In the spirit of cultural diversity, the first thing that struck me about Izakaya Sozai, a Japanese restaurant on a corner of the inner Sunset, was its feng shui, its alignment in the universe. There’s something seductive about its big plate glass windows that almost reach the sidewalk. You can’t help but notice all the engaged diners sitting on wooden banquettes a little below street level, as you approach– and if it’s past 7 p.m., how many are waiting outside for a place in the 34 seat dining room. You can read blackboards of daily specials and sakes through the windows, and observe the cooks dancing in a brightly lit rectangle of kitchen, a counter of eaters watching every move.
For me, the most exciting dishes on Sozai’s menu of small plates, are the most traditionally Japanese. Tako wasabi ($4.50) is one of those mysteriously addictive Japanese bar foods that challenge the Western palate, in this case, a collision of chewy, slimy, spicy hot, sweet and salty in a chilled, soupy mixture. Bits of raw octopus mingle with translucent sinus clearing, wasabi-shot octopus innards.
Nankotsu karaage, ($6.50), panko crumb-dusted, deep fried nubbins of chicken cartilage, resistantly crunchy with an overlay of crispness, entertain the mouth. Little pockets of chicken fat thrillingly lubricate each bite.
Of the yakitori, bacon wrapped mochi ($5) continue the textural adventure, though these are universally accessible, I promise. Mochi is pounded sweet rice; and tender, glutinous balls of it are seasoned by sweetly smoked bacon as it caramelizes over charcoal.
Some of my favorite yakitori here include particularly tasty tsukune ($5.50), velvety chicken meatballs; and pork jowl ($6), little rectangles of gelatinous, fat marbled cheek meat, the fat and flesh more integrated than pork belly.
You may want to cleanse between bites, and nothing works better than Sozai’s daikon salad ($5.50), a pile of matchsticks in spritely cilantro scented vinaigrette, hauntingly smoky from a cloud of dried bonito shavings hovering on top.
I sampled around the less traditional, California influenced nightly specials such as welk sashimi ($10) in which the thin raw slices of welk, or sea snail, disappeared in a seaweed salad; and albacore sashimi with heirloom tomatoes ($12). The albacore carpaccio with crispy onions ($11) on the regular menu better reveals the character of this local fish now in season.
Sake completes all of these little dishes, a fourth wall in a Japanese room of flavor. The accessible list here offers some affordable beauties, such as a bamboo carafe of the balanced Masumi gingo ($19). If you haven’t discovered how chilled artisan sake pairs with foods designed specifically to go with them, Sozai is a natural place to start an exploration.
After little plates and sake, banish the last bits of hunger with tonkotsu ramen ($8), thin, chewy, fresh noodles in a pork bone broth, milky from long boiling, with a sexy, barely hardened half egg and a thick slice of succulent pork as garnish. It ranks at the top of all iterations in the Bay Area.
Vivacious young servers manage the room cordially, constantly under pressure to accommodate reservations–bless Sozai for taking them–and walk-ins. If you do walk in, it’s better to come early rather than late, to this magnetic little place.
Izakaya Sozai, 1500 Irving Street (at 16th avenue) San Francisco
Contact: 415 742-5122; www.izakayasozai.com
Hours: Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Thursday 5:30 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday 5:30 to 11 p.m. Closed Tuesday
Price range: $4.50 to $12
Recommended dishes: tako wasabi; nankotsu karaage; yakitori of bacon wrapped mochi, pork jowl, tsukune; daikon salad; tonkotsu ramen
Credit cards: MasterCard and Visa