Cheapskates: A case for paying more for ethnic food

richie nakano of hapa ramen
Richie Nakano has been dishing up ramen at the CUESA Ferry Plaza Farmers Market since 2010. All photos by Alanna Hale

Who pays 88 bucks for a bowl of ramen? Nope, that’s not a typo. We’re talking $88, not $8, for that classic hot comfort dish of “ethnic food” that originally hails from Japan.

Richie Nakano likes to stir things up—and not just his food. Nakano runs Hapa Ramen, a noodle soup stand at the weekday Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, where his brothy bowls brimming with locally sourced organic produce and free-range meats normally sell for $10–$14.

Nakano keeps things fresh: He also hosts pop-ups so he can play with his food. A stirrer in social media circles who goes by the moniker @linecook, Nakano enjoys the professional challenge of taking it up a notch on the culinary front.

Last December, at a pop-up at Wing Wings in the Lower Haight, he served his soups oozing umami with as many highend products as he could muster. We’re talking white truffle, duck confit, foie gras, Kobe ribeye and sea urchin. Who doesn’t enjoy a little seasonal indulgence? For anyone who ordered all those add ons, the tab came to $88.

“It was ridiculous and it was a bit of fun,” says Nakano, a California Culinary Academy graduate who has worked in the kitchens at Sushi Ran, Va de Vi and Nopa. “One guy had just gotten his holiday bonus and was headed home to the Midwest, where he knew he wouldn’t be eating anything like this for a couple of weeks. He just wanted to treat himself.”

And he was not alone: Several eaters loaded up with the works.

A stunt? Maybe. And out of reach or unfathomable for many? Sure. But Nakano wanted to make a statement: Even the most modest of dishes can reach rock star status with the right marriage of ingredients, techniques and attention to detail in both preparation and presentation. And why, argues the soon-to-be owner of a brick-and-mortar joint in the Mission, should his ramen be slapped with the stigma of that cheap, instant packaged soup, anyway?

Nakano has a point. American diners have long balked at paying big bucks for so-called ethnic food. Ramen for 99 cents or less. Tacos for a buck and change. A bowl of pho for a few dollars, tops. Everyone loves a bargain bite.

Many adventurous eaters on the hunt for authentic global flavors expect to find cheap “ethnic” eats in urban enclaves like San Francisco and Oakland. It’s a cornerstone of city living, a plethora of mom-and-pop shops and divey diners repping diverse cultures from around the world, slinging seriously tasty stuff for a fraction of the price it costs—and the effort it takes— to make at home.

We bite into that bánh mí with mystery meat or chow down on Chinese dumplings made by kitchen hands who may earn less than minimum wage—ignoring, oblivious to or unperturbed by what we’re participating in as we eat. We’re just jonesing for great grub on the run, provenance of raw materials or exploitation of food service people, many of them immigrants or people of color, be damned.

Who cares what goes on behind the kitchen door when food this cheap tastes so good?

But why should “ethnic” food be inexpensive? What the hell is ethnic food anyway? And who gets to decide what’s so-called ethnic and what’s not?

Enter a new breed of upstart chefs and restaurateurs, many of them with origins in other lands, who are reimagining “ethnic” eating and educating diners hungry for traditional tastes with far-flung roots about the true cost of Mexican, Indian, Thai, Chinese and Korean cuisine. Bon appétit.

Why pay more when you can get it for less?

Here’s the deal: Quality ingredients cost more money, plain and simple. Given the current food system and economies of scale, organic produce, grass-fed beef, free-range chicken and sustainable seafood are more expensive than factory-farmed meat and conventionally farmed crops.

Likewise, it costs more—in both raw materials and labor— to make food without convenience products or cutting corners. Whether condiments and sauces made from scratch or tortillas and noodles prepared by hand, there’s a ton of time and people power in all that prepping, planning, chopping, crafting and cooking.

Nakano knows that from firsthand experience.

“When we started Hapa Ramen in 2010 we made all the noodles in-house for about six months. It was brutal,” says Nakano, who plans to bring back noodle production at his restaurant, scheduled to open on Valencia Street in July.

