• Cha-Ya Vegetarian in San Francisco: This place is SHIT

    January 3rd, 2011mr meanerbay area, more restaurants (not LA), san francisco

    … and I mean “SHIT”, rather than “THE SHIT”, which has a positive connotation.

    My recollection from the first time I visited Cha-Ya Vegetarian, was of bland food in small portions, rude service, high prices and extremely bright fluorescent lighting. I have to admit, though, that I was a little (a lot) inebriated after spending a few hours beforehand in Monk’s Kettle, one of Mission’s best bars. I’ve heard the odd good review of Cha-Ya, so was determined to go back again one day while sober and see how things panned out.

    Well, after a late afternoon flight to San Francisco on Christmas Day, I was delighted to discover that Cha-Ya was open at 5pm so after a quick hop and skip from the BART we were walking up to the restaurant within an hour of touching down…. and stone cold sober I might add!

    As I pushed open the door, I was immediately reminded of the atmosphere – bright fluorescent lighting with glass tables make the place feel like a cross between a doctor’s waiting room and a suburban DMV.

    Scenic mood lighting in Cha-Ya

    And, along with the DMV it has a similar vibe, with a sign at every corner barking instructions to visitors like: “NO CREDIT CARDS ACCEPTED” to “WATER SERVED ONLY UPON REQUEST” and “TOILET PAPER INTO TOILET (sic)”.

    Another similarity between Cha-Ya and a DMV is a lack of any empathy from the staff. I’m used to at least a smile and some eye contact when I arrive at a restaurant, but not at Cha-Ya. Oh hell no. Our server didn’t look us in the face once and stood impatiently while we were ordering our food raising her eyes to heaven as we deliberated between two dishes, then grabbed the menus and disappeared into the kitchen as soon as we were done with our order.

    We deliberated on the order as we tried very hard not to ask for the same kind of food we’d had list time, which was basically a couple of large bowls of broth with a few noodles floating around in them. Try as we might, though, we ended up with almost the exact same dishes as last time, despite avoiding them as best we could on the menu.

    Asparagus Roll. $4.65

    First up we ordered the Asparagus Roll which (although pricey at $4.65) was acceptable although, honestly, way too small and no better than I can make at home. Also, it was clearly pre-made as it showed up at our table within about two minutes of us placing the order. Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for fast service, but something like sushi really should be made when it’s ordered rather than in advance – especially in a nearly empty restaurant.

    After eating two pieces of the sushi we were shocked to discover that our next dish, Cha-Ya Delight arrived within a few seconds of us hearing a very noticeable microwave “bing” noise. 30 seconds or so later, followed by another “bing” from the microwave, our other main dish of Kinoko Udon arrived.

    Cha-Ya Delight: seasoned organic brown rice topped with carrots, kabocha, broccoli, lotus root, cauliflower, zucchini, shiitake, snap peas, snow peas, atsuage tofu, hijiki, pickled burdock and daikon, broccolini, and kaiware. $9.50

    Now, the thing you’ll notice about Cha-Ya is that they list copious amounts of ingredients on the menu. For the vegetable dish we ordered, no less than FOURTEEN vegetables were listed (not to mention the rice and tofu): brown rice, carrots, kabocha, broccoli, lotus root, cauliflower, zucchini, shiitake, snap peas, snow peas, atsuage tofu, hijiki, pickled burdock and daikon, broccolini, and kaiware. The bad news is that these ingredients are, quite literally, in the singular. “Yam” means ONE piece of sliced yam about the size of a credit card hologram. There was precisely ONE tiny cauliflower floret, and so on. In fact, there were not anything like fourteen pieces of vegetables in the dish, so I’m sure that they short changed us.

    So, there was a selection of individual and tiny vegetables on top of a large mound of rice (the dish was 50% rice), and served in a small bowl about the size of a ramekin. I honestly thought that they had divided one order into two smaller bowls as we were clearly going to share. No luck, though. That tiny side order of vegetables came in at a whopping $9.50 – a complete and unadulterated ripoff. Not only that, the thing was CLEARLY microwaved (hence the constant stream of microwave door slamming and bing noises throughout our visit). We could tell as the vegetables in the middle were very hot, but those on top and at the sides were still cold. These were not straight out of a steamer, but re-heated in a microwave. This should have been a $3.99 side of vegetables, not a nearly $10 main dish.

