Yu-Raku, One of the Bay Area’s Only Japanese-Chinese Restaurants, Is Closing

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A red diner counter facing toward a restaurant's open kitchen area.
The cozy red diner counter at San Mateo's Yu-Raku, one of the Bay Area's only restaurants specializing in Japanese-style Chinese food. (Thien Pham)

For nearly a dozen years, Sakae Yuizumi has stood behind the red diner counter at Yu-Raku in San Mateo to dish out saucy mabo dofu and steaming-hot bowls of champon—an impressive repertoire of Chinese comfort foods, all cooked to suit Japanese tastes. In a city known for being the region’s epicenter of Japanese food culture, there might not be any single restaurant that is more beloved among the Japanese expats and immigrants who make up the bulk of its customer base.

Now, all that is coming to an end: Yu-Raku will close next month so that Yuizumi and his wife Yoko, who runs the restaurant with him, can retire. The last day of service will be on Sunday, May 15.

“We have the most Japanese customers here of any place in the Bay Area,” Yuizumi says in Mandarin when reached by phone at the end of a busy lunch shift. (He’s Japanese but was born and raised in Shanghai before his family moved back to Japan’s Shizuoka prefecture when he was 13.)

A bowl of saucy Japanese-style mapo tofu: cubes of soft tofu in a meaty brown sauce topped with green onions.
The Japanese style of mabo dofu (aka mapo tofu) isn't very spicy, but it is delightful to eat over white rice. (Thien Pham)

It’s for good reason that Yu-Raku is so popular among Japanese expats even as it’s less well known to the broader public. The cozy little restaurant in downtown San Mateo is one of the very few restaurants in Northern California that specializes in chuka ryori, or Japanese-style Chinese food. It’s the type of Chinese food that you can find in Yokohama’s historic Chinatown, for instance. For many Japanese people, the cuisine is one of their most nostalgic comfort foods—all the more so here in the Bay Area because there are so few restaurants that offer it.

So, Yuizumi says, Yu-Raku routinely gets customers who will drive up from Sunnyvale or Santa Clara for dinner. On any given night, you’re likely to hear more Japanese being spoken in the dining room than English.

A plate of cold shredded chicken coated in a garlicky sesame sauce.
The ban ban ji is a Japanese version of a Chinese-style cold poached chicken salad. (Thien Pham)

Much like the titular restaurant in the popular Japanese drama Midnight Diner, Yu-Raku boasts a lengthy repertoire of homey, idiosyncratic dishes. Yuizumi’s mabo dofu (aka mapo tofu) is a much less spicy take on the dish compared to the traditional Sichuan version—but one that’s so satisfyingly savory when heaped over white rice. His champon—a kind of cross between a gravy, a stir-fry and a noodle soup—has a large following. So does his hearty, home-style ramen, which Yuizumi says is meant to fill you with energy when you eat it.

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Yuizumi says he and his wife originally wanted to retire and move back to Japan two or three years ago. (“I only wanted to work until I turned 60,” he says.) Of course, COVID wound up putting a damper on those plans, but Yuizumi says the business thrived even through the worst of the pandemic. During the past few months, in particular, the restaurant has been as busy as it has ever been, and longtime customers keep telling him how sad they are that they’ll no longer be able to eat his food.

“But there’s nothing I can do,” Yuizumi says. “I’m tired!”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled Sakae Yuizumi's last name.

Yu-Raku is open Wednesday through Monday, 11:30am–1:30pm and 5:30–7:30pm (and until 8pm on Fridays and Saturdays) at 104 S. El Camino Real in San Mateo.