible Excursions. (Note: Due to some regulations, I cannot name the places we went to. I know, weird.) This place receives enormous amounts of dry corn on a roughly biweekly basis, which they grind and mix with water and lime (calcium hydroxide, not the fruit) in a process called mixtamalization. This unlocks the bioavailability of nutrients in the corn. They then use this mixture, called masa mixtamalisada, to make fresh tortillas, huaraches, sopes and other delicacies — all by hand. This is my go-to spot to buy fresh corn tortillas, crema salvadoreia, and fabulous salsas.

La Palma Mexicatessen

(Sidebar: Come take our tours in San Francisco, Oakland or Berkeley! If you book a private tour for a group of 8 or more, you get a free tour for two for yourself. I'm just one of a whole fleet of awesome guides with Edible Excursions.)

Piping-hot huarache stuffed with cheese and herbs, topped with grilled flank steak and cabbage? Don't mind if I do. (Washed down with Negra Modelo, of course.)

Huarache at La Palma

Speaking of flank steak, our next stop was a nearby meat market, family-owned for more than 40 years. The second-generation owner, Salvador Vazquez, explained that until the '70s, the beef commonly used for carne asada was not widely available in America outside Latino markets. In the mass market, it was usually thrown in with other less desirable cuts for ground beef, but in Mexico, it's treasured for its intensely beefy flavor. A friend observed Vazquez carving out the section of the cow containing a few cuts of thin, flat steaks for use.

Salvador Vasquez flap steak

He asked Vazquez what these cuts were called, and for lack of a good translation called it "flap meat." The friend asked him to show a colleague, who turned out to be a rep with IBP, and before long flap steak became available as a grocery store cut across the country. What was once considered all but a disposable cut is now marketed as flank and skirt steak, and for a premium price at that. 

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Range: Falling star?

Range_signI’ve followed with as much interest as anyone the drama and intrigue around the recent assignment of Michelin guide stars to Bay Area restaurants. I was unsurprised by many of them, but was pleased to see Range receive one star. Frankly, I didn’t expect any Mission restaurants to receive that degree of attention.

We’ve eaten at Range a few times now. We really fell for it from the very first time we went, shortly after opening. Repeat revisits have reconfirmed my opinions: solidly good food and above-par service … for a Mission restaurant. And that’s an important modifier. I have long held that the Mission/Valencia Corridor restaurants are among the best in the city, but that is to say that they are the best in terms of diversity and quality -to-value ratio. They simply cannot be judged on the same terms as, say, Acquerello, much less French Laundry. So how can Acquerello and Range merit the same rating? How did other seeming worthies within the Mission, like Delfina and Limòn (to say nothing of more under-the-radar spots like Walzwerk) miss out?

We returned to Range last night; I was luckily able to nab a
reservation for six of us, albeit at the blue-plate special hour of 5:30
pm. It had been a few months since our last visit, and I was eager to
see whether the restaurant not only lived up to its newfound
Michelin-star reputation, but simply whether it was as good as I had
remembered it.

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La Provence: Sunshine in the fog


Haven’t we just been a couple of Gallic gallants of late? We hopped from Chez Papa to Bistro 1689 (though the latter is scarcely a bistro or especially French), and last night we decided to check out La Provence, in the curious little cluster of eateries at the corner of Guerrero and 22nd. (Is that Mission or Noe Valley? It’s I think technically in the Mission but has more of a Noe vibe, n’est-ce pas?)

This is a space we know well. For years it was Mangiafuoco, one of or favorite Italian restaurants, not least because it was mere blocks from where we lived. After Mangiafuoco’s closure, it went through a few machinations of short-lived restaurants we never bothered to check out: Da Luisa, Fiamma and I think something else that lasted something like a month. When La Provence opened, we sat back and watched, waited to see whether it would be the latest casualty.

To our mild surprise, it stuck. La Provence has occupied that space for just over a year now, which we decided was long enough for them to work out whatever kinks they might have had. And so last night we made a brief excursion to the south of France.

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Le meh: Bistro 1689

I’m always excited by the opening of a new restaurant in our neighborhood. Although Noe Valley has a not insubstantial number of restaurants, comparatively few are really worth writing home (or a blog) about, so I’m always optimistic at the sight of a new eatery. Unfortunately, I am also often disappointed.

Bistro 1689 drew a fair amount of buzz well before it opened, one of a small cluster of changes in the Baja Noe stretch of Church Street, some of which are still afoot. Formerly a nondescript Chinese restaurant, I figured it could only be an improvement. Then again, I’m not crazy about most Chinese food, so the bar was low there.

We popped in last Friday, having made a clearly unnecessary (yet still point-building) 6:30 pm reservation on OpenTable. Let the games begin.

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Tacos San Buena

Now that I'm back working up in the Levi's Plaza/Telegraph Hill/Nowhere area, I've been beleaguered by the same nagging lunch problems as before. There are about three places I frequent: RJ's Market; Il Fornaio's take-out counter and the take-out window…

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