Before the very recent influx of San Francisco establishments that specialize in Japanese curry, the only way for a junkie to get his fix in this town was to go to a random restaurant and roll the dice. Chances are, the place wouldn't even have curry on the menu anyway. And if it did, the curry might come to you lukewarm, topped with something that looked and often tasted like a fried piece of shoe leather.
The best you could hope for with "restaurant curry" is that it would be unobjectionable. It would never be in the same league as Go Go or CoCo.
On a recent all-day excursion to Japantown -- we're pretty much seeing every movie at the luxurious Sundance Kabuki, these days -- Karen and I tried the curry rice at two different places we'd never been to before: Bushi-Tei Bistro and Sanppo Sushi.
Bushi-Tei Bistro is a recently-opened sister restaurant to Bushi-Tei, the Michelin star-rated fine dining French/California fusion restaurant up the street. The casual bistro features a wholly different menu, mostly made up of rice and pasta dishes borrowing from Japanese and Italian cuisine.
We'd hoped the restaurant's high standards would carry over and create something more than the usual lunch-counter curry, but they did not. The best thing about the pork katsu curry ($12.80) is that it is topped with a kurobuta pork cutlet, thick, juicy, and perfectly fried. Unfortunately, the curry sauce itself was way too salty, making the whole dish disappointing.
You can also get your curry plain, or topped with two large fried shrimp. But as appetizing as it looks on the picture-menu outside the restaurant, we weren't impressed at all with the final product. (Not to mention the fact that it took a really long time.)
Sanppo Sushi's curry was similar -- no frills, just rice, sauce, katsu, deep red fukujinzuke pickles, and a couple of cocktail onions. (Does anyone actually eat those...?) It was served, hilariously, in a gigantic deep ramen bowl, which made eating it a bit awkward.
But the sauce, for restaurant curry, was actually pretty good -- even though the thin, dark-meat katsu was a disappointment, especially after Bushi-Tei's kurobuta. I'm usually opposed on principle to giant chunks of vegetable in my curry -- especially when it's something like Manpuku where you can't find the curry for all the potatoes. But Sanppo's chunks of stewed carrot were small enough and well-cooked enough that it didn't bother me.
We did make an interesting discovery, though. I noticed that the menu listed "beef curry" and "katsu curry," both priced at $10. I got the katsu, and Karen's husband Patrick ordered the beef curry. But I noticed that my curry also had chunks of beef in the sauce, and I didn't see any difference between mine and his. So if you order "beef curry" at Sanppo, you're getting ripped off -- it's katsu curry, with no katsu, for the same price.
If all I had ever eaten was "restaurant curry," I'd be of the opinion that Japanese curry is an interesting, though ultimately underwhelming, food. I wouldn't understand its greatness, and we certainly wouldn't have started a website about it. Sadly, this is often the only option for anyone looking to try Japanese curry in America. I don't think I'd order the curry at either place again, although Sanppo's gets the edge in this impromptu battle.
1581 Webster St., San Francisco, CA 94115
Toppings Available: Pork katsu, fried shrimp
Spice Levels: None
1720 Post St., San Francisco, CA 94115
Hours: Mon-Thu 11:30-Midnight, Fri-Sat 11:30-1:00 a.m., Sun 12:00 - 10:00 p.m.
Toppings Available: Pork katsu
Spice Levels: None
+ Thick, juicy kurobuta pork katsu
- Very salty curry sauce
- Plain food, fancy prices
+Pretty good curry
-Thin pork katsu
-"Beef curry" is a rip-off
-Why is it in a ramen bowl?
Verdict: While we enjoyed Sanppo's curry more than Bushi-Tei's, they're both mundane. Curry from regular Japanese restaurants rarely, if ever, lives up to its true potential.