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Sushi Zone/No Name Sushi, SF, CA

July 11, 2007

Sushi Zone, aka No Name Sushi, is one of those hole-in-the-wall sushi spots that you hear about now and again…a little tiny mom and pop place with the killer fish. There’s always someone raving about the hamachi, or the special appetizer, and of course the interminable wait followed by the gastronomical equivalent of losing your virginity. Am i wrong, or do you hear about this too? I think there are more and more of these popping up, to my great delight, and I can understand why.

Running a sushi restaurant is not particularly complicated. Challenging and difficult and painful sure, but not complicated. The only thing you need to cook is rice, and that can be done in an appliance, so you don’t need an expensive kitchen with lots of ventilation and what-not, and you can almost always get by with nothing more than a toaster. It’s a good start-up for an aspiring sushi chef.

Sure, if you want to be a full-service spot with a robata grill and tempura and udon and everything else in between, you need a normal commercial set-up, but you can get into the sushi counter business for pennies on the dollar. That doesn’t mean you’ll be a success though.

Will you be good? How are you at mixing rice? Are you rough on the grains? Does your rice taste wholesome? Have you used the appropriate amount of vinegar? Is your rice too starchy and sticky? How seriously do you take your rice? Do you have your fishmonger on speed dial? Can you tell the difference between day-old tuna and two-day-old tuna?

These are questions that were apparently asked and answered affirmatively by the darling folks that run Sushi Zone.

It is, for all intents and purposes, a fairly typical little spot. A couple of booths, 8 seats at the L-shaped counter, and three employees. That is if you count the husband/wife team as two and the dishwasher as the third.

However, we waited a long time for everything.

Really, like a really long time.

And this is a sentiment that is echoed by nearly every other review I’ve read.

The problem with waiting here for a long time is that there’s not really anywhere comfortable to wait. It’s a postage stamp eatery, and as such, you feel like you’re sharing the booth with the very people you want to see finish eating and vacate the premises. Kind of lame, in that regard. Kirala in Berkeley has at least a nice sized bar to hang out in…Sushi Sho in Albany has tables to sit at at least if you’re going to tough it out…but hey, you’re in the Zone so quit complaining I guess.

It was about an hour wait, even though our name went on the list at 6:15. That’s pretty sucky in my book. I think that if you make me wait an hour for food, you could serve me boiled rutabagas slathered in mayonnaise and topped with scallions and I’d probably think I had found sushi nirvana. That being said though, the sushi at the ‘Zone is pretty darned tasty.

Is it worth waiting an hour for on a Tuesday night? Perhaps not. But it is, again, really darned tasty. One of the house specialties is Sea Bass and Mango broiled in a large mussel shell. Sauced with mayonnaise and broiled to a nicely charred exterior, it hides a gooey masterpiece within. Unfortunately, five bucks only gets you two pieces, and they’re gone in an instant. An instant which precedes another twenty minute wait for more food. Ugh.

I can appreciate a sushi chef that works the room in rounds…it makes a heck of a lot of sense, and that’s how it’s typically done in the higher end establishments where you’re expected to only order one or two pieces at a time directly from the chef. But it’s not working so well here. Maybe he just needs to put up a few more pieces per person/table before heading to the next order, but you can get pretty annoyed when the food comes in such punctuated equilibrium. Or perhaps they should give everyone something simple, cheap and easy to placate their appetites while waiting for the rest. At about $30 a head, it’s not exactly bargain sushi, and I know they can afford to drop a bowl of miso on everyone gratis, or give up some love with a tiny cucumber salad while you’re waiting for the food to arrive. That sort of thing goes a long way towards keeping diners from remembering the lack of punctuality over the flavors.

Speaking of flavors, they are producing some pretty interesting rolls. There’s more mango on the menu here then any other Japanese restaurant I’ve ever been in, and their versions of some of the standbys – rock-n-roll, spicy tuna roll, etc. – get high marks.

One of the standouts in our dinner was the hamachi kama, or yellowtail collar. It’s a great cut of fish, and these guys did a fantastic job with it. Lightly marinated, I think, in soy and mirin, it was broiled perfectly a pointe which kept the fish meltingly tender inside. It was one of the better renditions I’ve seen in a while.

Also popular, though a bit off the mark in my estimation, are the Hawaiian rolls. There’s two, and they’re variations on tuna or albacore with mango, mayonnaise and macadamia nuts. An interesting combination that to me was just not entirely on the money. I think I would prefer to see the macadamias chopped very finely and rolled around the outside like tobiko rather than their coarsely chopped piles which they placed atop the sliced rolls. I ordered the salmon skin roll too, which I incorrectly assumed would be a hand-roll, and was somewhat disappointed with it in the maki format.

The rice was ever-so-slightly over vinegared, and if you want me to be a real crapper, also ever-so-slightly overcooked. This was indeed too starchy. They’re the kind of rolls that leave overly significant starch stickage on your fingers.

That all being said however, our sashimi combination was excellent, if a little on the small side. Snapper, salmon, ebi, hamachi, maguro, albacore and saba were all in effect, two pieces each, and the quality of the fish was absolutely top-notch. It might have been a factor of sharing the sashimi platter with two friends, but I thought for $22 it should have had a few more pieces. I’m a pain in the ass sometimes, I know. It’s cool though, I’m used to it!

They have a standard Bay Area assortment of warm and chilled sake, including some Sho Chiku Bai nigori which is made right in Berkeley and is always a fantastic accompaniment to any kind of sushi. The people are super friendly and welcoming, and honestly, if it weren’t for the damn wait I’d say it was right up there with some of my favorites.

My advice would be to head over to Sushi Zone with a back-up plan in mind. You may need to go a couple of times, each time going with the Plan B, until you get the timing right and the wait is modest, but it’s without a doubt some fine eating once you get to the eating point.

Take ‘er easy, and let me know how it goes.

Sushi Zone
1815 Market St
San Francisco, CA 94103
(415) 621-1114

Open daily, 5pm ’till 10.

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