Sushi Zone

Has anyone else noticed that his junk mail is now routinely arriving in envelopes prominently stamped “DO NOT BEND”? Yep, just another trick to make you think it’s something worth opening, there being nothing inside that wouldn’t benefit by being bent.

Sushi Zone is just off Market on Pearl Street, just south of Octavia Boulevard.  I’ve mentioned loving it before, but it’s worth a post all to itself.

Where to start?

Well, i come out of a culture that viewed eating raw fish as something you did when you were adrift in the Pacific and starving, so immediately before you started cannibalizing your fellows, you went ahead and choked down enough raw fish to sustain life.

And then somewhere along there in my young adulthood i learned that those inscrutable Japanese actually liked the taste of raw fish.  Oh please.

But that was the beginning of the slippery slope, so in 1973, the first summer i spent in San Francisco, i was touristing around at Fisherman’s Wharf and blundered onto Ichigo, a little Japanese restaurant at the foot of Columbus Street.  The first time, i had the tempura since who can resist fried shrimp?  But then on repeat visits i noticed folks gobbling up plates of something my favorite waitress identified as “sashimi”.  Hmmmm.  Oh, it’s that stuff.

By that time i’d already eaten ceviche and enjoyed it, so just hold the lime juice and you have sashimi, in this case maguro.  I knew i’d be able to force it down to get bragging rights over having eaten raw fish, but i’d never dreamed it would be delicious, so much better than cooked tuna.

And then in short order i discovered sushi and became a great fan.  Loved it all.  Well, with the exception of uni.  Look, i don’t mind slimy.  Hell, i’m a big fan of slimy if it tastes good, and even though i’ve liked every other fish egg i’ve eaten, with tobiko at the top, and keep trying uni in hopes i’ll come around, i still don’t like it.

Yes, they serve uni at Sushi Zone, but everything else is delicious.  So let’s talk about some favorites.  In general, the 25 or so varieties of pristine nigiri and sashimi are all great, and i won’t single any of them out although i have to mention that the rice in the nigiri is just perfect. Here’s a nigiri platter with a California roll.

Nigiri platter with a California roll

And here’s a sashimi platter of hamachi (yellowtail) and sake (salmon).

sashimi of sake and hamachi

What keeps me going back, though, is the rolls.  Oh my goodness, what rolls!  They have about 25 of them, including classics like the plain tuna, but where they soar is with the more innovative ones like the Spicy Hamachi, which consists of the seaweed wrapper around rice, hamachi, avocado, a few shreds of Jalapeño, lime, sprouts, scallions, and “spicy mayo” – a symphony of flavors so sublime that it’s all i can do not to just have that one over and over.


The Spicy Tuna, just like the Spicy Hamachi but without the lime and Jalapeño, is my second favorite.

Spicy Tuna roll

I didn’t get around for some time to trying the Spicy Scallop, like the above except with scallops, but it’s right up there with the tuna and hamachi.

Spicy scallop roll

Tuna Masa and Hama Masa are my next favorites, both with avocado, scallions, and masago. Here’s the Tuna Masa on the work board before slicing so you can better see the fish eggs on the outside.

Tuna Masa

And as presented.

Tuna Masa

Here’s another i also quite like, the Hawaiian #1, which has tuna, avocado, scallion, spicy mayo, and Macademia nuts.

Hawaiian Roll #1

And the Hawaiian #2, almost as good with all the above except mango concealed inside instead of avocado.

Hawaiian Roll #2

Like everyone, i just love unagi, so i’m surprised it took me a while to order the unagi roll with avocado and masago, but it’s delicious.

Unagi roll

The California Roll with crab and avocado and masago is practically a cliche here in California, but Yoshi’s version is sublime.

California roll

You really can’t go wrong with the rolls, and there’s such a variety that you’ll have your own favorites.  Not one of my great favorites, but still delicious is the New York – shrimp, avocado, cucumber, and sesame seeds.  The shrimp is cooked, but it’s good anyhow.

New York roll at Sushi Zone

A vegetarian and low carbohydrate cold favorite is the Ume Shiso, which is made by slicing off longitudinally a very thin sheet of cucumber, wrapping it around a filling of pickled ume plum and shiso, and dressing it in a vinegar sauce.  So light and crisp and flavorful!  Note:  this one is on the menu as a roll with rice, but i much prefer it without the rice as pictured here, which you can get by asking Yoshi for it this way.

Ume Shiso

Another off menu item you have to ask for is Yoshi’s astonishing roll that another regular told me about and then was so kind as to give me a taste of, the Eggplant roll, which i’ll directly translate as Nasu Maki.  Or maybe i should just translate it as Utterly Delicious.

Nasu Maki - Eggplant Roll

And there’s the Sunomono, a cold salad of octopus, cucumber, and seaweed, also in a vinegar sauce and also a wonderful combination of flavors and textures, the crunchy cucumber setting off the chewy octopus.


But it’s not just cold dishes, as Futoshi, the sous chef, uses a tiny toaster oven to turn out some excellent hot dishes.  The most popular seems to be the Baked Sea Bass, which is bass, their spicy mayo, and masago baked in giant mussel shells.  My favorite is the Stuffed Jalapeño, in which a very large, very mild Jalapeño is split, seeded, deveined, stuffed with ahi and spicy mayo, and baked.  I also liked the Stuffed Shiitake, where large shiitake caps are stuffed with salmon, spicy mayo, and scallions before baking.  Not to mention the baked mussels with spicy mayo and scallions.

Here are double orders of the mussels and the sea bass, both served in huge mussel shells.  Note:  they are not grilled.  Those stripes are from the blinds filtering the afternoon sun.

