Trevor Corson is best known for his fascinating bestseller, The Secret Life of Lobsters
; he also authored another great book called The Story of Sushi: An Unlikely Saga of Raw Fish and Rice
, a must-read for anyone who loves sushi. Along with curious cocktail party trivia (“The raw shrimp served in sushi all begin life as males – then they all suddenly become females and have sex with their younger siblings.”), the book is filled with interesting tidbits about sushi (which actually refers to the seasoned rice), ranging from proper etiquette (aficionados never look at a menu, seldom use chopsticks, and avoid soy sauce and extra wasabi) to preparation (traditionalists say the fish should never be raw – nor should it be completely fresh) to its origin (today’s sushi began as a type of fast food – the 19th century Japanese equivalent of a McDonald’s drive-thru).
The book also delves into America’s love affair with sushi as a healthful option – it’s not. In fact, Corson says, most sushi rolls served in the U.S. are loaded with carbohydrates, sugar, fat, and sodium. Inside-out rolls, which are the most common form of sushi found here, only debuted recently in Japan, and they were imported from us.
America’s most popular incarnation, the California roll, first appeared in the late 1960s at the premier Japanese restaurant in Los Angeles, Tokyo Kaikan. The creation of chef Ichiro Mashita, contrary to popular belief, was not an attempt to introduce American palates to sushi, but rather came about as most regional cuisines do – out of necessity: Mashita had trouble obtaining fresh fatty tuna belly (toro) on a regular basis, but avocados were readily available by the truckloads. Since avocados are full of fat, he saw the savory fruit as a good substitute. According to Corson, the chef first tried mixing it with shrimp to give it the reddish hue and flavor of seafood, but later settled on crabmeat. He served it traditionally – ingredients and rice inside seasoned seaweed (nori) – to his Japanese customers, a reminder of the fatty tuna back home (several months later, someone came up with the moniker “California roll”).
As sushi morphed into American culture, the inside-out style was developed to hide the seaweed, something I don’t understand, since the crispness of the seaweed is integral to its enjoyment. My favorite way to eat a California roll is temaki, or hand roll – a cone of nori filled with rice, crab, avocado, and Japanese cucumber. I don’t like kani kama, the imitation crab served at most sushi restaurants, made from minced fish, egg whites, starches, a bit of crab extract, and MSG (listed just ahead of many other ingredients with long, scientific names). While I enjoy Dungeness crab and king crab steamed and served with lemon and drawn butter, my preference in a California roll is snow crab for its delicate, sweet flavor. And, while I know this sends shivers down the spines of California roll traditionalists, I like it mixed with just enough Japanese mayonnaise to create a crab salad – hey, if you’re going to go California, you might as well go all the way. Here are five of my favorites:
5. Taraval Okazu Ya Restaurant
1735 Taraval Street (near 28th), San Francisco, 415-759-6850
The crab mixture in this roll is a little dense, and I don’t like the lettuce (I feel about lettuce in sushi the way I do about it in burritos – it adds texture but nothing else); however, they get bonus points for a generous spoonful of tobiko that adds a wonderful brininess to the sweetness of the crab and the nuttiness of the avocado.
140 University Avenue (at High), Palo Alto, 650-323-9449
10650 S. De Anza Boulevard (near Kirwin), Cupertino, 408-253-2668
I will always have a special place in my heart for Miyake in Palo Alto where, as a kid, I had my first sushi experience – in fact, the first thing I ate was their California roll. It was a revelation, full of fresh snow crab mixed with a little mayonnaise (and, according to the sushi chef, a bit of sugar). They opened another near Apple Computer Inc. headquarters, and when I worked there during college, I made frequent visits to that location as well. Though the crab salad can be a bit too sweet occasionally, it is generally consistent (and consistently inexpensive). Miyake also does a delicious spin on the California roll they call the Stanford roll – crab salad with tomato and asparagus.
1737 Post Street (near Buchanan), San Francisco, 415-563-1030
1451 Burlingame Avenue (near El Camino Real), Burlingame, 650-344-8433
Isobune (“canal boat”) patented their sushi delivery system in 1982, becoming the first sushi boat restaurant in the U.S. The original location is tucked inside the Kintetsu Mall of Japantown; the Burlingame spot followed a year later. They cater to tourists, but locals know where to find a bargain. When it’s busy, order from the boats floating by, but I prefer to place my order with the sushi chef or wait staff. The main reason I go is the California hand roll, made with loads of fresh crab salad, perfectly ripe avocado, and perky cucumber (most of the time – occasionally the cucumber is not so perky). For an added twist, they do a version with barbecued eel (unagi).
2. Sushi Sam’s
218 E. 3rd Avenue (at N. Ellsworth), San Mateo, 650-344-0888
I first discovered Sushi Sam’s over a decade ago while working as a temp for Pacific Bell. I loved it so much that I ate there every single day (except Mondays, when they’re closed) for three months. As busy as I am, I still try to make a trip there at least once a month, and I’m not alone – ask top chefs like Thomas Keller, Laurent Manrique and Ron Siegel where they go for sushi and they’ll tell you Sushi Sam’s. Over the last few years, Sam’s has expanded into the building next door and become a household name to Bay Area sushi lovers. Named for owner Osamu “Sam” Sugiyama, the casual ambiance and reasonable prices are polar opposites from the dining experience – not only does Sam get sparklingly fresh seafood, he features some unusual and hard-to-find selections (like fresh unagi from a retired eel farmer in Japan). But one of my favorite things is his California hand roll, made with snow crab salad in perfect proportion to room-temperature rice and creamy avocado (no cucumber in Sam’s version). The nori is the crispest you’ll find, meaning it is firm enough to hold the contents of the cone, but not so tough that you have to pull at it with your teeth to break into it (thus spilling the contents all over the table).
1. Takara Japanese Restaurant
22 Peace Plaza, Suite 202 (near Laguna), 415-921-2000
Takara is a popular destination for its reasonably priced dinner boxes, which include a comforting cup of chawanmushi (Japanese custard), but it’s also one of the Bay Area’s best-kept secrets for super fresh, beautifully executed sushi and sashimi. The chefs behind the bar, including the owner, work with a traditional Japanese flair that is sadly becoming less common in these days of cookie-cutter sushi spots. The fish is some of the best I’ve had, including thick slices of pristine hamachi (also known as yellowtail or amberjack). Like tuna, hamachi is usually filleted into blocks (cho). With the fatty, more flavorful parts closest to the belly, the meat can be bland. Takara is one of the few places that actually offer the bloodline (chiai), which, unlike that of tuna, is edible. This ruby-red dark meat imparts intense flavor, as does the strip of oily under-skin that the chefs at Takara also leave on. I always start my visit with their California temaki: not-too-chilled crab salad, crunchy cucumber, and creamy avocado wrapped in the highest grade of temaki nori (it has glasslike crispness that keeps the seaweed from turning soggy and chewy as lower grades do). I never thought I would find a California hand roll that could top Sushi Sam’s, but it’s right here in the Northside at Japantown’s Takara.