In the dark, walking on the sidewalk towards the restaurant, it can be easy to miss Halu's door, if not for the small bench outside, groups of folks milling about, the shoji screens covering up part of the windows, and the numerous items plastered on the door and windows - most are old concert flyers and menu pages, advertising the bill of fare; others are clearly warning notices - unless you're truly, awfully oblivious - you'd see that Halu definitely does not serve any sushi in any form, nohow, nowhere. "No Sushi Today (or Tomorrow)," the signs proclaim; and "Sushi Free Zone" just for good measure.
Halu's popularity a good sign that the lack of sushi is clearly not a problem.
Once you step inside, the owners' love for all things Beatles is clear - from the music playing (and thankfully not blaring) to the numerous posters, tsotchkes and other paraphenelia adorning the teeny space. On a weekend night, a table might take a bit of a wait, especially if you're in a group of 3 or more. This is not a spot to bring a large group, though there might be a set of tables in the far corner that might accomodate 5 or 6. Counter seats can be readily available, but unlike a traditional izakaya counter, which affords a generally unobstructed peek at the grill and the chefs in action, there's a high divider in front of you with their booze selection on top of that. On occasion, Mimi Komiyama, then other half of Halu, will somehow find some room between all that stuff and hand you a plate or two of your skewers.
We almost always order the Gomae: blanched spinach with a dashi and sesame sauce. Their treatment is the best we've encountered, with just enough moisture removed from the spinach and mixed well with the sauce, it's nutty and satisying.
On occasion we'll feel compelled to try something different - the onion salad seemed intriguing, and though I feared that the onion might be too strong, I had worried needlessly. Topped with some dried bonito and accompanied with some a light dashi and soy dressing, the salad was crunchy and slightly piquant with oniony sweetness.
But the stars of Halu, in my humble opinion, are truly the yakitori - delicious skewered bits of chicken and other meats. Make sure to check out their specials board, from which we place most of our selections. We love their offal offerings, and we'll always order heart (hatsu, ハツ), gizzard (zuri, ずり), liver (reba, レバー), either on its own or in a kushikatsu. As a kushikatsu, the liver is crisply, perfectly coated and fried in panko on the outside; on the inside it's rosy and tender. DD and I are now convinced that chicken liver is best rare to medium-rare and that we should take a cue from the Japanese; most of the chicken liver in this country is badly overcooked. The platter above was a mix of gizzard, beef and shiso, heart, torinegi (chicken thigh with green onion, とりねぎ), and tsukune (chicken meatballs, つくね). If they offered bonjiri (chicken butt/ tail, ぼんじり), we would have ordered that as well.
Another of our favourites is pork jowl - tontoro (center skewers above) - fatty and succulent, and simply sprinkled with salt. Its texture and outer layer-crunch is irresistable. And we also love the torikawa, (chicken skin, とり)かわ). Prices are around $3-$5/pair of skewers, which is quite reasonable, imho.
The other night, we ordered an Agadashi Tofu - silken tofu bites lightly coated with a layer of rice flour, and fried. It was missing bonito flakes, we thought, but still delicate and delicious with its umami sauce and topping of ginger and green onion.
And then there's the ramen. Single Guy Chef was not too taken with their Cha-su bowl, and indeed, when we first visited about a year and a half ago, we agreed that the Chicken Karaage was much better. Overall, it's not my favourite (I'm a Hakata-style, milky pork broth kind of gal), but I definitely feel that it's still a great bowl of warm, hearty soup. I'm not one to require that the fried chicken pieces stay crispy - they're floating in ramen, so by the time I get to them they've absorbed some of that crazy flavourful chicken broth and are juicy and tender, no longer crisp. I like their noodles too, just kata enough and not too chewy, with some curly bounce and spring.
Halu's a favourite, and so is their counter. One is like to sidle up with food industry folk, or Gaijin ex-pats longing for a taste of Japan. With some beer or shoju, the tale-spinning begins and the yakitori skewers pile up neatly.
312 8th Ave
San Francisco, CA 94118