We’ve been meaning to make a trek to try the handmade mochi at Benkyo-do near San Francisco’s Japantown for ages. Based on the many accolades from mochi fans the world over, it’s a beloved favorite (family owned since 1906). So when the hunger pang for ramen hit, which it often does, I packed up Luca and the bambino and we headed for J-town. There are dozens of places to grab udon, ramen, or a bento box and lots of fun shopping for odds and ends. We especially love browsing the Nijiya Japanese supermarket, the Kinokuniya bookstore and the various Japanese dollar stores (Ichiban-Kan, Daiso), and I’m sure most kids will be all over climbing the rocks and sculptures scattered in and around Peace Plaza. (Check out more ideas for a J-Town adventure from Simran’s earlier post.)
But back to the mochi…. For the uninitiated, mochi is sweet rice steamed and pounded until it reaches a gummy, taffy-like consistency. It’s then filled with various sweet bean pastes and/or other flavors or sometimes just decorated and left plain. It’s a bit hard to describe, so my advice is to just try it and see for yourself. Just as much about the texture as flavor, the made-daily freshness of Benkyo-do’s mochi is a big part of the appeal.
Benkyo-do makes Komochi, Kinako Dango, Sekihan, Okasane varieties of mochi and many of the flavors are seasonal, so the line-up changes often. But leave the terminology for the connoisseurs because all you have to do is scan the display case and pick a few things that look tempting. At about a buck a piece, you wont break the bank but bring cash because they don’t accept credit cards (also take note that they are closed Sundays). Luca selected the strawberry mochi for us and it was much lighter, softer and delicate than other mochi I have tried and it had a fresh strawberry tucked inside along with a white bean paste and strawberry mixture. Yum! It’s the kind of thing you should enjoy right away to fully appreciate its freshness. You can also try some of Benkyo-do’s other snacks like Dorayaki which is like a pancake sandwich with a sweet red bean filling or goodies like teriyaki-flavored pretzels.
I happen to be a big, big fan of old-school lunch counters and that is another reason to stop by Benkyo-do. There seem to be only a handful left around the city these days and this is the real-deal. You’re not going to get espresso or a sustainably sourced, grass-fed burger but you can enjoy a donut and a cup of regular old coffee or maybe an egg salad sandwich or a hot dog. Sitting at the time-worn formica counter among neighborhood locals hanging out over a cup of coffee is perfectly uncomplicated and just the right antidote when you feel like “keeping it real”.
A note to parents: Benkyo-Do is tiny, so strollers are not a great option here and they only have a handful of counter seats, so you’ll have to judge whether this works for your family as a sit-down food adventure.