Close to one million Asians will visit San Francisco this year, according to tourism statistics provided by San Francisco Travel (http://www.sanfrancisco.travel), the city's destination marketing branch.
These days those Asian visitors leave more than their hearts in the City by the Bay. They also leave a little bit (or is it a little bite?) of their palate at a number of restaurants serving up innovative spins on traditional Asian dishes. Many of the eateries are concentrated in the city's Mission District, a once seedy neighborhood that was the stronghold of the city's large Latino community, now slowly but surely being overtaken by trendy shops and all variety of ethnic dining options. Many also tout their California inspirations: namely fresh, organic, local, seasonal and sustainable produce.
Here are snapshot appetizers from the best of the best, IMHO, featuring the cuisine of India, Japan, Thailand, Vietnam and Korea.
Dosa, named after the crepe-like South India specialty made from rice and lentils and stuffed with all kinds of goodies is the brainchild of Anjan and Emily Mitra (he from Bombay, she an upstate New Yorker). Their Valencia Street restaurant, the city's first South Indian restaurant when it opened in 2005, is small but energetic.
Three years later they opened a second Dosa, on Fillmore Street in the Upper Pacific Heights neighborhood, which is bigger and bouncier, designed in a more grandiose manner Indians will immediately recognize. "From the start," says Anjan, "we wanted customers to experience a variety of authentic dishes they could only experience in people's homes or from street vendors in the southern states of India."
That usually means hotter and earthier but those spices do not overpower modern adaptations on such familiar dishes as kale dosa, masala-spiced potatoes with kale chutney, poppy seed prawns or chicken and eggplant bharta.
There are also choices of uttapam, slightly thicker crepes than dosa.
Those who enjoy spirits with their spices will appreciate the locally distilled gin, the drink of choice in South India, in cocktails featuring Spice Route pinches of cardamom, cinnamon and coconut milk. Perfect to wash down those hotter spices.
http://dosasf.com; 995 Valencia St., 415.642.3672; 1700 Fillmore St., 415.441.3672.
The word literally means "sitting in a sake shop" in Japanese. Tucked into a small establishment on Mission Street, Nombe is all that -- and more.
To start, you have to love how they've turned multicolored sake bottles into wall art. General manage Gil Payne, a sake sommelier, will guide you through sipping from among 90 brands, paired with the main attraction: tastes from its extensive izakaya menu, Japan's version of small plates, a la Spanish tapas.
The standards are here: yakimono (grilled skewers of various ingredients), tsukemono (Japanese pickles), agedashi-dofu (fried tofu with tempura dipping sauce) and that global superstar: steamed edamame. But you can also delve into some delectable hybrids.
Also available is this reviewer's favorite, kaiseki, derived from ancient Zen temple rituals. You can pay a ton of yen in Kyoto for the authentic multi-course meal consisting of small bites of various fishes and vegetables, each served on exquisite ceramic ware. Here a 7-course kaiseki costs $39.95.
If you speak ramen, Nombe speaks your language: tonkotsu with pork belly, mushrooms, ginger, scallions and bean sprouts; tantan-men, with spicy ground pork, bokchoy, scallions and bean sprouts; and a simple vegetable ramen with cabbage, mizua and scallions.
http://www.nombesf.com; 2491 Mission St.; 415.681.7150.
Vietnamese: SLANTED DOOR
Chef Charles Phan has created a small empire of Asian eateries throughout the Bay Area, with the original Slanted Door opening in 1995 on Valencia Street. He also now masterminds the Out the Door chain (three locations) specializing in Vietnamese street food; Wo Hing in the Mission serving innovative Chinese food (http://wohinggeneralstore.com; 584 Valencia St., 415.552.2510); and his Slanted Door offering cutting edge Vietnamese at the Ferry Building in the city's Embarcadero area. But his culinary vision has remained the same: to blend traditional cooking techniques with locally sourced ingredients.
The new Slanted Door is set in a cavernously large space, with the city's bright and beautiful downtown workers mixing with business and leisure travelers, making it a fascinating social cross-section of San Franciscans.
As for the food, it's also a mix of East and West. You'll find your basics of Vietnamese, like soft spring rolls, but then Chef Phan will throw together a jasmine tea pork belly with fuji apples, green mango, arugula and smoked salt that evokes several continents.
The organic chicken claypot with caramel sauce has the intensity and subtlety for which Vietnam's cuisine is known. A banana leaf-wrapped braised branzino puts the latest fish du jour in a class (and a country) by itself.
http://www.slanteddoor.com; 1 Ferry Building #3, 415.861.8032.
Thai: LERS ROS
In a city where every block seems to have a Thai restaurant, finding one that's authentic to the country's style of cooking is not so easy. But these days Lers Ros (ancient Sanskrit words meaning "excellent taste of the food") is "getting all the love," as one foodie PR exec put it. Chef/owner Tom Silargorn, a shy but friendly man, designs dishes that aren't scaled back heat-wise nor are they over-sweetened for the American palate.
The first location is an unassuming storefront in the city's Tenderloin District several blocks from Union Square. The newer venue, in the City Hall Civic Center area, is flashier, with a sleek modern ambience of shiny metal table and matching seats.
He presents the classics in their original style, such as chicken satay, pad Thai and fish cake (tod mun pla). Or you can chose from the house specials: grilled sliced pork shoulder, fried garlic quail, whole trout with mango sauce, duck larb or stir fried eggplant with tofu or alligator with young peppercorn, still hanging on their stem.
http://www.lersros.com; 730 Larkin St., 415.931.6917 or 415.440.5690; 307 Hayes St.; 415.415.874.9661 or 415.525.3256.
Korean: NAMU GAJI
A humble storefront opens up into a rustic and simply designed space inspired by the elements. The name itself makes the same statement: it means tree branch in Korean, in honor of the cypress tree salvaged from Golden Gate Park that now serves as the bar top.
The Lees, three Korean American brothers, founded Namu Gaji to showcase what so far is the least popular of Asian foods in the U.S.
"We focus on humble but innovative traditional Korean cuisine," says chef Dennis Lee. He works with an intense focus and an almost visible respect for the ingredients and even the knives he uses.
The menu takes from a variety of traditions, in fact, as seen in the raw oysters with yuzu ponzu, wasabi (both Japanese) and chojang (Korean sweet and sour sauce); or the medley of mushrooms that derive from Japan, China and Korea. Under the "comfort" category on the menu, ramyun is another example: handmade noodles, bits of hot dog, panko crusted egg, housemade kimchee and mung beans.
With Chef Lee & Brothers at the forefront, Korean cuisine will soon be moving up the ranks stateside.
http://www.namusf.com; 499 Dolores St.; 415.431.6268.
Perry Garfinkel, a New York Times contributor since 1986 and Huffington Post blogger since 2007, is the author of "Buddha or Bust: In Search of Truth, Meaning, Happiness and the Man Who Found Them All" http://www.PerryGarfinkel.com