These days, his noodles come courtesy of a Japanese noodle maker in San Jose. “It was one person cranking out noodles for 10 hours straight. They could barely stop.”

And don’t get him started on what else goes into his bowls. Take his veggie version.

“The broth alone is expensive—it has a ton of vegetable purée. There are so many different vegetables in the bowl and they’re all cooked differently, so the labor alone on veg prep is huge,” he says. “You might get cabbage that’s been shaved, kale that’s been roasted, blanched chard, deep-fried Brussels sprouts, roasted or baked carrots, squash, broccoli and cauliflower.”

It ticks off Nakano that there’s a common notion that so-called ethnic food should be cheap. Ever since he opened this chef has fielded complaints over the price of his ramen.

“People don’t think anything of paying 20 bucks or more for a bowl of spaghetti,” he says, noting that Italian and Mediterranean food is no longer considered “other.” Similarly, some of the same people who recoil at spending $10 on soup have no problem, he says, plonking down $9 for fresh-squeezed juice or $11 for a cocktail with in-house infusions.

The dining public often views foods with Asian and Latin origins differently, says Nakano, who is of mixed Anglo-Japanese heritage.

“Chinese food comes in little white boxes that your parents get delivered on a night they don’t feel like cooking dinner. You hit the Mission for tacos,” says Nakano, whose paternal grandfather ran a restaurant. “These are fast casual places, not necessarily sit down, not taking up the nicest real estate. People’s perception is that it’s food you shouldn’t have to pay much money for.”

But the true cost of food is hidden from view. “Our bowl of ramen is a couple of pounds of food, there’s a ton of nourishment packed in there. We should really charge people $22 for what we serve.”

Businesses like Hapa Ramen are trying to do something different. Nakano sources from local, organic farmers and ranchers, and aims to keep his food costs around 30% of his overall expenses. Labor accounts for anther big chunk of his budget. He says he pays his employees “way above” minimum wage ($10.74 in San Francisco, currently the highest in the country).

“You have to pay your people well, at least a living wage, otherwise you can’t keep them,” says Nakano. “It’s expensive here, it’s a competitive market, and if you want a loyal, hard-working, nice team, it’s what you need to do.”

The small business owner is considered a success, so newcomers want his insights. “People come and tell me they want to open their own ramen place and I tell them: ‘Don’t do it. It’s a crazy amount of work and you’re not going to make that much money.’ We’re doing OK, we’re not scraping by, although for the first year we were,” says Nakano, who supports a family of four. “I could complain but the truth is we make our rent every month and pay our bills. But we can’t take a vacation.”

Lucky for Nakano, he cops it on both ends of the dining spectrum from lay critics like Yelpers. He’s been dissed as not “ethnic enough” and dismissed as a ramen master wannabe. His food falls into what other chefs in a similar situation call the middle ground. They’re not dishing up suspect stuff made with questionable ingredients at a greasy spoon. They’re also not assembling fancy-pants plates at a white tablecloth place catering to the 1%.

They’re trying to do the right thing while they do their own thing.

preeti mistry juhu beach club
Preeti Mistry insists Juhu Beach Club in Oakland is not an “Indian” restaurant. It’s a cross-cultural mix of modern Mumbai street eats, California farm-to-table fare and new American comfort food. Photo by Alanna Hale.

Move over, ethnic eats. Hello, culinary mashup

Across the bay at Juhu Beach Club in Oakland, Preeti Mistry is another example of this new style of American chef/owner with immigrant roots. With their mashup menus, craft beers and cocktails and groovy, casual interiors, these restaurants are totally different beasts to the unassuming first-generation immigrant holes-in-the-wall of the past. Mistry, who is of Indian heritage, grew up in Ohio and moved to San Francisco at 19.

She has her own issues with the “ethnic” food label.

“The term is so ingrained in American culture it’s hard to escape. It’s outdated and it annoys me,” says the former San Francisco dweller, who hosted a Mumbai street food–inspired pop-up in that city before opening Juhu. “When people first started writing about Juhu they called it an Indian restaurant, I hadn’t thought about it like that,” says the restaurateur of her year-old dining place in the Temescal neighborhood. “I ate at Frances the other day. Nobody refers to it as a French restaurant. Nobody calls Delfina an Italian joint. What’s with that?”

