Date: October 3, 2007
Times Visited: 1
Cha Ya Vegetarian Japanese Restaurant offered the most gush-worthy meal I had in San Francisco. Granted, I didn’t have the opportunity to dine at the acclaimed Millenium, but Cha Ya wooed me. My party of three dined on four courses of soup, salad, sushi and a side as well as sake. It was the type of experience that deserves more of an ode, and less of a critique. I’ll get the negative assessment out the way first: service was disjointed, servers didn’t always appear to know where to bring dishes and we lingered for the bill. The restaurant is also cash only, though an ATM (with fee, of course) is available inside.
While my experience in vegan Japanese food is generally limited to sushi and tempura, I found the menu absorbing and full of such possibilities. Our table ordered the signature Cha-Ya rolls, Kinoki Noodles, Hangestu and Shira Ae. The stand outs were the Cha-Ya rolls and the Hangestu – both featured deep-fried tempura insanity, I mean, awesomeness. I was hesitant to order sushi since there was was so much more to offer, but I’m practically thrilled I went with it. The rolls are basically sushi filled with avocado, yam and carrots, lightly battered and deep fried, and then sliced. Take the second half of the sentence quite literally, because although fried, these did not taste heavy at all. One could still spot, and enjoy, the vivid, enticing filling. Oh, and then there’s the citrusy house glaze that almost wanted to lick. What an absolutely perfect combination of lightly fried roll/filling/glaze. I think my eyes just rolled back into my head thinking about it.
The other battered star, the Hangestu, was a portabella mushroom on top of a thin layer of tofu, cut into triangles. This was also lightly battered and deep fried. This was a tad greasy in comparison to the rolls; but split between three people who also shared salad and soup, there was balance. I remember my dining companion’s eyes lighting up when she ordered it. The name might not fly, but this dish could be the vegan ‘munchies’ options at every stupid chain with their mozzarella sticks and wings. I took my first bite and already started making a checklist of friends in my head I intended to gush to. Oh, and top that, it came with a tasty edamame kiwi sauce – green, flecked with black and somehow working with the mushroom.
We ordered the noodle dish, Kinoko – with buckwheat soba noodles and mushrooms immersed in a savory broth. If I lived in town, I could see this becoming the soup I just had to have when sick. While I stand by this, it didn’t have a chance at being my favorite next to the previous two dishes. Next up with the Shira Ae salad, consisting of blanched spinach, lotus root, carrots, shiitake mushrooms, green beans, tofu pouch, yam cake and a tahini tofu dressing. Maybe it was because it was the last thing to the table, maybe it’s because the vegetables were slightly cooked and served cold, perhaps it was twang in the dressing – but it just wasn’t something I would try again. I appreciated the fact that it wasn’t fried, but it just wasn’t for me. The salty and chewy touch pouch sticks out favorably, but I could have left the rest.
Price-wise, nothing made me cringe, although my first night of sake did give me a headache afterwards. In recent memory, I don’t think I’ve ever had an entire meal ordered for me, particularly in a cuisine I was inexperienced with – and yet still enjoyed it across the board. It would be rad to see something like this in Portland, but for now I’ll keep it on the must-go list for my next visit.
Shira Ae (Vegetables with Tofu Dressing)
Kinoko ( Mushrooms) Soba Noodles
Cha Ya Rolls
Hangetsu ( Portobello Mushroom)
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Address: 762 Valencia St – Btwn 18th & 19th St
San Francisco, CA 94110
Mon-Thu, Sun 5:30 p.m.-9:30 p.m.
Wed-Sun 12:00 p.m.-2:30 p.m.
Fri-Sat 5:30 p.m.-10:00 p.m.