    Kinoko (mushrooms) Udon. mushroom medley including shumeji, eryngii, portobello and oyster mushrooms served over udon wheat noodles in a bowl of light broth. topped with scalions, kaiware, and shredded nori. $10

    We had much higher hopes for the other entree, Kinoko Udon. The menu description sounded positively enticing: Mushroom medley of shumeji, eryngii, portobello and oyster served over udon wheat noodles in a bowl of light broth, topped with scalions, kaiware, and shredded nori. Honestly, the reality could not have been more different. Served in a smallish bowl brimming with salty, lukewarm, cloudy water (presumably the “light broth”) were a ton of puffily overcooked udon noodles with perhaps a tablespoon of canned mixed mushrooms tipped in for good measure. Finally, some limp and wilted scallions and a 1/2″ slice of nori rounded off this completely underwhelming dish.

    As there was so little taste in the dishes, we asked for some hot sauce. The lady said that they didn’t have hot sauce, but pointed to a sprinkler on the table that contained some form of stale ground chili. Needless to say, it didn’t help at all and we were astounded to discover, on the way to the bathroom, that there was plenty of hot sauce on a shelf in the kitchen. I guess it’s too expensive to put it out on the table?

    All this food was rather difficult to eat, honestly. The udon was so overcooked that the noodles were slimy and kept slipping out of my chopsticks, and the canned mushrooms were tasteless and equally slimy. We tried mixing in the brown rice from the vegetable dish to soak up the “broth”, but there was so little of it that it made no difference at all. We finally chugged down all the food, but as so much of it was water we felt hungry again by the time we’d walked 10 minutes back to the BART, and that was after spending $26 before tip! What a fucking ripoff!

    The final slap in the face is that Cha-Ya is cash only (clearly too cheap to pay the credit card service fees), but kindly places an ATM in the doorway, from which they will happily cream off another $2 from you as a service fee (and your bank will probably take another $1.50 as well), so remember to take lots of cash with you, as the place is expensive and cash only.

    Talking of expensive, everything about Cha-Ya shows that the place is run down to a budget with such cost control that the cheapness of the place oozes from the walls. Every item from the front door handle, to the quality of the toilet paper is as cheap and inexpensive as possible. The blue colored fluorescent lamps are seriously the same as those government issue ones in your local DMV. The plates and bowls are all plastic (cheap as shit, and unbreakable), and the portions of food are as small as they possibly can be. All this while charging shockingly high prices for everything, in cash and stealing $2 off you with their ATM machine should you be lunatic enough not to bring enough dough.

    I’m never going back to Cha-Ya. The management is cheap beyond belief, the staff are rude and distant and you feel like you’re being fleeced with every bite. Add to that the constant ding of the microwave, cans of ingredients everywhere in the kitchen and you can tell that this place is a fake vegan rip-off restaurant that’s making a fast buck at your expense. If you’re a regular, stop to think next time you get a plate of food about what you’re getting and what you’re paying. Take a look inside the kitchen at the wall of microwaves and bulk vegetable oil for the deep fat fryers. Count your eighteen vegetables, as if each one is a lucky star.

    Cha-Ya Vegetarian
    762 Valencia St
    (between 18th St & 19th St)
    San Francisco, CA 94110
    (415) 252-7825

    Tags: ,

40 responses to “Cha-Ya Vegetarian in San Francisco: This place is SHIT” RSS icon

  • I have been to Cha Ya about 5 times, and it has always been pretty boring. I have tried to like it, but I’m glad to know I’m not the only one who isn’t impressed.

  • Geez, with all those signs it looks like it belongs on a military base or something. Not very friendly looking.

  • I have to admit, this review is dead on. I don’t know what people see in the place with it s hugely expensive and bland menu.

  • While I respect the reviewer’s account of his/her experience, it’s not fair to make assumptions about the ingredients. For example, it is clear from the images and from my own experiences at Cha-Ya that the mushrooms are not “canned”, and clearly there are more than “perhaps a tablespoon”. I’m not sticking up for Cha-Ya because I, too, have had less-than-stellar experiences there, but a review loses its integrity when anger prompts the writer to exaggerate.

    As someone who has had both good and bad experiences at Cha-Ya, I think a calmer and more factual review would be doing this restaurant justice, especially considering that they are offering something incredible for vegans (how many fully vegan Japanese restaurants do you come across on a daily basis?!) and might be receptive to change if our criticisms are a touch more constructive. Thanks!

  • I was there about a month ago and loved it, everything I had was yummy!

