The best mochi ($1.10-1.20 each) in San Francisco come from a family-run coffee shop (the Formica and ham sandwich kind) established in 1901. Made fresh daily, each supple, sweet piece supports a loaded belly of red bean or lima bean paste. Try the Kinako mochi, coated in nutty soybean flour, or the Yomogi that swells with whole red beans. Benkyodo also makes the tender baked dumplings called “manju.” Of these, you must get the Age, a doughnut filled with red beans and sprinkled with granulated sugar.
Yasukochi's Sweet Stop
Located inside the Super Mira Market, this bakery has a cultish following for its Crunch Cake. Available whole ($197 for 100 people) or in slices ($3.85), each is a tower of fluffy sponge cake layered with cold whipped cream and coated in Yasukochi's beloved crunch candies. There are three versions: coffee and lemon, both made with white sponge cake; and chocolate, made with chocolate sponge cake. All are outstanding, but I prefer the Chocolate Crunch over the more sugary but most popular Coffee Crunch. Slices often sell out by noon, so it’s best to call in the morning to reserve yours.
Tan Tan Café
Sink into one of the velvet-upholstered parlor chairs at this charming Victorian tea café where mismatched porcelain is de rigueur and classical music hums on the radio. The menu highlights Japanese tea classics like earthy Genmai-Cha (brown rice tea) and Houji-Cha, a green tea roasted over charcoal, as well as standards like Darjeeling and Oolong. A bowl of grassy Matsu-Cha or matcha ($4.75) arrives on a lacquered tray alongside a scoop of red bean paste and a dainty fork. You can also order it as a float with vanilla ice cream ($4.50). If you’re hungry, the quiet proprietress makes weirdly delicious ham, cheddar and mustardy egg salad tea sandwiches ($6.95), which she serves with two slices of orange with the rinds partially removed for peeling ease.
Tan Tan: Japan Center, 1825 Post Street, San Francisco, CA 94115 (map); (415) 346-6260
Flowers festoon this funny stand located next to the staircase in the Kinokuniya Mall. Top snacks include freshly-made Japanese rice balls known as “onigiri” ($1.75) and mitarashi dango ($1.25), balls of soft mochi shellacked in a caramelized syrup of soy sauce and sugar. If you can stay awhile, order the Kyoto-style bento box ($8.75) and relax in the adjoining “tea garden” appointed with mock Osaka Castle and bamboo umbrellas. The bento is a beautiful compilation of 12 distinctive dishes like broth-boiled vegetables that splash juice when you bite them and a refreshing water jelly colored with cherry blossom petals resting atop a pat of red bean paste. For mains, you must get the salmon kasuzuke. The filets are marinated in sake lees, the paste that’s leftover from the sake-making process.
Kissako Tea: Japan Center, 1581 Webster Street, #195, San Francisco, CA 94115 (map); (415) 567-4988
A mishmash of furniture outfits this spacious and modern Korean-owned café. On the back wall, you’ll find stacks of books and board games that range from the classic (Jenga) to the obscure (Cluedo, the British version of Clue). The signature drink is the sweet potato latte ($3.50), a brew of mashed sweet potato, simple syrup, and hot milk that tastes like a Thanksgiving side dish, particularly after a sprinkle of cinnamon. You’ll either dig it or dump it after first sip. I dig it, although I prefer to add the syrup myself. If that’s not your thing, try one of the marmalade teas ($3.50): blends of honey and hot water with your choice of ginger, yuzu, or jujube. Most of the pastries are made in-house like the excellent walnut-studded banana cake ($3.75) crowned with crunchy crumble topping.
You’ll forgive Café Hana for serving a few so-so desserts when you try the Earl Grey Chocolate Cake ($3.80). Earl Grey tinges this square of moist chocolate cake with a proportional layer of chocolate mousse that’s not too sweet and decadent enough to share. A second filling of what’s described as “orange crème brûlée” resembles tan paste but possesses a smooth texture and musky orange extract flavor. Enjoy it from one of the tables in the lobby just outside the café, next to the blue tiled fountain and waterfall.
Café Hana: Japan Center, West Mall, 1737 Post Street, #368, San Francisco, CA 94115 (map); (415) 567-9133
If you’re in the mood for a dessert crepe, Sophie’s is the best option in the mall. They serve Fiorello’s gelato, and it’s hard not to swoon for a scoop of intense green tea or gritty black sesame plopped into a cone made of a hot, crispy-edged crepe. Just be sure to take some time mulling your options before ordering. If you change your mind, you’ll have to go to the back of the line.
Sophie’s Crepes: Japan Center, 1581 Webster Street, #275, San Francisco, CA 94115 (map); (415) 929-7732
Located on the ground floor of the New People complex, this sunny café serves Blue Bottle Coffee, cinnamon toast made with Acme Bread, and Onigilly’s gourmet rice balls. But the baristas’ pride is the matcha latte ($3.75). They blend premium matcha powder with just enough organic sugar to remove the bitterness but not actually turn it sweet. Mixed with organic milk, the result is a filling, frothy concoction with faint matcha flavor.
Super Mira Market
This is the smaller of the two Japantown supermarkets and the only one you should go to for a hot lunch. Head to the back to find a little kitchen and menu of made-to-order bentos, curries, and udon. Try the Oyako Don ($7.95), a bowl of rice generously apportioned with organic dark meat Mary’s chicken, sautéed onions, top layer of softly cooked scrambled egg, and a flutter of chopped nori. No time to wait? Try one of the onigiri ($1.95), a pyramid of sticky rice amply stuffed with wild salmon or puckery salted plum.
This specialty food gift shop sells beautifully packaged confections and snacks imported from Japan. Though boxes of mochi in non-traditional flavors like chocolate, banana, and white chocolate dominate the inventory, they smack of artificiality. I go for the less flashy treats like soft and chewy spears of dried Japanese yam ($7.25), buttery brandy-laced Castella sponge cake ($8), and crispy cinnamon poppy seed rice cookies called Yatsuhashi ($4.95).