At the risk of sounding like an out-of-touch oldster, harumphing about the greasy Chinese takeout and heartburn-inducing Buffalo wings that I had to endure in college, let me just say this: Food-loving UC Berkeley students, with their easy access to West African skewers and grass-fed-beef sliders, probably don't realize how good they have it.
The latest case in point is Muracci's, a tiny restaurant on Telegraph Avenue that specializes in home-style Japanese curry rice, a beloved dish that for years has flown under the collective radars of American diners, for whom "Japanese food" is synonymous with sushi.
A quick primer: Japan's take on curry, which dates back to the latter half of the nineteenth century, when British sailors first introduced a version of the dish to the island nation, tends to be less fiery, less cumin-heavy, and slightly sweeter than its Indian cousins. For many in Japan, it's the ultimate "everyday" food — the dish everyone remembers their mom making for them when they were a kid.
So, when Tamiko and Yasuyuki Murata moved to San Francisco after losing their catering business in Kobe, Japan to the 1995 earthquake, opening a curry shop felt like a natural fit. In 2006, they opened their first restaurant in San Francisco's Financial District and called it "Muracci's," after the childhood nickname of their son — who was, of course, a lover of his mother's curry.
The curry at both the original Muracci's and the new Berkeley shop is as good as any I've eaten in the Bay Area. Served piping hot, it's the perfect thing to ladle over white rice. The key, as with so many comfort foods, is a combination of wholesome ingredients and plenty of time.
These days, few Japanese home cooks make their curry from scratch, and even restaurants tend to use blocks of pre-packaged curry roux (available at any Asian grocery store) for their sauce base. Tamiko Murata, on the other hand, explained that her labor-intensive curry sauce takes two days to make, and involves assorted herbs and spices, a multitude of vegetables, and a meat stock made with beef flap, chicken thighs, and pork fat. Most of the fat gets skimmed off after the curry rests overnight, at which point the flavors have mingled together deliciously. (For vegetarians, the restaurant offers a purely vegetable-based curry that omits the meat stock.)
The resulting curry sauce is thick, smooth, and velvety. But the main difference lies in the layers of flavor in every bite: a tangy sweetness (thanks to the inclusion of apples and tomatoes) balanced by a meaty, savory quality. Ichimi togarashi (Japanese red chili powder) is added to the diner's preference, and if you have even a modest heat tolerance, I recommend at least the "medium" spice level. That extra layer of heat is, to me, what gives the curry its addictive quality — and, in any case, even the spiciest level will barely register as hot for diners accustomed to hardcore Thai and Indian curries.
As is traditional, each curry plate at Muracci's comes with a heaping mound of white rice (or brown, if you prefer), a pile of crunchy pickled cabbage, bright-red fukujinzuke (sweet pickled daikon radish slices — an essential component), and your choice of protein. For an extra charge, you can add vegetables, extra meat, a sunny-side-up egg, and other toppings.
The katsu curry — featuring thick, tender slices of batter-fried pork loin — is probably the signature dish, but don't underestimate the ebi fry curry, which comes with giant, ramrod-straight fried shrimp, which I used to scoop up the curry as though it were a dipping sauce. A plain omelet becomes unaccountably delicious when mixed with curry. You can even eat your curry as part of a bowl of udon or ramen noodle "soup" (a slightly thinned-out curry sauce, really).
Muracci's also serves a variety of salads, donburi (rice bowls), and teriyaki-based set meals. But when you stray from the curry, the menu items get a bit uneven. The chicken gyoza (fried dumplings) and karaage (fried chicken) were solid renditions, and I liked the creamy, mashed-up, Japanese-style potato salad, which was flecked with chunks of pickled cucumber. But while the cold tofu cubes and Thousand Island-esque dressing in the tofu salad were refreshing, given its $7.50 price tag, I wished that salad wasn't 90 percent composed of iceberg lettuce.
Likewise, the Japanese hamburger meal set had its virtues — namely, the beef patty, which had been grilled and then baked, and whose onion-y flavor and coarse texture reminded me of a cross between Middle Eastern kefta and American meatloaf. But the meal set also came with too much of that iceberg lettuce, and the meat itself wasn't quite as flavorful as I would have liked. Quite frankly, I kept wishing I had some curry to dip it in.
The moral of the story? Stick with the curry. And even if you order a non-curry dish, get some curry anyway: You can get a side order for $2.25. (The only rule is that you can't order a container of just the curry to go, which is a good rule; otherwise, I'd stock my fridge with the stuff, and my visits to the restaurant would be a lot more infrequent.)
We're lucky to live in the Bay Area, where single-dish specialists can thrive against the broader backdrop of generic all-purpose Japanese restaurants. In that sense, a meal at Muracci's feels a little like a brief trip to Asia — and not only because I didn't see a single non-Asian at the restaurant over the course of two meals (not counting the manager, a white woman who speaks fluent Japanese).
What I love about Muracci's is the glimpse it offers into the "fast food" culture of Asia, where, instead of burger joints and pizzerias, there are rice bowl joints, dumpling houses, and curry shops on every street corner — where the food has a homey, slow-cooked quality, even if it's inexpensive, and gets delivered to your table in a matter of minutes.