  • ehhh, i agree with mr. meaner, the mushrooms DEFINITELY tasted canned.

    and i couldn’t believe the tiny amount of vegetables in the entree. literally ONE mushrooms, ONE yam, 3 little pieces of carrots, ONE piece of tofu, etc. it was a joke.

    and the microwave constantly going off was majorly annoying/distracting.

    shojin puts this place to shame.

  • if you’re using a microwave in a restaurant, you’re not a restaurant.

    that’s not cooking!

    $9+ for nuked veg? my god.

  • No wonder the Berkeley location went under.

  • As somebody who is non-vegan Chinese and has eaten at Chaya I can assure you that those mushrooms are canned, or perhaps bottled. My local Chinese market in Chinatown sells them relatively inexpensively in bulk.

    I hate to hate on a restaurant that’s doing vegan food, but Chaya really does a disservice to the vegan community and Asian food in general. It’s unimaginative, improperly spiced and WAY WAY too expensive.

    Oh, and the staff are not Japanese either. it’s fake, like the review says.

  • I’ve tried the Cha Ya in Berkeley and it wasn’t too bad. The portions were pretty big and at least there wasn’t any annoying flourescent lighting.

  • Yeah, chaya really is not a good place to eat. The food is crap and the clientele are all douchebags.

  • “(how many fully vegan Japanese restaurants do you come across on a daily basis?!)”

    I’ve never been to Cha Ya, but I feel confident saying that Shojin in LA puts this place to shame in every way. TO SHAME. From the food, to the ambiance, to the ridiculous overpoliteness of the staff.

  • “shojin puts this place to shame.”

    LOL I swear I didn’t read this before I made my comment above.

  • SHOJIN IS THE BEST VEGAN RESTAURANT EVER. Japanese or any other type. their food is always fresh and so delicious. The staff is out of this world and the owner is on top of everything. I’ve always wanted to try Cha-ya, but after reading your review, there’s no way in hell we’ll ever go there.

  • The reason for cash only is because that way they can hide money. I’m a restaurant bookkeeper, and have been for over 25 years, and every time I come across a “cash only” restaurant I immediately know they’re skimming.

  • i was not so impressed by cha ya. all of the tempura was super oily.

  • Aaaw. To be honest, I’ve only been to the SF Cha-Ya a couple times long ago, and it’s been a long time since I’ve been to the Berkeley location, which to my understanding is currently under construction to expand into the space next door. While it’s been a while, I used to go once a week and always had friendly service and good food there. Much of the prep area is exposed so you can see them making your food. It always tasted fresh and I never noticed any microwave sounds. This location is cash only just for lunch hours, and during these hours they have great lunch specials. My only issue with this spot is that they would often forget to refill your water as they got busy (and this place was always packed in the evenings).

    While I think the SF review sounded extreme, I’ll admit that my personal experience there was not as good as at the Berkeley location. I hope they haven’t just generally gone down hill quality-wise!

  • Horrible service and you hit the nail on the head with the “suburban DMV” description.

    I have eaten there 2 or 3 times and felt so underwhelmed on each occasion.

    Probably won’t go back.

  • Oh man :S Since everything to them is premade, those noodles were probably all slimey and poofed too much because its been sitting in broth for waayyyy too long. yuck.

  • The Berkeley location is fantastic! I lived there for 4 years and it was my favorite vegan restaurant (and that’s saying something in Berkeley.) I never experienced unfriendly service, microwave bings, or gross produce. They always had fresh, large portions that left me wanting more because it was so damn good, but not knowing where it was going to fit in my stomach. I have tasted some of the best things I’ve ever eaten at this place: gyoza, hangetsu, vegan miso soup, and ridiculously good rolls (Shattuck roll? hello beautiful!) The only less-than-positive aspect I’ve experienced is that you sometimes have to wait for a seat because the place is so small.

    I’ve never been to the SF Cha Ya, but I would hate for the Berkeley location to get a bad rep because the SF location sucks.

  • it’s been years since i’ve lived in the bay area but i always left the berkeley location happy and full. the only problem was the wait to get in sometimes. a friend from japan said it was the only japanese restaurant she found in the bay area that wasn’t catering to the western desire for too much salt and sugar in everything.

  • Yeah let’s not confuse the SF location and the Berkeley one. The Berkeley Cha Ya is amazing. The ambiance is great, the service friendly, and the food is so good. I’ve been there twice and loved it. The food is super fresh and you can see them make it in front of you. The only negative is that the restaurant is very small and the wait can be long.

