What to Know
Ichi Sando in Japantown serves tamago sandwiches, made with thin layers of sweet cooked eggs
Gram Café in Stonestown Galleria serves fluffy soufflé pancakes, invented in Osaka, Japan
Food bloggers have flocked to both restaurants, and say the taste lives up to the hype
At 11:30 a.m., a crowd started to form by a small sandwich shop in San Francisco's Japan Center — even though the sign clearly states it won't open until noon.
"We just arrived from SFO," one man said. "This is our first stop."
From all the way in Dallas, he and his wife had heard about Ichi Sando, and planned to have lunch there on the way to a wedding.
"I saw it on Instagram," his wife said.
In an age when foodies and food bloggers race to post pictures of the trendiest new dining spots, Ichi Sando has a decided advantage: its food is exquisitely pleasing to the eye. Squares and rectangles in bold colors, perfectly cut from thin layers of sweet egg omelet and Japanese milk bread, the shop's signature tamago sandwich isn't just tasty and filling — it's aesthetic perfection.
"We wanted to do something a little fun, something delicious," said chef Eujin Kim-Wright, whose previous ventures have all been in the world of fine dining.
Of the sudden fame her sandwiches have garnered on Instagram, she said, "Actually, I wasn't really expecting it!"
Kim-Wright starts cooking lunch at 7:30 or 8:00 a.m. in the kitchen of her business partner's other restaurant, a block away. In big square copper pans, a thin layer of egg is poured and cooked just enough to fold over, then another layer is added, and then another, until the pan is filled to the top — seven or eight layers in all. It takes 15 minutes of precise, attentive work to make one pan of tamago — which is enough for just two sandwiches.
"If I rush and try to make more, then the quality goes down, and that's the last thing I want to do to my customers," Kim-Wright said.
Though she cooks for 5 to 6 hours a day, the sandwiches can easily sell out in an hour — which might explain the line outside. Kim-Wright has applied for a cooking permit to make more tamago on site in the tiny sandwich shop, and to offer other traditional Japanese lunch treats like pork and wagyu katsu sandos.
Ichi Sando may be the latest Japanese Insta-food craze, but it's not this year's first. Two months earlier, Gram Café burst onto the scene at Stonestown Galleria, offering its fluffy soufflé pancakes to just 30 customers at a time, lined up in numbered chairs outside the restaurant.
"Once you try one bite, you'll feel like wow!" promised Dorothy Wong, the café's owner.
Wong said she first tried the pancakes at the original Gram Café in Osaka, Japan. A pastry chef by training, Wong bought the U.S. franchise rights to bring the special pancakes across the Pacific, made and served under the same strict rules set by the Japanese chain.
"The time has to be really accurate, not more than one or two seconds (off)," she explained. "It's all air. That's why it's so fluffy and jiggly, it's all about air."
A cross between American pancakes and a French soufflé, Gram's creation begins its life under a Kitchen-Aid stand mixer, where the batter is whisked for as much as 24 hours. The cakes are steamed under individual lids, on a special griddle with a layer of water underneath it to eliminate hot spots.
It takes half an hour to make each batch — but to experience the pancakes' full fluffiness, Wong says customers should start eating within 5 to 10 seconds once they're set down on the table. That's a problem, considering most diners want to take innumerable photos of the precarious pancake tower, even as it sways, slumps and ultimately falls over.
"So our staff is, like, helping, holding the butter and making sure it doesn't fall, so they can take a good picture, a good angle of it," Wong said.
After all, perfect pancake photos are the best marketing Gram Café could ask for. Wong said 60 to 70 percent of her customers say they first heard of the restaurant on Instagram.
"Nowadays, it's all about social media," she said.