Worth the Wait
After living in NYC I always proclaimed that standing in line for a museum exhibit or opening night of a movie was one thing, but I would never stand in line for a restaurant or club. And in my 12 year tenure in the Big Apple, I held true to those words. But the buzz was too strong and my craving too consuming to dismiss an opportunity to eat at Mensho Tokyo in San Francisco because of “my rule.” As luck would have it - maybe because it was my birthday, or maybe because we arrived to the line early on a Friday night the city experienced a major power outage - we were second in line and seated promptly upon the restaurant’s opening.
It’s in a somewhat rustic or sketchy part of Japantown that has the distinct ear marks of transition, with hipsters slowly bringing in funky and popular cafes and bars, like Swig, which is just down the street from Mensho. Just prior to reveling in the delight of hearing our names called for early seating especially in light of the long line of people behind us clearly seething with envy, we hear a collective loud sound from inside. Is it arguing? Is it the unwelcome tones of an intrusive private cell phone conversation? No, it’s chanting. The manager or chef is firing up the troops like a football coach prepping the team with affirmations of winning. There’s a collective chuckle from the line of soon-to-be patrons. This makes us all feel special. They clearly take customer service seriously.
Walking into the noodle bar, you can’t help but be impressed with how well appointed the definitely diminutive space is. It’s modern, clean, simple and seemingly new, with white walls and red accent banners. There are four long high top communal light stained wood tables making up the entire main space, and one short bar snuggled up to the kitchen, with a birds eye view of frenetic action among the chefs. Although this is a small space and a minimal menu, it is clear that the owners care about the small things, with a keen eye for details. No hooks under the table for purses (women love having hooks!), no problem. Instead, there are small wicker baskets on the poured concrete floors under the tables. And something I’ve never seen before, but now want in every restaurant I go to: individual cut outs in the front of the tables, like a desk. Here you can safely tuck away glasses or your phone instead of laying them on top of the table next to you.
The host and wait staff are exceptionally attentive and efficient, surprisingly so for an affordable noodle bar. I’m not complaining. I appreciate good service and presentation at any level, I just don’t necessarily expect it. Onto the main attraction: the dishes. Guests have choices between pork, chicken and vegan soups, with creamy or clear broths. Included in each are a bevy of vegetables, garnishes, and of course, noodles cooked to perfection (no gluten free options). These noodles are firm, yet soft at the same time. The bowls are all the same size - big. They are brimming with delectable elements and contrasting and complimentary flavors. I feel as if I could make a meal out of any of the individual elements that make up the dish. After just one or two bites/slurps, I was secretly dreaming of my next excursion to Mensho, with a goal to experience every offering on the menu. This is a complete, satisfying, robust meal in a bowl. One of the best I’ve ever had at any price.
My only complaint, if you can call it that, is “to-go” containers are non-existent at Mensho. This means there is no carry out available and no doggy bags. The chef is a purist and doesn’t believe the noodles travel well. It is best experienced in person in real time. That translates to - you need to come with a BIG APPETITE. Even at that, you could end up like me, only getting through half the serving. All in all, I walked out impressed and satisfied, plotting my next visit ... even if I don’t make it to the front of the line.