I should have known that my friend Alma Hecht — blithe spirit, artist, sustainable landscape designer and certified arborist, would drag me to Cha-ya — a vegetarian Japanese restaurant in the Mission. Previously, she had turned me on to Gracias Madre, an organic vegetarian Mexican restaurant that I actually ended up adoring. Still, just contemplating a dinner that eliminates any food group makes me grumpy, and only Alma’s considerable charm got me to Cha-ya.
We were lucky to get a table since Cha-ya doesn’t bother with reservations. Even on a weeknight, the small, brightly lit storefront dining room was practically full, and the scene was cheerful if no-nonsense. An old-fashioned acoustic ceiling reduced noise bouncing off blonde-wood floors, tables and chairs to a comfortable hum. The white walls were sparsely hung with Japanese prints, collages and screens. Clearly, Cha-ya’s main focus was daily sustenance for their patrons.
Alma ordered her favorites, starting with senroppon salad ($7), long, crunchy threads of cucumber, daikon and carrot, swirled into multicolored nests, with bits of tofu, radishes, sprouts and nutty green soy beans, in a tart soy vinaigrette. Fresh and delightful.
Cha-ya’s vegetable tempura ($9.50) was even better. Each piece of yam, eggplant, asparagus, carrot, kabocha, mushroom, green bean and broccoli was perfectly tender and golden. Though not lacy, the thin batter kept each piece light and crisp.
Dengaku ($9.50), soft, velvety, broiled eggplant glazed with sweet miso sauce, topped with rectangles of tofu and grilled portobello mushrooms, had the density, richness and mouthfeel of meat. Delicious. And just as satisfying though very different in effect, an aromatic wild vegetable soup called sansai ($9.75) was full of edible fern, wood ears, Japanese mushrooms, bamboo shoots, tiny radish sprouts called kaiware and shredded nori. The broth absorbed the flavors of the vegetables, but you could taste each one individually with each slurp of toothsome soba, thin buckwheat noodles. The broth was full of umami — savoriness — and perfectly salted, another dish that made me forget that I wasn’t eating meat.
I returned, without Alma, after a period of serious overindulgence while traveling. I found some excellent housemade gyoza ($7), little dumplings with delicate wrappers, crisp on one side, filled with pureed vegetables and topped with a log pile of skinny-cut asparagus in thick sesame miso sauce, a thoroughly original and tasty dish.
And I must add some of Cha-ya’s vegetable sushi to my favorite-dish list: summer green roll ($7.75), a fat reverse roll with rice on the outside, then seaweed and then a big filling of avocado, cucumber and radish sprouts, sliced into four big rounds, each topped with a mound of a different seaweed salad — sea lettucelike wakame and chewy, threadlike hijiki.
As I was searching for dishes, I noticed the statement on the bottom of the menu that everything Cha-ya serves is not just vegetarian, but vegan, which means the kitchen uses no animal products of any kind. Cha-ya’s shojin ryori or monk’s cooking treads lightly on the planet. No wonder I felt so cleansed.
However, I must admit that afterwards, I walked over to the Bi-Rite Creamery soft-serve window on 18th Street near Dolores Street, where there is never a line, and inhaled a sundae. Enough is enough.
Patricia Unterman is the author of many editions of the San Francisco Food Lovers’ Guide. Contact her at email@example.com.
Location: 762 Valencia St.,San Francisco
Contact: (415) 252-7825
Hours: Lunch Monday through Thursday, noon to 2:30 p.m.; Friday through Sunday noon to 3 p.m. Dinner Monday through Thursday, 5:30 to 9:30; Friday and Saturday. 5 to 10 p.m.; Sunday, 5 to 9:30 p.m.
Price range: $4 to $11
Recommended dishes: Senroppon salad; vegetable tempura; dengaku (eggplant); sansai, wild vegetable soup with soba; summer green roll
Credit cards: Not accepted; cash only
Reservations: Only for parties of six or more