    Go and try the Berkeley location!! : )

  • I review a couple of meals a week, maybe more, on my blog and have to admit that I try, I really try to not say negative things about a vegan restaurant. I feel your pain when it becomes impossible to not let the flood gates open.

    It sounds like you hit the trifecta of a crappy meal:
    lousy environment, lousy service, and lousy food. Once the food doesn’t pass muster it really doesn’t matter how nice the place is or how pleasant the servers are.

    Thanks for putting it out there.

    Marty’s Flying Vegan Review

  • Ugh, that sucks! I know it’s tough to write a wholly negative review, and I thank you for it. It’s just as important to know where NOT to go when you’re new to a city.

    Really, a microwave?

  • Heh, I wonder when the QG smear campaign from Cha-Ya will begin, a la Pure Luck.

  • I like Cha-ya, especially the Berkeley location, as others have noted. I usually stick with the maki, and I’ve always really enjoyed my veggie sushi options! Especially the avocado tempura roll, which is one of my favorite dishes I have eaten in my life, and I always get that. It is always fresh and warm and obviously not prepared in advance, nor microwaved.

  • I’ve never read a review that had such a disparity with my experience in my life.
    I lived around the corner from Cha-Ya in Berkeley and frequented them around 300 to 350 times over the course of four years, sometimes going twice in one day. The tempura, sushi, soups, were all in perfect in my opinion. I frequented them four times a week for the first two years because they made brown rice sushi. They stopped doing this so I only went twice a week after that.

    The staff, service was also perfect. Some of the waiters were Mongolian and some were Japanese. The people making the sushi are Latino. The owner is Japanese and his daughter used to help out in 2005 and 2006.

    I moved to SF in 2009 and frequented the SF location about 50 times.

    The only negatives I know of is a.) the long wait at both locations on Thurs, Fri, Sat b.) they do not take credit cards and c.) the menu does not change enough.

  • Thank you for being honest. I am pretty sure I got food poisoning from a terrible meal here two summers ago. Plus, there were fruit flies flying around my salad! So gross! I will NEVER eat there again. And another word of caution…never try and eat there solo…almost felt like I was a leper!

  • Between the SF and Berkeley locations, there are around 1,000 reviews on Yelp for Cha-Ya. Most of them are good or excellent reviews. The negative ones are often by meat eating Asians and are relatively rare.

    The author’s assertion is that Cha Ya is a fake, vegan restaurant out to make a quick buck does not jive with the reviews.

    I view Cha-Ya as an alternative to Japanese sushi restaurants. At these restaurants, I have been served fish flakes, butter, fish sauce, milk, etc. all while specifically ordering vegetarian. Also, when they make the sushi, they use the same knife, same cutting board, etc. Salmon, tuna juice is in almost every kappa roll in the U.S. Their tempura often contains egg and even if it does not, they are frying their fish/chicken/pork katsu and tempatura in the same deep fryer. The places that do grill cooking in front of you, often use butter to grease the vegetables.

    Or how about the smell of fish wafting throughout?

    I’ve stopped frequenting any Sushi restaurant in the Bay area for over 5 years thanks to Cha-Ya. Japanese food is one of my favorites and I am thankful and grateful for the fact that they exist.

    I forgot to mention in my prior comment that I have taken around 50 different people to this restaurant including my students, my professors, my colleagues, friends, family, etc. No one ever complained – except about the waiting time. I’ve consumed tempura at over 100 Japanese restaurants in 15 states. Their tempure is consistently among the best.

    If the place was so disgusting and horrible, why is there a wait of 45 minutes on most thurs and weekend nights? Why are the reviews so good?

    To me it seems the author of this blog post has a different standard for establishments that are vegan but owned by non-vegan owners. He/she has attacked this restaurant and Pure Food and Wine in a fashion that aggrandizes miniscule issues and puts a different standard on the quality of food.

    Vats of deep fryer oil? This is quite common at vegan restaurants. And they all purchase in bulk oil. Canned foods? Quite common. The reason you are aware of this here is because the kitchen is visible. I’ve been inside the kitchen of some of the top vegan restaurants. I’ve seen crisco, trans-fat, cockroaches, rats, sauces with high fructose corn syrup, and even non-vegan items (some used for customers and some used for kitchen staff.)

    My recommendation is do not listen to this biased review. Try it for yourself. I’ve been to over 200 vegetarian establishments and this is one of the most healthy, most consistent, value meals. If you are looking for seitan cheesesteaks, fake cheese, etc, this is not the place.

