Namu Stonepot

They didn’t have Caffeine-Free Diet Coke (nor should they), and my 70-year-old mother, out from the East Coast, was annoyed. So she popped over to the convenience store next door, brought back a bottle, and requested a glass. “What’s this?” she asked, holding a rounded, thimble-sized metal cup.

“It’s for sake,” I said. She was unimpressed.

When our poke of the day arrived — squishy squares of yellowfin tuna drenched in tamari — followed by flimsy, flavorless Korean tacos, I was too.

I’d been so excited about Dennis, David, and Daniel Lee coming to Divisadero Street. Forever, my main drag had been all about pizza and Popeye’s and smoked ribs, and then Nopa arrived with elderflower cocktails, little gems, Moroccan vegetable tagine, and transformed it. And despite welcome, if controversial, more recent additions, like $5 toast and $145 omakase — with Greek yogurt, carnitas, and almighty Bi-Rite in between — this stretch of Western Addition still lacked any type of noteworthy, steamy, everyday Asian food. No Chinese. No Vietnamese. No Burmese. Just a sub-standard Thai spot next to the dry cleaners that’s always empty.

But then, holy bulgogi, the Lee brothers were opening a counter-casual spinoff of Namu Gaji, one of my favorite San Francisco restaurants, close to home. I was so excited that I brought my mother, the rare Jew who refuses to eat anything but Italian.

And now here we were at Namu Stonepot, a Cal-Asian fusion confusion — not Korean, as the Lee brothers will emphatically tell you — and, sadly, the chicken “tacos” were bringing both of us down.

The double-ply sheets of seaweed, in lieu of tortillas, were wilted, weak beneath an unwieldy mound of uniformly diced meat. The whole shebang was bizarrely bland for being marinated in tamari and doused with kimchi salsa and remoulade and teriyaki. When I picked it up and took a bite, the majority of rice and chicken dribbled to the plate, leaving me to retrieve each kernel and cube with my chopsticks.

Clearly there are far worse offenses in this world. Still, when it comes to taco offenses, eating one shouldn’t take so much effort. Maybe they should consider renaming it “chicken on top of seaweed” and our expectations would adjust accordingly?

But the mochiko fried chicken brought us back from the brink. We got it “Crispy Crack” style, an apt name, as the organic, bite-size tenders were so crisp and succulent and addictive, even my mother ate them. And liked them. Especially when dipped in the sweet, mildly spicy “KFC” sauce, which we ordered on the side.

It’s a better strategy than actually ordering it KFC-style (as in Korean-fried, of course, not Kentucky), as the thighs came soaked in the stuff. Each bite was a soggy, gooey, oddly airy mess of sauce and skin that suctioned to my teeth like fluoride at the dentist.

I went, in total, four times, partly because I was dying to try the special Marin Sun Farms burger, which turned out to be a thin, barely there patty between two slabs of nori with kimchi, greens, and so much rice they would’ve been better off calling it a burrito. A cold burrito.

Technically, I guess, it was kimbap. And as kimbap it was okay. But as a burger — in this burger-obsessed city — it was disappointing.

As was the epynomous attraction: the stonepots. I find Namu Gaji’s irresistible, and was elated to see the Original on Namu Stonepot’s list of five. But it seemed to be merely an Imitation. Oh, it was all there — the koshihikari rice, the kimchi, the egg, the enoki mushrooms and mung bean sprouts, veggies from Namu’s farm, the sizzling hot pot — yet somehow it tasted like a dumbed-down version of the real thing. I looked around for a bottle of something, anything, to spice it up. I didn’t see any sort of condiment, but they happily supplied a ramekin of house-made chile sauce upon request. It helped.

It was as if the Lees pressed “mute” on the remote control of their kitchen. Maybe this is what opening a more affordable offshoot means? While Dennis Lee maintains his position as executive chef of both restaurants, each has its own chef de cuisine, tasked with overseeing the day-to-day execution. Perhaps something is lost in translation.

Only the kimchi okonomiyaki — a pizza-sized cabbage pancake with its fluttering bonito, vinegary kimchi, and Kewpie mayo — and the Sizzling Sisig — a garlicky, tongue-scorching jumble of pork, jowl and head, with pickled onions and jalapeno rings — revealed any distinct flavors.

The Raging Ramen, however? Not so raging. Timid, in fact. As subdued as an indica smoker. The $15 bone broth with noodles, poached organic chicken breasts, bean sprouts, and slow-cooked egg would make a perfect reentry after a 10-day Master Cleanse. And being a bubbling, boiling cauldron poured awkwardly between strangers squeezed together, it would also make the worst meal for anyone under 10.

So, as a cramped, wait-for-a stool sort of place, Namu Stonepot isn’t for kids. And as a cramped, wait-for-a stool sort of place (without Caffeine-Free Diet Coke, no less), nor is it a fit for unadventurous East Coast grandparents, or many grandparents, for that matter.

It is a fit, though, for San Francisco’s target demographic: those spilling out of the bars late night on Divisadero, looking for nourishment. For another cold beer. And a filling hot pot.

One I know the talented Lee brothers can make better.

Photos by Patricia Chang