Food: Playful, pleasing Japanese fare at Mission’s Nombe 

The Bay Area has gone crazy for izakayas, eateries that specialize in small plates that go with sake, beer and shochu.

Oddly enough, two of the best — Ippuku, the stunning  new yakitori and shochu bar in Berkeley designed by Japanese master builder Paul Discoe,  and the Mission district’s ebullient Nombe — have Caucasian chef/owners who lived and cooked in Japan and become ardent Japanophiles.

Nombe in the Mission, the creation of three hands-on owners, feels freer, more buoyant and inclusive than traditional Japanese restaurants.

Though the cooking stays within the Japanese pantry and flavor profile, chef Nick Balla embraces local products, and even sneaks Mission district chiles into a few dishes. Nombe is playfully Japanese, and very personal.

The partners spent two months scrubbing down two long, narrow, connected storefronts that used to be a taqueria, decorating with self-constructed Japanese sci-fi light fixtures among other oddities. Industrial and alternative pulse on the sound system.
A few bar seats in one room, and front window counter seats in another, fill at different hours of the evening. Sake master Gil Payne ranges around the dining room giving tastes. Ballo comes out of the kitchen with dishes in hand to suggest others. 

These eager communicators crave face-to-face contact. I have never seen restaurant people have so much fun.

At first the one-page menu with sashimi and daily specials clipped on, seems daunting, but after one visit you’ll know how to navigate — two dishes per person with maybe a few little ones thrown in, if you can restrain yourself. I have been unable.

Vivacious big eye tuna balls ($14) coated in black/green seaweed and black sesame seeds, release layers of complementary flavors as they fall apart in your mouth. 

I cannot leave Nombe without having Balla’s fish cake ($12) — kamaboko — made with ground halibut. He worked in a fish cake factory in Japan.

Tender and juicy with a hint of smokiness, these slices of heaven are arranged in a hand thrown flat bowl (made by Balla’s Polish aunt from Michigan) with lacy ancho cress, house made pickled ginger and beets, with a lemony dashi broth at the bottom, a Japanese/San Francisco salad.

A big hunk of buttery black cod ($13) is steamed then grilled to create crisp black skin. Its flesh melts into soft spinach and fennel.

Steak-like slices of beef heart ($10) and thinly sliced white onion are buried under a blanket of freshly shaved dried bonito, which adds subtle smokiness. Each bite thrills.

These dishes — and more — come under the rubric of “House Plates.” 

Ordering from the “Agemono (Fried)” section is straightforward, but don’t miss luscious chicken skin ($4), nubbins of skin with a little meat, brushed with a sweet glaze so they blacken and crisp on the outside, from the “Yakitori (Grilled Skewers)” section; or Nombe’s tsukune ($6),  juicy chicken sausage with modulated heat from fresh green chiles.

Finish with subtle house made pickles ($4) and a bowl of rice mixed with crisp, buttery ocean trouts skin, scallions and black sesame seeds ($6). 

Everything about Nombe is generous — the choices, the  portions, the sake pours, the hours, the spirit of the staff. Balla’s cooking satisfies like soulful comfort food, but is full of surprises, a very unusual combination.  

Patricia Unterman is author of the second edition of the “San Francisco Food Lovers’ Pocket Guide.” Contact her at


Location: 2491 Mission St. (at 21st Street), San Francisco
Contact: (415) 681-7150;
Hours: 6 to 11 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, Sunday-Monday; 6 p.m. to 1 a.m. Friday-Saturday; street food window from 11 p.m. to 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday, brunch from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m Saturday; closed Tuesday
Price range: $4 to $14
Recommended dishes: Corn korokke, fish cake, big eye tuna balls, rice with ocean trout skin, grilled chicken skin, grilled chicken sausage (tsukune), honey mochi cake
Credit cards: Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Discover
Reservations: Accepted

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Patricia Unterman

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