  • GreyC,

    Avoidance of credit cards is not always because of skimming. Skimming is easy to do with or without credit cards.

    I will refer you to Angelica Kitchen, located in New York. It is the oldest vegan restaurant in the U.S. They currently do not and never have accepted credit cards.

    Their reasoning is quite simple. Less fees to the credit card companies means they are able to continue to purchase 2,000 to 2,500 pounds of local, organic produce produced by small farmers.

  • Gabrielle, correct.

    There are zero vegan Japanese places in Japan. Zero in Europe or Latin America.

    And Cha-Ya was the first in the U.S.

    If the author of this blog went to Kajitsu (nyc) or Medicine (now defunct), they would see that the portions are even smaller.

    Harping on the small portions is comical because the price is fair and most Japanese restaurants serve smaller portions relative to other establishments.

    I paid $180 dollars for myself and a date at Kajitsu for food that while creative were very small portions.

  • “I’ve consumed tempura at over 100 Japanese restaurants in 15 states.”

    Wow, what an amazing factoid. Are we supposed to be impressed and fall down at your feet?

    A review of ANYTHING is simply a report on the writer’s experience, no more, no less. Find the restaurant reviewers that fit YOUR TASTES, just as you learn what movie critics you trust.

    Most restaurant critics understand that there are one-off flukes and will come back later to get a second impression. These are professional reviewers with expense accounts.

    But this is not what QG does for a living, this restaurant is hundreds of miles from home, and this review is STILL a second impression. You’re probably not going to get any better than that here.

  • I don’t deny that QG throws a lot of weight in the vegan restaurant community (that’s not a fat joke!); after all, several restaurants have dishes and discounts named after her. That’s an entirely separate topic of restaurant/reviewer relationships, and whether QG is a reviewer or a consultant, but at the end of the day this is just some individual’s blog.

  • Wow I don’t know what is more entertaining, Mr. Meaner’s review or these comments.

  • “Wow, what an amazing factoid. Are we supposed to be impressed and fall down at your feet?”

    If you’d like. The purpose in me saying that is to say I’ve been a lot of Japanese restaurants and the tempura is excellent at Cha-Ya. I order it each and every time and have never had it be bad or even mediocre. This is out of 400 times or more.

  • There IS a vegan Japanese restaurant in Europe: http://www.itadakizen.com

    I ate at Cha-Ya in Berkley last year, it was mediocre. I’m no expert in Japanese cuisine, but Itadaki Zen is way better. And their tempura is damn good.

  • OMG Jimbo Johnson, I might have given your first post some consideration, but after your non-stop over-the-top impossibly sycophantic posts that continue to ramble on about how near-culty-perfection this place is, I tend to think you either work for them or are friends with some owner or something.

    You can’t change the fact that I would hate to pay that much at a place with those signs and cheapo lighting, and cash only with an ATM defeats the purpose. It clearly is for skimming or making extra $2 instead of losing $0.50 on Visa/MC fees.

    I hope your 50 friends and 18,000 visits enjoy their microwaved food.

  • yeah cha-ya is total shit.
    Minako, a block a way has the most amaaaaazing vegan sushi ever! for me it blows Shojin out of the water without a doubt. They also serve fish but are so conscious about what is vegan and what is not, they have a full vegan menu.

  • Ha,

    As long as you apply your same biased, cynical view to the dozens of vegan restaurants who charge as much or more but have a.) less cleanliness b.) cheap decor c.) use canned food, then I respect your views.

    As I mentioned before but you seem to ignore, Angelica Kitchen has avoided taking credit cards for 35 years. The owner’s former partner who died unexpectadly at a young age was very against credit cards and credit card fees. The current owner wanted to continue his desire to be free of credit cards and has done so.

    Lets see if you have the courage to tell her that her bf was a slimy skimmer. You won’t because you are a spineless coward.

    P.S. I probably have 300 credit charges from Cha-Ya. It is lunch they do not take credit cards for at the Berkeley location but for dinner they do. Nice try with your theory. Perhaps you should do research before you open your f-in mouth.

    Your assertion that I am a friend of the family is as absurd as me suggesting that quarrygirl.com is paid off by Shojin to write this negative post.

  • Just wanted to chime in that the Berkeley location is fantastic. We go there almost every weekend and haven’t ever experienced the faults mentioned in the review here. Especially since the recent expansion- now you never have to wait for a table.

    We visited the one in SF once and while it wasn’t as bad as this made it out to be, it definitely wasn’t as good as the one in Berkeley.

1 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

Leave a reply