Seeking the Hidden Treasures – Sushi Gems in San Francisco

These is a certain kind of sushi restaurant that delights in hiding in plain sight.  In San Francisco, they seem to compete on blandness for the most bland exteriors, only to show their true colors to the luck few who’s patience in out waiting their rivals is rewarded with a tasty repast.  They are typically tiny  with a handful of tables, at most, and the store front is so nondescript that they are almost a speak easy, but I have not heard of any passwords required to seek entry. They’ve been a topic of conversation on ChowHound and other food sites.

Practically every sushi lover that I talk to has their own favorite, a nondescript place that in the light of day, you would walk by and never know that this was a delights of sushi.  But at night, its another story, with the lights on and the lanterns out and lit and the banners hung – all sushi restaurant accruement telling the diner to be ready for action.  These owners prefer to let their work speak for itself, as clamoring crowds gather up and down the sidewalk resigned to wait their turn.  They seem to pride themselves on making the entrance to their establishment as drab as possible, as if by contrast the food is that far superior to their showy counterparts.

I’ve lived in other cities around the country, and was never aware of these sorts of sorts of establishments.  Although they may and been there, and I just walked right by them.  So I must ask, are you aware of sushi restaurants like this, where you live?

There’s about a dozen or so of these restaurants in San Francisco that make the list.  I offer up for your consideration:

Hama-Ko on Carl Street

Okina Sushi

Tekka on Balboa in the Inner Richmond

I’ve been to a few of them, and found them delicious, but I confess that I do not eat sushi with the regularity that allows me to say one is better than the other.  I can tell you it is an experience to eat here.  You come to focus on the food, not the atmosphere, and the quality is of fish that I’ve encountered speaks to the concerted effort of the chefs to offer superior sushi.  The proprietors were always very considerate and offered up some wonderful suggestions, but I had heard some folks call the chefs “difficult” or “sushi nazis”, “sushi bullies”  as they have rules that are best to abide by, such as

  • Dip their sushi in soy sauce at your peril.  It is perfect the way it is, thank you very much.
  • Do not make a heavy mix of wasabi paste and soy sauce.  If you are caught doing so, your real washabi will be replaced with the fake stuff.
  • Don’t ask what is good, its all good.
  • Don’t try to make small talk, they want to focus on their craft.
  • Do not order off the menu, these sushi chefs know their stuff and will serve you what’s best.  Order, instead, “omakase” – a Japanese expression that loosely translates to “trust the chef”.
  • DO NOT ask for California rolls.

Never having encountered a difficult sushi chef first hand, I may not appreciate the negative aspect.  I do respect anyone that appreciates good quality food and its treatment, and wants to showcase the preparation as it was intended to be.  I see them more as my guide to good sushi, they know what is good, they know how to prepare it and showcase its flavors.

I know that by dipping my sushi in the soy sauce, the subtly of ingredients that were applied to enhance the flavor of the fish is lost.  To watch a patron dip first without even tasting, I can imagine is very frustrating  from the chefs point of view.  It must be akin to someone reaching for the Tobasco to douse my scrambled eggs to give it a bit of zing without even sampling them first – I’d not be too happy with that.


Ebisu in the Sunset District of San Francisco

This recipe is my attempt to replicate a dessert I had years ago at Ebisu Sushi Restaurant ( a not so hidden gem in the Sunset District of San Francisco) and I was disappointed, ok devastated to learn they had removed from their menu.  To me it was the perfect end to a wonderful sushi meal.  I loved this treat and dreamed about it for years, until I finally decided, “enough with the moping already, try making it yourself”.

Here are my two attempts, and all I can say, is given the simple ingredients, each delicious in their own right, its really hard to go wrong.  The first version is very refreshing and tastes more of the lemon, close but not exactly as I remembered this tasty treat.  The second version tastes much more like what I remember, and is just darn good if I do say so myself.  You may want to add a bit more of the simple syrup, I like my lemon desserts a bit on the tart side.

Sake Sorbet


Version 1

juice of 6 lemons ~ 1 c
2 c simple syrup (I use a 1:1 ration of sugar to water for my syrup)
3/4 c sake

Version 2

juice of 6 lemons
3 c simple syrup
1 c sake


Follow the directions on your ice cream maker.  Note:  I have a standard Krup ice cream maker and the consistency never gets beyond slushy.  If your aim is a boozy drink with the consistency of a frozen margarita, stop right here.  If you want to have it more on the order of a sorbet. Stick it in the freezer a few hours prior to serving.

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27 comments for “Seeking the Hidden Treasures – Sushi Gems in San Francisco

  1. July 11, 2010 at 10:33 AM

    L – Love that you spelled out the sushi rules. I always go omakase and never regret the adventure. And yes, perfection shouldn’t be interfered with soy sauce. btw, I’m going to visit Barbacco again before plunging into a post.