Like Nakano, Mistry found customers whining about the prices on her menu when she opened.

“Some people complained about $14 for a chicken leg. It’s marinated for 24 hours, we use fresh ginger and garlic and a spice mix I make from hand,” she says. “It’s braised, it comes with three condiments that we make in-house. We use organic vegetables. And yet people are outraged because Indian chicken curry should be cheap.”

Here’s where Mistry goes out on a limb. “That’s really where racism comes in, this idea that that thinking is OK.”

She shares an anecdote to illustrate her point: “I recently ate at an Italian restaurant I love. I had eight pieces of tortellini with pork mousse inside and a clear broth for $21. I understand the skill and talent involved in making the mousse and pasta,” she says. “There’s this respect and reverence for the technique and talent. I bet nobody goes into that Italian restaurant and says: ‘At Olive Garden I can get an all-you-can-eat pasta bowl for $7.99, why are these $21?’”

The takeaway for Mistry: Her food isn’t considered as serious, important or worthy as someone else’s of European influence.

“It’s almost like non-European food goes into this box and what’s championed is the greasy dive and not that that cuisine could have a level of technique and innovation that could elevate it to something else,” she explains. Still, she’s glad that, a year out, the people who Juhu is the right restaurant for found her, and relish the opportunity to eat her spicy sliders known as pavs. They don’t flinch at the price ($13 for three) either.

“Funnily enough, now we get feedback about how value-driven we are for what you get. The portion size is generous. Nobody leaves Juhu Beach Club hungry.”

Some disagree with the racism charge.

“It’s the price point. Period,” wrote home cook Chris Juricich, a Berkeley resident who foregoes paying $15 for a bowl of ramen or $13 for Indian-style sliders based purely on the numbers. “This doesn’t mean I don’t wish them well, and I expect those who are well-heeled … will continue to keep these places afloat. Bottom line: I can’t afford it … regardless of the pedigree of the chefs or their sourcing of quality ingredients.”

That’s a sentiment likely held by many, and yet these restaurants and pop-ups continue to attract diners who willingly fork out for this fare.

Mistry concedes that race is just one factor here. “Sometimes it’s a lack of education about what we’re doing in terms of sourcing—and equally important, a lack of education about what some other places aren’t doing in terms of where their food comes from,” she says. “I’m a chef who is in the kitchen every day trying to articulate on the plate a reflection of who I am as a person of Indian background who has lived in London and the U.S. My menu is an expression of all my experiences.”

Rather than getting stuck on the outdated “ethnic” food label—or, worse, the concept of authenticity—Mistry sees a lot of chefs like herself of different ethnic heritage exploring a more diverse definition of what it means to be American, an American chef, and what it means to serve American food.

In the end, it boils down to this for Mistry: “You get what you pay for. There’s a population in the Bay Area who give a shit about what they eat and won’t go to places where they don’t know where the meat comes from. People here will pay for that.”

pim techamuanvivit of kin khao
Pim Techamuanvivit in her recently opened Thai restaurant, Kin Khao, which loosely translated means “let’s eat.” Photo by Alanna Hale.

Hidden human costs, too

Pim Techamuanvivit, who recently opened the Thai restaurant Kin Khao, has a similar philosophy to Mistry and Nakano. She’s all about sourcing, craft in the kitchen, paying a living wage, culinary integrity and attention to detail at her new, high-rent, street-level space in downtown San Francisco’s Parc 55 Hotel. The chef at Kin Khao, Michael Gaines, has cooked at fine-dining favorites Manresa and Central Kitchen, so this is not your typical corner Thai food joint and it has prices to match. The tell-it-like-it is Techamuanvivit puts it this way: “You won’t find frozen prawns grown in antibiotic slush and flown here from Vietnam in our food.”

