San francisco restaurants

New San Francisco restaurants are getting Instagram famous – NBC Bay Area

What there is to know

  • Ichi Sando in Japantown serves tamago sandwiches, made with thin layers of sweetened cooked eggs
  • Gram Café in Stonestown Galleria serves fluffy puffed pancakes, invented in Osaka, Japan
  • Food bloggers have flocked to both restaurants and say the taste lives up to the hype

At 11:30 a.m., a crowd began to form near a small sandwich shop in San Francisco’s Japan Center, even though the sign clearly states it won’t open until noon.

“We just got in from SFO,” one man said. “This is our first stop.”

From all the way to Dallas, he and his wife had heard of Ichi Sando and planned to have lunch there on their way to a wedding.

“I saw it on Instagram,” his wife said.

At a time when foodies and food bloggers are rushing to post pictures of the hottest new restaurants, Ichi Sando has a decisive advantage: his food is deliciously pleasing to the eye. Brightly colored squares and rectangles, perfectly cut from thin layers of sweet egg omelet and Japanese milk bread, the shop’s signature tamago sandwich isn’t just flavorful and filling, it’s aesthetic perfection.

“We wanted to do something a little fun, something delicious,” said chef Eujin Kim-Wright, whose previous ventures have all been in the food business.

Of the sudden fame her sandwiches gained on Instagram, she said, “I actually didn’t really expect it!”

Kim-Wright starts making lunch at 7:30 or 8:00 a.m. in the kitchen of her business partner’s other restaurant a block away. In large square copper pans, a thin layer of egg is poured in and cooked just enough to fold over, then another layer is added, then another, until the pan is filled to the top – seven or eight layers in all. It takes 15 minutes of precise and careful work to make one casserole of tamago – enough for just two sandwiches.

“If I rush and try to do more, the quality goes down, and that’s the last thing I want to do to my clients,” Kim-Wright said.

Jonathan Bloom/NBC Bay Area

Tamago, Japan’s thin-layered sweet egg omelet, should be prepared slowly. Each layer should cook thoroughly, with no air bubbles, before being flipped over and the next layer added underneath.

Although she cooks 5-6 hours a day, the sandwiches can easily sell out in an hour, which might explain the queue outside. Kim-Wright applied for a cooking permit to make more tamago on-site at the small sandwich shop and to offer other traditional Japanese delicacies like pork and wagyu katsu sandos.

Ichi Sando may be Japan’s latest Insta-food craze, but it’s not the first this year. Two months earlier, Gram Café burst onto the Stonestown Galleria scene, offering its fluffy crepe souffles to just 30 customers at a time, lined up in numbered chairs outside the restaurant.

“Once you try a bite you will feel like wow!” promised Dorothy Wong, the owner of the cafe.

Wong said she first tried the pancakes at the original Gram Café in Osaka, Japan. A trained pastry chef, Wong bought the American franchise rights to bring special pancakes across the Pacific, made and served under the same strict rules set by the Japanese chain.

“The time has to be really precise, no more than a second or two (off),” she explained. “It’s all air. That’s why it’s so fluffy and choppy, it’s all about the air.”

A cross between American pancakes and a French soufflé, Gram’s creation begins life under a Kitchen-Aid stand mixer, where the batter is whipped for 24 hours. The cakes are steamed under individual lids, on a special hot plate with a layer of water below to eliminate hot spots.

Jonathan Bloom/NBC Bay Area

They’re part puff, part pancake, and utterly precarious as they’re transported to your table, swaying and bouncing along the way. While you may be tempted to take tons of photos, make no mistake: Gram Café’s premium pancakes are meant to be eaten immediately, before they spill.

Each batch takes half an hour to prepare, but to experience the fluffiness of the pancakes, Wong says, customers need to start eating within 5 to 10 seconds once they hit the table. That’s a problem, given that most diners want to take countless photos of the precarious pancake tower, even as it swings, crumbles, and eventually falls.

“So our staff are helping, holding the butter and making sure it doesn’t fall off, so they can get a good shot, from a good angle,” Wong said.

After all, photos of perfect pancakes are the best marketing Gram Café could ask for. Wong said 60-70% of his customers say they first heard about the restaurant on Instagram.

“It’s all about social media these days,” she said.