  2. cat
    July 11, 2010 at 10:58 AM

    that sake sorbet sounds so interesting and yummy!

  3. July 11, 2010 at 12:50 PM

    What a great post. I love the format of your blog. Several years ago a woman made a map of secret map of Singapore with all kinds of hidden treasures.

  4. July 11, 2010 at 3:41 PM

    Sake sorbet?! Wow!
    Oops, I do dip my sushi in the soysauce….and make a mess, too. Will make sure not to do that next time!

  5. July 11, 2010 at 4:26 PM

    Rules of sushi chefs are so interesting. It’s good to learn these rules before going to a sushi restaurant. We don’t have any sushi restaurants in my city, but there must be several in Istanbul. I must visit one of them during my next trip to there.

    Sake sorbet sounds definitely so refreshing with that much lemon juice. And it’s simple, a must try.

  6. July 11, 2010 at 5:48 PM

    When I was growing up in San Francisco, Ebisu was one of my favorite Japanese restaurants. There is always a line, and rightly so, since it’s so good and the quality of the fish so high. I used to stuff myself silly with sushi, so I never had room for dessert. Had no idea they even offered sake sorbet. Too bad I missed it. But fortunately, I can just use your recipes to taste what I missed at the restaurant.

  7. July 11, 2010 at 9:29 PM

    I soooo will be making me some sake sorbetes!!!!

    I love small sushi places thanks showing a few of them. Oh how I miss San Fran. I need to get back there soon. Really soon!!

  8. admin
    July 12, 2010 at 5:57 AM

    Christine – Not sure that those rules apply everywhere, but especially the first two rules, dipping without tasting does not make much sense especially when you are going to a place that prides itself on the fish and their preparation. An “all you can eat” sushi place I might understand.
    Barbacoco, definitely needs a few trips to make sure you get the post right =) Bon Appetite!

    Cat – That sake sorbet quickly became a family favorite.

    Tammy – Those hidden treasure posts are wonderful. Unfortunately, many of the other “hidden gems” in the city are hidden to me as I generally do not venture too far afield for my sushi.

    Sophia – I say you should be able to eat it how you like, but can appreciate the chefs desire that you at least taste it first. Some people, my husband included reach for the soy sauce or the salt and add it to their food before they even know where it needs it. Everyone’s palate is different, and every sushi chef probably has a different take. I generalized a lot when I collected the rules, but just wanted to point a few items out from the perspective of these guys that are passionate about what they do.

    Zerrin – If you’ve never tried sushi I hope you find one in Istanbul, although the amazing sounding restaurants that exist there, I’m not sure how you could ever choose.

    Carolyn – My husband’s family has lived near Ebisu since he was a kid, and its always been a place they frequented. I can see why, the sushi is delicious, and generally I’m with you, by the time we’re done with the sushi any though of dessert is gone. However, on one occasion we tried that sake sorbet and it was a winner.

    Jenn – I think you’ll like the sorbet, and I can only imagine that you have some pretty great sushi options in SoCal, too.

  9. July 12, 2010 at 7:59 AM

    I like sushi but every time I eat it I get a major stomach ache. I think it might be the rice – just a few slices make me feel as if I’ve eaten a 5 course meal. But the sake sorbet I can do! So refreshing!

  10. July 12, 2010 at 8:47 AM

    Why? Is there a taboo for California rolls? I like to eat my sushi with pickled ginger. No soy sauce. Is that the right way?

  11. July 12, 2010 at 12:07 PM

    I will pass the word along on the Ebisu one as my brother lives in the Sunset district.

  12. July 12, 2010 at 1:03 PM

    Hahaha. Those sushi rules made me laugh!! but they are all true. LOL
    I’m so glad you posted this, because someone just asked me over the weekend where the best sushi place in SF that’s not too expensive. I LOVE sushi and it’s one of my favorite foods, but it made me realize how much I don’t go out for sushi. I tend to focus on other ethnic foods when it comes to eating out. Being a Japanese and not having a go-to affordable sushi place is a shame! 🙁 I’m gonna take you up on your advice and check out these places.

    By the way, have you been to Sebo in Hayes Valley? It’s not cheap, but they severed special sushi with sea salt. I’ve never had sushi like that, but it was really good!

  13. July 12, 2010 at 2:44 PM

    Dublin’s sushi culture really isn’t developed enough to have such hole-in-the-wall places (or if it does, I don’t know about them!). We do have some sushi places but none, I suspect, to compare with the best of what SF has to offer. Yet another thing to add to the list for when I next get over there 🙂

  14. July 12, 2010 at 3:25 PM

    We don’t have many serious sushi places here, but we do have a sushi trailer. Trusting the chef might be a challenge for me and my pickiness, but I bet it would be delicious.