Consider the restaurant’s curry bowls ($18–$26). “Our Massaman curry is a whole shank of natural, locally sourced, antibiotic-free, sustainable beef with bone marrow in the middle. The paste has 19 ingredients and each one is treated differently: Some are toasted, some are burned, some are fried, some are fresh, everything is done by hand, everything is ground for the day’s use,” says the restaurateur, who developed a following for her small-batch jams under the Chez Pim label.

Techamuanvivit doesn’t expect to please everybody; diners won’t find pad Thai on her menu at all. Like other local chefs, she’s cooking traditional and family dishes from far away through the lens of the local farmers’ market. Her foray into jam making was instructive.

“People can spend $3 on a big-arsed jar of Smucker’s jam or they can pay $14 for my artisanal jam made by hand with the best ingredients I can find,” she says. “There are people who can see and taste the difference and are willing to pay for that. But I’m not going to win over the people who spend $3 for jam.”

Talk of the price of labor makes Techamuanvivit prickle; she’s hiring and service workers applying for positions have been open about earning less than minimum wage and no overtime at other area Thai restaurants. “It’s appalling,” she says. “If you pay $5 or $6 for a bowl of curry or pho you have to understand what you are complicit in. It’s not just the cheap ingredients. It’s cheap labor too.”

The new restaurateur also notes that at many area Thai or Chinese restaurants diners will find the same menu made from convenience products, such as premade curry pastes, sourced from the same distributor. Unsurprisingly, much of it tastes the same, she says.

“We have people come in, look at the menu and they say to us, ‘What, you don’t have any tom kha gai?’ and we suggest the restaurant across the street. The price is right and it’s the food they’re familiar with and want to eat. It’s a generic Thai restaurant; it’s not bad, but it’s not doing anything different and that’s not what I’m interested in.” That well-known Thai soup sets customers back $8.50 at that particular place.

Kin Khao is striving to make a splash. “I wanted to open a restaurant and cook the food that I wanted to eat: Thai food with the quality of ingredients that I’d find at the Ferry Building farmers market,” says Techamuanvivit. “This is not a place where the menu invites you to pick a protein and a carbohydrate and you tell me how spicy you want it. That’s not our kind of food.”

And so far—at press time the restaurant had been open about a month—diners have been lining out the door.

“I thought I might have an uphill battle with my menu but that hasn’t been the case,” she says. “I’m happy to be in San Francisco; I don’t have to really explain why we’re doing what we’re doing. The people who come to the restaurant just get it.”

Perhaps no one is as well equipped to see both sides of this equation as Gonzalo Guzman, the chef at Nopalito, who immigrated from Veracruz, Mexico, to San Francisco in 1997. He came here hungry for work and looking for culinary experience. He landed a job in a kitchen, washing dishes in exchange for food. From there, he gradually worked his way up the kitchen hierarchy, accumulating an impressive resume along the way with stints at restaurants like Kokkari, Boulevard and Nopalito’s sister restaurant, Nopa.

Now, he oversees two Nopalito locations, in NoPa and the Inner Sunset, where his carnitas, pozole and mole (27 ingredients) receive rave reviews. Guzman learned about the importance of the pedigree of raw products at Nopa and applies that sensibility to his regional Mexican cuisine. The masa for tortillas and tamales comes from house-ground organic corn. Chorizo sausage and queso fresco—also in-house. This is not a burrito joint but a celebration of slow-cooked rustic dishes from south of the border featuring complex, layered flavors that’s a rarity even in the Bay Area. And the most expensive items on the dinner menu cost 18 bucks.

Guzman got his big break as a restaurant chef when he was tasked with preparing the evening family meal for the staff at Nopa, fashioning craveworthy dishes made with leftovers and lots of heart. Let’s give him the last word.

“There’s a lot of labor going on in our kitchens; everything is fresh, organic and made from scratch,” he says, echoing his fellow chefs. “I’m trying to bring the authentic flavors from my country and represent home-style Mexican food in ways I don’t see happening much here and I’m doing it with the best ingredients available. I’m grateful that the people who come to eat in our restaurants see the value in that.”


Cheapskates was originally published in the Spring 2014 issue of Edible San Francisco Magazine. © 2014 Edible San Francisco.