The certification program of Japanese Food and Ingredient Supporter Stores Overseas

Interview of Supporter Stores PABU

"Real" Japanese restaurant well-loved by local gourmet crowds.

San Francisco / USA

Pabu Izakaya & The Ramen Bar

Pabu Izakaya opened in July, 2014, as part of the Michael Mina restaurant group’s efforts to open a luxury Japanese restaurant in San Francisco. Its location in San Francisco’s Financial District makes it a prime location for business people to enjoy lunch, dinner or drinks after work. The restaurant was so popular, it got media coverage before it even opened. Pabu Izakaya is considered one of the hardest-to-get reservations at Bay Area restaurants.

Ninety percent of Pabu’s diners hail from the San Francisco Bay area. The restaurant is also a haven for Asian tourists and business people who want a taste of home cooking. According to Managing Chef and partner, Ken Tominaga, “the bar is very popular with the area’s financial professionals, most of whom work on New York time, so we’re open from 3 p.m. (6 p.m. in New York). In addition to wines and cocktails, we have a wide selection of sake, shochu, and Japanese whiskey.”

The location also features a casual noodle shop called The Ramen Bar, which is always crowded with local ramen lovers. Like Pabu, The Ramen Bar is a collaborative effort between chefs Ken Tominaga and Michael Mina.

Chef Tominaga also runs Hana, a Japanese restaurant in Rohnert Park in Sonoma County. Hana, for almost 30 years, has been considered one of the best “real” Japanese restaurant in Wine Country, well-loved by local gourmet crowds.

Reasons to stick to Japanese ingredients

San Francisco is not Pabu’s first location. “We first opened Pabu in Baltimore, near Washington, DC,” Tominaga said. “At that time, we served “fusion” cuisine. I quickly realized you didn’t need a Japanese chef to cook “fusion” cuisine. I wanted to do a cuisine which only I, a Japanese chef, could do.” The Baltimore restaurant was closed quickly. Tominaga decided to move the restaurant to San Francisco, one of the centers of the American food scene.

“In San Francisco, I didn’t want to just serve Japanese food to Japanese people,” he said. “I wanted to serve Japanese food to Americans. A lot of our customers are international travelers who have dined at top restaurants around the world, so they know what “real” Japanese food tastes like. They compare our food with Michelin 3-star restaurants in France, or some of Hong Kong’s long-standing restaurants. They wouldn’t be satisfied with ordinary food. It has to be authentic and really delicious.”

“I want to use Japanese ingredients as much as possible,” he said. "We have seafood flown in daily from Japan. The same fish tastes different if it’s from another location.” The same logic applies to his use of Japanese Wagyu beef and seasonings. "”The price difference is tiny when you see the difference in the finished dishes. I don’t want to compromise,” he said.

Since the emphasis is on freshness and quality, Tominaga doesn’t hesitate to use local ingredients as well as ingredients from other countries, as long as the quality is high. “The freshness and taste of local vegetables is excellent. For example, the Nameko mushrooms I find here are better than what I find in Japan,” he said.

The main thing about using authentic Japanese ingredients is that Pabu’s customers see and taste the restaurant’s commitment to quality. “Many of our customers come here from around the country and the world,” he said. “Our chefs will offer a sample of something that perhaps the customer didn’t order, just to get him or her to try it. If people realize that there are interesting things to eat here, they will spread the word.”

“Our sashimi and sushi are very popular,” he said. “We also have Japanese Miyazaki beef that comes to us with an A5 rating, which is Japan’s highest standard of quality.” On the other hand, Tominaga said, "Some customers prefer American beef, so we offer that as well, so our customers can compare if they like."

The importance of educating customers

In order to get customers to try new foods it’s important to explain the story behind the ingredients — especially to non-Japanese diners. A new menu item, Grilled Dried Kinki Fish, virtually unknown to Western diners, is becoming popular at Pabu. “What we need to explain to our customers is that drying the fish deepens its flavor,” he said. “We produce our dried fish one-by-one in our kitchen.”

Tominaga said that most of his customers get interested in trying new dishes, but being adventurous can have its downside. “Not all of them enjoy a new dish we suggest,” he said. “If they don’t like it, then I don’t charge them.”

With a menu as extensive as Pabu’s, staff training is crucial. “Our staff knows how to explain what’s on the menu, how it tastes, and how to ask what the diner likes,” he said. “That’s how we can teach our customers about the different flavors on the menu, and get them to try different things. I bet our staff knows more than ordinary “Japanese food pros” out there.”

The Importance of Japanese Beer, Saké, Shochu, and Whisky

The pub also has a very carefully selected menu of Japanese sake, shochu, beer and whisky. “At least once a year,” Tominaga said, “I go to sake breweries in Japan. We source sake from all over Japan for our cellar, and then we help people pair that sake with the food they order.”

What he also tries to do is show people how sake goes with other foods besides Japanese. “I sometimes bring sake to my friends’ restaurants and drink it with them with their dishes.” Tominaga said that aged sakes goes well with many different dishes. “Many people (especially in Japan) believe that sake doesn’t age — but it does, if it’s properly cellared. It may be more accepted here, where people are used to aged wine.”

Constantly searching for more delicious Japanese food items

At this moment, he is satisfied with what he’s using. “I always feel there should be better items out there,” he said. “Since most of the Japanese food items are sold by larger trading companies and distributors, there should be some undiscovered unique and delicious items still there. I always ask people if they know something interesting.”

He tries to get and use the items he tries and likes. There are, however, certain items he can’t use due to regulations. “Meat, other than beef, and shellfish other than scallops, for example, can’t be exported from Japan,” he said. “I hope the Japanese government will find a solution soon.”

Pabu Izakaya/ The Ramen Bar
101 California St. San Francisco, CA 94132
+1 415 668 7228 site: a new window will open.