  15. July 12, 2010 at 5:51 PM

    Culinary journeys are my favorite! More speaking about sushi. Really want to try the sake sorbet sounds very good 🙂



  16. July 12, 2010 at 7:48 PM

    Sake sorbet? I have to try this one…it sure sounds good!

  17. July 12, 2010 at 8:09 PM

    sake sorbet, what a treat I would love to try this for our next dinner party, hmm my guest would think I was a genius, I love the rules, I also have no problem with what people call negative chefs, hey they know their craft and appreciate their passion

  18. admin
    July 12, 2010 at 8:17 PM

    Reeni – wow, sorry to hear about the unfortunate side effects of eating sushi. No fun at all.

    Tigerfish – I think the issue with California rolls is that they were invented in California to entice wary Americans into trying sushi. They are not authentic. These small little restaurants are trying to be authentic. Regarding the soy sauce, I think the issue is that these chefs are passionate about what they do and the fish they serve and to add soy sauce with its strong flavors in large amounts without even trying the food first is not respecting the fish or the chef. They’ve been trained in the preparation of the fish and the appropriate use of seasonings and basically you are going to these places to experience this sort of preparation. Their focus is on the freshest fish they can get their hands on. The fish I had was literally like butter it melted, there was no struggle trying to get my teeth through it.
    Here’s where the chefs and I may disagree, if after you try the fish and you determine that your personal tastes tell you it needs soy sauce or wasabi than go for it, but its the first taste that counts. I like the ginger too as a palate cleanser before I switch to a different type of sushi.

    TofB – He should take you when you come to see the baby! The Sunset was my old neighborhood I get there often. Love that area.

    Kitchen B – We have not ventured far out of our neighborhood for sushi. I have heard wonderful things about Sebo – I have another Japanese friend who loves it. We’ll have to expand our horizons.

    DailySpud – Noted, I’ll add it to the list of places for your next visit. =)

    Lisa – A sushi trailer, now that sounds intriguing. I know the trust part can be hard. Gotta give up the control sometime. =)

    Gera – I can vouch for the sake sorbet – hiccup! =-P

    Juliana – It is good!

  19. July 13, 2010 at 8:43 AM

    Thanks for this great list of SF sushi spots. I love sushi but, like you, don’t eat it enough. I have been to Tekka awhile back and it was delicious. Wow, that saki sorbet sounds amazing! Think I might give it a buzz.

  20. July 14, 2010 at 7:48 AM

    Love sushi!!! Great list of places and I love learning about the rules.

  21. July 14, 2010 at 12:36 PM

    I love sushi and imagine SF to be a powerhouse of great fish. I am aware of most of the rules and understand why they exist, but my number one rule is there is no such thing as bad sushi (really I mean it) so dig in. GREG

  22. July 14, 2010 at 4:08 PM

    I love this post! I don’t go to sushi bars regularly (my loss). But I have always enjoyed finding hidden gems of restaurants that surprise you. I love the “Golden Rules of Sushi.” And the sorbet looks so refreshing during this MN heat wave.

  23. July 14, 2010 at 7:24 PM

    Thanks so much for the heads up. I’m headed to SF for vacation in less than one month and this list will accompany me!

  24. July 15, 2010 at 8:57 AM

    Hubby and I did Omakase at Nobu in NYC, gosh so long ago, and we became addicted to doing all chef tastings in this style of ‘their decisions’. Princeton has a new sushi place, Mo C Mo C that just opened up not too long ago and I did a write up, so far every person that has gone based on my piece has text me with thumbs up- I am going to make that Sake Sorbet- its on my diet, lol! I am on a sorbet kick for my sweet treats…great post!

  25. July 15, 2010 at 10:41 AM

    I have made a gin and tonic sorbet but this sake sorbet sounds even better. I think I might fill it into a cucumber cup…have to run and try it right away!

  26. admin
    July 16, 2010 at 8:10 PM

    Lisa – We are indeed fortunate here in SF to have so many great sushi options.

    Erica – So glad!

    Sippity – I’m so with you on that one!

    Claudia – I heard you got hit hard with the heat wave, hope some relief is in sight.

    Lynn – Sweet!

    Chef E – Oh, I am envious. I think you will like the sorbet – let me know what you think.

    Crystal – I loved this sorbet the first time I had it, so I may be a bit biased.

  27. July 22, 2010 at 4:30 AM

    Oh wow, thanks for filling me in on the rules! I honeslty had no idea. We started eating sushi in Brazil and I don’t remember there being any rules. That’s kind of the norm there though. Sounds like it may be good to watch my step a bit if we dine on sushi while traveling around the US. That sorbet sounds wonderful! I never would have thought of sake in a sorbet.

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