A few months ago, a friend of mine let me in on the best way to eat at Yamo. “You've got to sit at the counter,” he said. “It's the only way.”
To be clear, the counter is the only place to sit at Yamo. A long sliver about eight seats long, it slices the restaurant into halves, neither side much longer than an arm's length. The air is thick with grease, the windows clouded with years of oil splashed from a six- burner stovetop. One woman is always working the stove, and one is taking orders. On busy nights, the cook's daughter might show up to help work the register. There is lots of shouting in the kitchen, and nothing costs more than $6.25.
From the outside, Yamo's kitchen looks like chaos: heaping bins of cilantro and bean sprouts, a jumbled mash of tickets stuck above the prep station, mismatched pot lids shoved over steaming gyoza in cast-iron woks.
Sit down at the counter, though, wait long enough, and the chaos settles into a rapidly repeating pattern. I suppose my friend’s comment meant that sitting at the counter allows you to see your food, to feel the place organize itself around you.
In a word, Yamo is a finely tuned storm, and it puts out some of the best noodles in town. Best of the lot are the house noodles, a steaming, fire-kissed tangle of fresh egg noodles tossed in an addicting soy-rich sauce, sprinkled in crunchy fried garlic and the meat of your choice. A mound of green onion and cilantro adds a sharp edge that makes the whole thing dance.
Traditionally, Yamo has been my spot for warm noodles on a cold night, for something simple and cheap and unendingly comforting when all I want is to eat alone (more on that in a moment).
But, in an obligatory effort to try weirder things for this review, I got my hands on some of the fish chowder. Garnished with clusters of fried peas that tasted more like old oil than the peas themselves, the soup was a strange foil to Yamo's mostly foolproof seasoning. Thick with catfish flakes and noodles, it was earthy but bland, with a few hints of Chinese five spice buried in the broth. So I leapt back to the mainstays.
The black bean fish throws simple breaded fish and vegetables over rice. It wasn’t all that flavorful, but not boring either. Better is the mango chicken, a perennial favorite of Yamo first-timers that adds lovely sweetness and acid to the standard caramelized jumble of chicken, green beans and onions.
Curries are a bit unusual, thin, savory and soupy, served with any meat. On the upside, the cold noodles are wildly delicious — a cooled bowl of the same fresh egg noodles glazed in sweet chili sauce. Decked in crushed nuts and scallions, they're nearly impossible to stop eating.
To get a seat in Yamo, go alone. When everyone is facing the same way, everyone looks alone, anyway.
The most well-known downside to Yamo is the service, but that's mostly a rookie complaint. Stick around long enough and you'll come to cherish the abrasion, that lingering feeling that you've done something wrong. Just remember, don't order the prawns. They are always out of prawns. Can't you see the sign?
Location: 3406 18th St., S.F.
Contact: (415) 553-8911
Hours: 10:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays
Price range: $6
Recommended dishes: House noodles ($6), cold noodles ($6), mango chicken ($6)
Credit cards: Not accepted
Reservations: Not accepted