The San Francisco Guide to Sushi
San Francisco has a small community of obsessives who are so freaking intense about their sushi that nobody dare try to tell them who serves the best fish in the city or delivers the best experience. Some of these self-proclaimed experts have been to Japan a zillion times and have a very broad, educated basis for comparison, while others just like to flex their opinions as loudly as possible.
This guide isn’t for any of those people. It’s for you, the everyday eater who wants a reliable mood index of where to go when you want to splurge, save, experiment, be disciplined with deliciousness — or maybe even when you want sushi but happen to hate fish. Got you too, boo!
You Want the Sushi Nazi Experience
There’s a rumor that Noboru Inoue (Ino-san), the proprietor of the tiny high-end spot Ino Sushi in Japan Center, may soon retire. It’s a San Francisco rite of sushi passage to eat straight off his counter with no plates and to watch him scold both you and his wife (the server) for one reason or another; cellphone infractions are a big trigger for his scorn, so we didn’t dare take any photos of the meals here. He’s, well, rather authoritative. While we don't particularly like being disciplined during a meal, following Ino-san's orders can lead to the rare case where enduring a bit of humiliation is worth it, especially if it makes you confront surprising flavor combinations such as a hand roll of crispy fried smelt tucked in with a shiso leaf.
You Desire a Place That Feels Like Your Secret Spot
Sorry if this is already your secret spot, but Eiji in the Castro is tiny, cute, and romantic. More importantly, it serves good food. Aside from the fish, consider ordering the fresh, house-made oboro tofu even if you’re not a tofu person. It’s served warm and jiggly with condiments you add yourself: soy sauce, ginger, daikon radish, green onion, and sesame seeds.
You’re Stuck Downtown for Lunch
The Twitter building’s fancy new food hall The Market on Market has a sushi bar called, rather uncreatively, Sushi Bar. Don’t let the fact that they couldn’t come up with a real name deter you from trying it, because it’s one of few places in the hall that’s a worthy destination in itself. The Tokyo-style bar is a good stop for sashimi à la carte or in combos. Spicy tuna rolls, California rolls, and bento boxes are available in the refrigerated case across the way if you are looking for something quicker or more Americanized.
You Need to Eat for $10
Yum Yum Fish, a 35-year-old sushi and sashimi counter in the Outer Sunset, is beloved in the neighborhood for its really affordable prices. Expect mostly traditional stuff here, but they also have some wild options like the tuna salad roll, which has lettuce and tomato inside and is way better than a tuna sandwich. You can eat here or get takeout, but the latter is recommended because it’s basically a tiny fish market — plus Golden Gate Park is a block away.
You’d Like to Eat for $20
For $15 or less, Domo in Hayes Valley will serve you a lunch combo or a full order of a specialty roll. They may even do so while singing some guilty pleasure R&B song that’s playing on the stereo, and you may be tempted to join in and add your own diva-like ad libs to the mix. (We haven’t tried this but we get the feeling it wouldn’t be frowned upon if we did.) Domo is laid-back and truly a sleeper hit in this city when it comes to a cool sushi lunch, which isn’t as ubiquitous as you might think. Sushi often likes to play after dark.
You Seek a Quality Omakase without a Fixed Price
Ichi Sushi + NI Bar in Bernal Heights is a smash hit for a reason. Where other places of comparably excellent fish quality demand a certain minimum price for omakase (or chef’s choice) meals, Ichi will work within your hunger and budget range. You can declare your monetary limit upfront or just wait and wave the white flag when you’re full, but either way you have lots of options. The atmosphere is lively and the chefs are fun.
You Want to Try Fish You May Never See Again
In describing its open-minded fish policy, Pabu manager Anthony Kinn explains that the elegant Financial District restaurant gets lots of unusual offerings from Tokyo’s famed Tsukiji Market that reappear infrequently or just simply never come back. Pabu can design an omakase experience if you have time to be leisurely and adventurous. Or if you want a stellar power lunch, the menu has nigiri and sashimi combos as well as rolls, and you can ask about potential exotic specials of the moment.
You Have a Sushi Daddy/Mama with Deep Pockets
At $95, Kusakabe has the highest fixed-price minimum in San Francisco, but we’d eat this dream sequence of a meal regularly if we had a sponsoring sushi daddy/mama to pick up the tab (any takers?). At the end of the sequence, as with most high-end omakase spots, you get an à la carte menu if you want to keep the party going. And you’ll want to keep the party going. We added another $50 to our bill in like two seconds flat by succumbing to such temptations as the lobster omelet, which is actually more like a lobster sponge cake, and barracuda.
Not far behind Kusakabe in price, dazzle, and innovation is Maruya in the Mission, which has three options starting at $80. And its keep-the-party-going à la carte menu offers fresh items from seafood-friendly locales like Hokkaido, Japan, Tasmania, and Mendocino. Wako in the Richmond District likewise charges $76 for a stellar seven-course omakase and plays the best sushi soundtrack in town. To eat at any of these places even once is a huge treat.
You Crave an Unusual Hand Roll
Koo in the Inner Sunset is a good spot for the classics but it also offers two unusual temaki, or hand rolls: baked scallops with wasabi-spiked salmon roe and fried crawfish with lettuce and spicy garlic mayonnaise. Do note that the place gets packed early because of its overall good quality and happy-hour prices.
You Prefer to Drive a Hybrid
Purists, cover your eyes! Everyone else, recall our love for the California Croissant at Mr. Holmes Bakehouse, that place where thieves steal recipes instead of cash. The California is an airy croissant stuffed with nori-wrapped salmon, ginger, and wasabi, with soy sauce served on the side. Your mouth would like to meet it one of these days.
You’d Rather Not Eat Fish, Thank You Very Much
If you’re vegetarian or vegan or just plain get skeeved out by seafood, you don’t have to be deprived of a solid sushi experience. The owners of the lovely Tataki Sustainable Sushi and Sake Bar, which has two locations in San Francisco, recently opened Shizen, a vegan izakaya and sushi bar. It has a pretty Zen vibe, especially for being in the Mission, and it offers a fun variety of nigiri and rolls. We found that the okra nigiri, dressed with sake, sweet shoyu, and truffle salt, might cause addiction, and that thinly sliced red beets make for a great raw tuna substitute in the Colonel’s Pipe, a roll filled with cashews, cream cheese, avocado, sweet mustard, and orange zest. Bonus pro tips: Skip the vegan California roll, but do not skip a bowl of ramen; they’ve really gone to a lot of effort to make it robust and satisfying.
This story is brought to you by the great people over at the Bold Italic. The Bold Italic is an online magazine, shop, and events hub in San Francisco. We celebrate the free-wheeling spirit of the city.
Photo via Pabu.