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Is Yu-Raku a Japanese or Chinese Restaurant? Yes.

Why are Japanese expats flooding into a Chinese comfort-food restaurant in San Mateo?

The mapo tofu is one of the uniquely Japanese adaptations of Chinese dishes on the menu at Yu-Raku.


Mapo tofu, prepared the traditional Sichuan way, is a beautiful thing: a sweat-inducing combination of silky tofu and ground meat, all slicked with fiery-red chili oil. The version at Yu-Raku, a cozy Japanese-Chinese restaurant in San Mateo, is thicker, saltier, and several notches less spicy. Absent altogether are the tongue-numbing Sichuan peppercorns that are the traditional dish’s defining ingredient. And yet the mapo tofu at Yu-Raku is so addictive in its meaty savoriness, and so comforting to those who grew up eating it, that Japanese expats flock there by the dozens each week for this quintessential taste of home.

In Japan, restaurants that serve Japanese-Chinese dishes such as champon (a cross between ramen and a stir-fry) and the “mabo dofu” described above are commonplace, and boxed versions of the latter are a popular convenience food. But here in the Bay Area, Yu-Raku might be the only place dedicated entirely to Chinese food adapted to Japanese tastes, known in Japan as chuka ryori. So, despite San Mateo’s wealth of traditional ramen and sushi restaurants, it is here, at this nominally Chinese restaurant run by the family of chef Sakae Yuizumi, that many Japanese diners find the most nostalgic taste of their mother country.

Everything about the restaurant, from its name (which translates to “a fun and joyful place”) to its mom-and-pop orientation (Sakae and his wife, Yoko, do the cooking while their three adult daughters—Rika, Risa, and Rina—wait tables) to the fire-engine-red diner counter and the easy jazz tinkling in the background, suggests the type of amiable spot you might stumble upon in some back alleyway in Tokyo. It’s the kind of joint where you can imagine the prototypical Japanese salaryman or -woman settling in for a simple meal, and too many cups of sake, at the end of a long workday.

Even if you’re well versed in traditional Chinese and Japanese cooking styles in all of their regional diversity, you may have a hard time pinning down the food at Yu-Raku. Besides that mapo tofu ($14.50), a meal could include a salad of shredded chicken known as ban ban jii ($10.50), which comes with a deliciously garlicky sesame sauce that’s reminiscent of the kind of thing my Chinese-Taiwanese mother would serve over cold noodles. It could also feature ebi chili shrimp ($17.50), a saucy, spicy-sweet combination that bears a loose resemblance to a dish you might find in Shanghai. Many of the sauces are glossy and thickened with cornstarch, a Japanese embellishment that gives the dishes a homey quality especially conducive to large helpings of white rice.

Most of the recipes are adaptations of things that Yuizumi and his father cooked at the Chuka Ryori restaurant they opened in Japan in 1981 after their family moved back to their native land from Shanghai, where he grew up, and about two decades before they immigrated to California. (He opened Yu-Raku in 2010.) Other dishes are more improvisational in nature: The restaurant’s signature Yu-Raku Ramen ($15) came out of the chef’s desire to create a spicy ramen dish that would make the person eating it feel strong and energetic. The soup is thicker than your usual ramen broth, almost gravy-like, and comes topped with Chinese chives and thin slices of well-seasoned pork belly. It’s a combination that fills you with a feeling of warmth. Like so many of the dishes at Yu-Raku, the ramen isn’t quite Chinese or Japanese, but wholly its own thing. All you know is you want to eat it again as soon as possible.
104 S. El Camino Real (at Crystal Springs Rd.), 650-558-8239


Originally published in the July issue of San Francisco 

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