One of SF’s Most Popular Ramen Shops Reopens After an Eight-Month Hiatus

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Overhead view of a bowl of Mensho Tokyo's tori paitan ramen, topped with chashu
Mensho Tokyo's creamy, rich tori paitan ramen is its signature dish (Abram Plaut)

Back in the before times, prior to the pandemic, Mensho Tokyo was best known for having some of the longest lines in San Francisco, and for good reason: It was a legit ramen shop from a legit ramen master, Tomoharu Shono, who’d already made a name for himself in Tokyo. Its signature dish was probably the richest—and, arguably, the most delicious—tori paitan style ramen in the Bay Area, featuring a creamy-white, chicken-based broth so thick with fat and collagen that it almost drank more like a gravy than a soup. 

For the past eight months, however, Mensho Tokyo has been fully closed, with its windows boarded up. Until this past weekend, that is, when the Tenderloin restaurant quietly reopened as a “secret temporary pop-up” called “Ura Mensho,” serving just 30 bowls of ramen a night to start out. For the time being, it’s seating dine-in customers only, Wednesday through Sunday from 5–9 p.m.

Shono, who flew in from Japan a few weeks ago to gear up for the reopening, doesn’t plan on stopping there. Within the next month, he’ll also open the first U.S. outpost of Menya Shono, his flagship ramen restaurant in Tokyo, in San Rafael—the company’s first North Bay offshoot. Then, as early as this summer, its long-awaited kiosk in the new Twitter building food hall at 1355 Market Street is expected to open.

Chef and co-owner Tomoharu Shono (right) talks to customers waiting in line to eat at Mensho Tokyo.
Chef and co-owner Tomoharu Shono (right) talks to customers lined up to eat at his newly reopened restaurant (Abram Plaut)

Co-owner Abram Plaut, a longtime Tokyo-based ramen critic (and Bay Area native) who partnered with Shono to open the SF outpost of Mensho Tokyo in 2016, says part of the reason they decided not to stay open through the pandemic was because the restaurant’s manager at the time had to return to Japan due to a family emergency. But the broader issue, Plaut says, is that ramen just isn’t a dish that’s very conducive to takeout. Yes, you can pack the soup separately from the toppings and noodles, but a proper bowl of ramen is such a precise orchestration of multiple components—the soup, tare (concentrated sauce), noodles, toppings, and fat—all of which need to be served at just the right temperature. “If you even let a bowl of ramen sit for 10 minutes, the noodles start to become soggy and soft; the fat starts to solidify and separate from the soup,” Plaut says. “It's like you lose that magic.”

As a result, during the brief one- or two-month period when Mensho did offer takeout ramen kits, they came with so many different components for customers to reheat that it was almost like they were cooking the meal themselves. But while Mensho Tokyo won’t do takeout in its initial batch of offerings, Plaut says Shono has spent the better part of the past year working on developing more takeout- and delivery-friendly ramen, which the restaurant will unveil in the coming weeks. In part, that means experimenting with different kinds of noodles that better retain their texture.

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“It would be easy to put the same ramen we serve at the store in paper containers and hand it over to customers, but we don't do that,” Shono said in an email, via a translator. “Our mission is to keep the quality high and spread genuine ramen, thus we are developing noodles that can maintain their deliciousness over longer periods of time.”

The different ingredients that go into Mensho Tokyo's vegan mazusoba (soupless ramen) arranged in the bowl before mixing.
The vegan mazesoba, or soupless ramen, features fried enoki mushroom "chashu."

“Ura,” in Japanese, refers to something that’s secret or on the “reverse side,” Plaut says, noting that the advantage of reopening with the new “Ura Mensho” brand name for now is that it gives the restaurant license to experiment with new dishes. In part, that’s meant the addition of a number of new vegan options, including a vegan tantanmen and a vegan mazesoba—or soupless ramen—that features a take on “chashu” that’s made with the thickly sliced base of a stalk of enoki mushrooms. Even the classic tori paitan ramen has been tweaked.

The reopening has not come without its share of challenges. Every day, Plaut says, DoorDash drivers have arrived during lunchtime to pick up orders from a now-nonexistent menu that only ran for a month near the start of the pandemic—even though Mensho Tokyo never asked to reactivate its DoorDash account, and despite the restaurant having otherwise been a dine-in and dinner-only restaurant for the entirety of its existence. 

Even accounting for the necessary social distancing measures, which will cap the restaurant’s indoor capacity at 15 diners, Plaut says the idea is to stay true to Mensho Tokyo’s original mission, which was to create a ramen experience that was as close as possible to what you’d find in Japan. In part, that means no preordering and no reservations—and yes, the long lines that come with that approach. 

The restaurant has also applied for permission to add outdoor seating, and while Plaut says they aren’t sure yet if they’ll go ahead with the plan, Shono has been tinkering with the idea of setting up an outside Japanese-style yatai, or street cart, to serve ramen the way it was traditionally served in its earliest days in Japan.

Meanwhile, Mensho Tokyo is gearing up for a significant Bay Area expansion. The opening of its long-awaited Twitter building location is dependent on when the food hall itself is ready to open, but Plaut says that it should happen sometime this year—perhaps as early as June. And Menya Shono, the first U.S. franchise location for Shono’s flagship restaurant in Tokyo, should be ready to open at 908 4th Street in downtown San Rafael in the next three weeks. Instead of the tori paitan style, the focus at the new restaurant will be on soups made with pork bones, with prices a little bit more affordable than they are at Mensho Tokyo.

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Mensho Tokyo is located at 672 Geary Street in San Francisco. Its current hours are Wednesday through Sunday, 5–9 p.m., indoor dine-in service only. For current updates, follow chef Tomoharu Shono on Instagram.