Intriguing Asian hotspots Muguboka, Ramen Shop, and Roku arouse the senses
APPETITE Authentic Asian cuisine of every category is one of California and the Bay Area's strengths, with constant new openings, including Richmond's mellow Daigo Sushi (www.daigosushi.com ) and Szechuan outpost Chili House (www.chilihousesf.com ). These three spots stand out for one (or a few) reasons.
Passing Muguboka many a time over the years, I meant to visit but never did until recently. What I found: a humble, all-day respite serving an impressive array of free and abundant banchan (mini-dishes accompanying a Korean meal), like myeolchi bokkeum (crispy mini-anchovies), and bottomless tea — making even upper teens-priced entrees a deal. Dining alone, I attempted to finish the banchan... and fail.
There's a plentiful selection of soups and stews featuring tofu or Korean sausage, and dishes like go dung uh gui (broiled salted mackerel), or hae-mool pajeon, those ever-fabulous seafood and green onion Korean pancakes. I finished with a complimentary, cool pour of sujeonggwa, a sweet Korean punch alive with cinnamon, ginger, peppercorns, and dried persimmon.
Best dish: Muguboka serves a mean hae-mool (seafood) dolsot (stone pot) bibimbop ($16.95), the scorching stone pot arrives with sizzling rice, egg, squid, shrimp, mussels, and veggies, with nori on top. Best suited for: A mellow setting with copious amounts of Korean food. Expect two meals for the price of one.
401 Balboa, (415) 668-6007
Here's my early word on Rockridge hotspot Ramen Shop, opened at the beginning of the year and packed since day one with long waits (no reservations). A short, ever-changing menu offers three types of ramen, one dessert, and a handful of appetizers so it's possible to try the entire menu in one visit.
Chez Panisse alums Sam White, Jerry Jaksich and Rayneil De Guzman already have a hit on their hands, if crowds are any indication. Although early online comments have been trending towards the "frustrated to spend $16 on a bowl of ramen" kind, this is quality ramen — house-made noodles, salt-cured eggs, ultra-fresh ingredients. Meyer lemon infuses shoyu ramen ($15) with bright dimension, while spit-roasted chashu (literally pork roast, often known as char siu) adds heft to particularly flavorful spicy miso ramen ($15).
But my favorites aren't of the ramen variety. Meyer lemon shows up again in a unique kimchi of house-pickled Napa cabbage ($5) to winning effect, a spirited contrast to chili. Then, wild nettle fried rice steals the show (see "best dish" below). Another surprising winner? Liquor. It's a rarity to see cocktails with ramen. Straightforward, refreshing mezcal, and rye-based punches ($10) make fine ramen companions, as does a classic hi-ball ($12) of Hibiki 12-year Japanese whiskey with soda. A nutty-tasting black sesame ice cream sandwich ($5) with brown sugar cookies is the right finish.
Best dish: Easy... wild nettle fried rice ($9) interlaced with Monterey Bay squid and Llano Seco pork is as comforting as it is gourmet. Best suited for: The joyous convergence of ramen and Japanese whiskey -- and for those with time on their hands.
5812 College Ave., Oakl. (510) 788-6370, www.ramenshop.com 
Since JapaCurry's Jay Hamada opened Roku in October at the busy Market and Octavia intersection, it's been imilarly bustling inside. Groups of friends down Japanese beer and fried chicken in the form of karaage ($7) or chicken nan ban ($8), the latter a specialty of Kyushu, Hamada's Southern Japanese hometown island. Unframed vintage Japanese posters hanging on wood walls impart a warm atmosphere, as do hearty house-made noodles and dishes like mochi bacon yakitori.
During opening weeks, I went straight for dishes I've never tried, including shio-kara ($4): room temperature, fermented squid swimming in its own innards. Salty and gummy, it is, as the menu states,"an acquired taste." Likewise, hotate butter ($12) topped with vivid orange tobiko (fish roe) is unexpected. Scallops are sautéed in butter, but unlike most of our Westernized experiences with the succulent bivalve, the stomach and membrane skirt are left around the scallop flesh. Call it umami, call it funky, the taste is more accurately both. Look elsewhere for better well-known izakaya favorites — Roku's rare dishes with bold flavor make it interesting.
Best dish: a surprisingly good seafood salad ($13) in an izakaya, laden with red king crab and smoked salmon, tobiko, boiled eggs, yellow bell pepper, and tomatoes over romaine, bright in a yuzu wasabi dressing. Best suited for: The hardcore who want authentic dishes they won't find on typical menus. Also for groups of friends.
1819 Market, SF. (415) 861-6500, www.rokusf.com 
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