Spicy Mussels and Sea Bass with Mango

Prices are reasonable for a sushi place, but one item on the menu stands out – the Rainbow Roll for $189.  Yikes.  It must be gigantic and superb for that price, and i was thinking that maybe for my birthday i could take several friends in and splurge on it.  Then one day i saw a couple getting an item i hadn’t seen, a larger roll with a variety of fish on the outside, and was told this was the Rainbow Roll.  I also learned that it’s a bit of an in-joke, as the menu is misprinted and the price is really only $18.  When i finally got around to taking Sybil in there, i talked her into sharing it with me, and it was as good as it looks.

Rainbow Roll

Finally, i must add that the miso soup is excellent and shows subtle daily variations that indicate it’s not decanted from a 50-gallon drum.

Occasionally regular patrons will discover on their table a little tidbit they didn’t order. Like this poached salmon in a teriyaki sauce.

Poached Salmon in Teriyaki Sauce

Or this tuna seared so lightly that the cooked part is only about a couple of millimeters thick.  Yow!

Lightly seared tuna

Or this very exotic little dish that Yoshi handed me the other day and that i at first thought was the Ume Shiso wrapped in cucumber that i like so much, but somehow it didn’t look quite right.  Nor did the center taste like ume.  Turns out, it’s mentaiko (spicy cod roe) that Yoshi’d spotted in that Japantown grocery store on his way to work and was taking home for himself but shared with me to further my culinary education.

Mentaiko wrapped in cucumber as a roll

Here’s another variation on the ume-shiso, this one with an exquisite filling of  soybean paste, which is even better if you call it Moromi Miso.

Cucumber roll with Moromi Miso

Or this, a little nigiri composed of the rice and a strip of perfectly roasted sweet red pepper.  Excellent combination.

Roasted red pepper nigiri

And finally, it took me forever before i saw someone eating this dish, remembered that it was a great favorite, and spotted its name on the specials blackboard – amebi.  It consists of a nigiri made of “sweet shrimp” accompanied by the heads and complete shells which have been dusted with starch and deep fat fried.  The whole thing, eyes and all, is edible and delicious although i tend to flick out the speck of liver at the bottom since its taste overpowers everything else.  The crunchy little legs and antennae are superb fried although i find the biggest part of the body shell a bit difficult with my impaired dentition.  Do try this one.


But so much about the food.  It’s a little cash-only place, and little effort has been wasted on decor, but it’s warm and friendly, and not just because of the nice staff and because you’re all jammed in together but rather that most times i’m in there, or waiting in line out front, other patrons and i recognize each other as regulars and chat about the food, each pushing his favorites.

San Francisco restaurants are required to post in a location visible to the patrons their latest report card from the Department of Public Health.  Here’s Sushi Zone’s.  These reports are often in the nineties, but i don’t recall ever before seeing a perfect score.


One last point is that it’s a tight little ship with only three crew working in close coordination each night.  The owner-chef is Kimiaki Aoyama (who goes by “Ao”), the alternate chef is Yoshi, the sous-chef is Futoshi, and the waitress is Hideko, who is charming and gracious, not to mention pretty.

I haven’t really met Futoshi since his station is at the far end from “my” spot at the left end of the bar, which i find the best seat in the house because from it you get the best view of Yoshi’s hands as he constructs the rolls, molds the nigiri, and slices the sashimi.  I do love watching high levels of manual dexterity and knife skills, and besides, he’s friendly, which is how i discovered the Stuffed Jalapeño, the Ume Shiso, and the Tataki Albacore.

A recurrent theme in the Yelp reviews is folks far too entitled to wait complaining bitterly about how long it took them to get a seat and then how long after that before their order arrived.

Well, yes, there are eight seats at the bar and two tables for four.  And every bite of food is painstakingly assembled to order by hand.  You do the math.  The trick is to go there a bit before  5:00 since there is almost always a line before it opens.  If the place is full, you can put your name on the list and duck around the corner to Roku or Pisco and get plastered at the bar while dashing back between drinks to see how close you’re getting to the top.

As Yogi Berra famously observed, “Nobody goes there anymore.   It’s too crowded”.

Oh, and on the door a whimsical spin on the ubiquitous “Zagat Rated” sign.

Will Not Be Zagat Rated

Update, 2017:  Since i wrote this there have been some changes.  Futoshi has been succeeded by a young guy named Eddie.  Ao has sold the place to Hideko and her ebullient husband Giuseppe.  The alternate waitress is every bit as nice as Hideko, and one of these days I’ll remember her name. The open days are now Wed-Sat, and Yoshi works all four days.  The food is still fabulous.

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  1. Rick
    Posted 14 May 2015 at 11:50 | Permalink

    Matte, first off, I’m not that big a fan of sushi but I swear my mouth is watering just from your descriptions… And second, once again, I enjoy your writing very much. Loved the “not decanted from a 50-gallon drum” and “get plastered at the bar while dashing back between drinks.” You paint great pictures with words!

    • Matte Gray
      Posted 14 May 2015 at 11:55 | Permalink

      Well, if you were ever going to like sushi, Sushi Zone would be the place to try it again. It’s a wonderful restaurant. And you’re too kind about the writing. All i’m trying to do is entertain people to make up for boring them to death with those user manuals.

      • Rick C.
        Posted 14 May 2015 at 12:47 | Permalink

        Ha! Then I guess I have some serious “penance” to do as well, for all those user manuals… I suppose that “three ‘Hail Marys’ and an ‘Our Father'” wouldn’t do it, eh? 🙂

        • Matte Gray
          Posted 14 May 2015 at 13:03 | Permalink

          Note how i tiptoed around the P-word in my earlier reply even though that was what i meant:-)

      • Posted 21 December 2019 at 12:11 | Permalink

        Add some zeroes.

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