537 Balboa St, San Francisco, CA 94118 | 415.221.8455
My friend Ben who writes the blog Focus:Snap:Eat, told me about a hole-in-the-wall sushi bar out in the Richmond district of San Francisco that is so hard to get into, you have to get in line at 5pm to ensure that you will get a seat when they open at 7 pm. The tiny sushi bar can seat a maximum of 11 lucky diners, are only open on weeknights and offer just two seatings a night, one at 7 and the next at 9:30. They don’t take reservations, but if you are a favored regular you can apparently somehow bypass this rule and make reservations, thereby dashing the hopes of some hungry parties standing in line who think they are going to get in. Initially I was less than thrilled at the prospect, especially since I work in Walnut Creek, which is a bit of a schlep, but my curiosity got the better of me and I eventually agreed to the commitment. And so I found myself walking along Balboa squinting into the dark windows of #537, which had no sign and no lights indicating they would ever open at all. But I was first in line at 5:30! Moments later a guy walked up and asked if I had anyone else in my party. Apparently you need to tally up the totals because once 10 people were in line, we politely told anyone else showing up that all the seats were taken. And even so, when the owners arrived a little before 7, they told us that only 8 people could get in and a pair who appeared out of nowhere were ushered in first. The picture below is of us lucky ones who were waiting to be let in (note the lights inside are now on).
The cozy interior is dominated by the sushi bar which fits eight at the counter, and there is one table in the corner that can fit three. We sat by this sign which taunted us with the word Omakase (special Chef’s menu) written in hiragana, katakana, kanji, romaaji and then finishes with a taunt to Shut up and eat. We asked if we could order the Omakase menu and were told not tonight, sorry. Apparently, Omakase is by reservation only, but if you can’t make reservations… I just don’t know how it all works… more waiting…
We received hot towels and hot tea, which was excellent after standing in the cold foggy Richmond winds. There was an amusing list of Tekka House Rules on the wall that made us worry that we’d get kicked out after that long wait in the cold… Everyone is very quiet and polite when addressing the couple.
There were lots of things to look at, the smiling eyes on this sake bottle resembled Chef Nobu’s, who put on a dvd of Billy Joel Live for our enjoyment.
We watched Chef Nobu prepare the fish, a man of few words who didn’t invite conversation, but he did respond to comments from his chummy regulars.
We asked if they had soup which wasn’t on the menu, and were told they had clams, so we enjoyed a big bowl of steaming clams in a flavorful broth. The people next to us had bowls of miso soup with clams.
Ben ordered Monkfish Liver (Ankimo) and we got an entire roll ($10), which was served with traditional toppings of thinly sliced green onion and grated daikon mixed with momiji oroshi (red pepper sauce), and ponzu sauce. It was very rich, with a silky and velvety mouth-feel that was well matched with the light acidity of the ponzu sauce and pungent fumes from the grated daikon. Delicious but way too much for two people.
Everyone ordered the Sashimi Combo ($48.50), a splendid platter filled with a variety of at least eight different types of thick meaty slices. Chef Nobu completed six plates before serving the house, so we all watched him while he sliced and composed the plates. Salmon, yellowtail, amberjack, tuna, scallop, sea bream, octopus, squid and something seared. Tucked around the plate was a tiny bit of savory seaweed salad, a few sprigs of daikon sprouts and two slices of cucumber, I only wished there were more vegetables…
Chef Nobu makes truly gigantic nigiri. It seriously took me five bites to finish one piece of salmon nigiri!
And then ridiculously, he placed a plate of Spicy Tuna roll ($9.75) in front of us… who were by this time too full to finish our sashimi plate! The rice tasted bland, and the tuna was not spicy at all. Perhaps the fact I was so thoroughly stuffed made my tastebuds unenthusiastic but I could barely finish one piece.
Someone asked Chef Nobu if he had any sea urchin and when he replied yes everyone chimed in that they wanted Uni, except us becuase we had overdosed on that initial plate of Ankim, the extra nigiri and totally unnecessary sushi roll… It look so good and everyone was rolling their eyes in bliss.
Here’s a panoramic photo of the sushi bar, it pretty much covers the whole restaurant.
We paid our bill (a very reasonable $60 each) and exited into the cool night air, savoring our very wonderfully fishy breath. A line had already formed for the 9:30 seating outside.
So remember this, get there early, wear layers, be prepared to wait, the sashimi plate is a lot for two, but you must order it, and save room for the uni! If I lived in the city, I would probably dine here regularly.