Just last night, my friend Will and I hooked – no, “got together” – (Will, you get it) at this restaurant for dinner. Located on Arguello at Cabrillo, this tiny restaurant is not only hard to miss, but also only opened from Thursday to Sunday, and closed from Monday to Wednesday. Bold practice, but if it works for them, who am I to ding it?
Upon entering, it’s easy to mistake the restaurant for one that has just opened. It’s completely bare on the walls with a few tables, and a sushi bar. If you can find me another sushi restaurant in San Francisco, or the country, that doesn’t have one single sake bottle in sight — let me know, because last night, I found one! Not only do they not display sake bottles, they offer exactly two varieties of sake: HOT or NOT HOT, as in room temperature sake in flutes, served prior to heating up, I guess. That said, while I absolutely detest hot sake — and tend to believe that only crappy sake is used for hot sake — the sake that Okina uses tasted of good quality, though I am not sure which sake it was.
Chef Akio, as expected, was standing behind the sushi bar when we entered as only the second guests for the evening. Considering I was a bit nervous as we had changed our restaurant choice at the last minute from Sebo Sushi to Okina Sushi without reservations, it appeared I worried for naught. He’s a tall Japanese man, friendly and quite pleasant — and he immediately set us up with an interesting concoction of radishes, daikon, wasabi and ginger on the sushi bar top. The single server of the evening was a Japanese woman who immediately offered us green tea that was hot and quite delicious — and the chef then asked if we wanted “omakase” (Chef’s Choice); we said yes.
But upon sitting down, I immediately noticed something that was not quite what I like to see, and grew more worried by the second: pre-sliced fish!
The only other sushi restaurant where I had seen pre-sliced fish was Sasabune in Honolulu, and those who have asked me about it know what I think of that restaurant (blech!).
A long, long time ago, somewhere in Japan, a chef had explained to my family that there were only two things important in sushi, aside from the obvious one of using fresh fish: one was the temperature of the chef’s hands, and the second was that the fish be eaten within a certain timeframe of being sliced and put atop sushi rice. It had something to do with the fish oils being released at slicing, and being at optimum condition when put on the rice. Pre-sliced fish goes against all that, and I started to regret my decision to change to Okina.
But then the first nigiri was served up, and the hamachi looked fresh, so I cautiously took a bite only to realize that pre-sliced, while not preferred, seemed to be acceptable.
Like I said — this is an interesting restaurant.
Let me just include that this was, without a doubt, the speediest of omakase experiences I have ever had in my life! Also going against the belief that the the fish, once sliced, must be consumed within a quick timeframe, Chef Akio put together nigiri at an astromonically rapid pace and the nigiri came flying out, piling up on the bar before us. Now I eat sushi faster than anyone I know, and when it’s good, I can’t even find time to chew properly before swallowing this, and we were still backed up within a minute with order coming at us — just sitting there!
And still — I have to say that the sushi was quite good despite going against the alleged rules of sushi.
Nigiri after nigiri, I was impressed by the freshness of the fish, and the sushi rice, unlike some other restaurants, was a nice vinegar preparation at the perfect temperature that balanced out the cold fish nicely. Keep in mind that the restaurant is only opened from Thursday to Sunday, and I was there on Thursday — which would presumably be the day he stocks the fish (I would hope).
The amaebi was served up without the heads, but the shrimp meat was quite sweet, and albeit a bit colder than I’d have preferred, the flavors came alive. He then asked us if we like oysters, and when we nodded in unison, we were immediately offered up “oyster sushi” — the first I’ve ever had this. In a fascinating way, this combination worked well, at least for me. It was an ice cold oyster, fresh as could be, put atop sushi rice and wrapped in nori — and once you dip it into the soy sauce, the combination shine. That oyster was so fresh and nicely chilled that I could have downed 40 in one sitting!
The uni was very good, and anyone who likes uni will appreciate the freshness.
But let’s move onto the mackerel (saba).
Another story I heard – also a long, long time ago – was that the true test of a master sushi chef can be gauged by tasting two things that need to be “prepared” by the chef: tamago (egg) and saba. (Hey, I’m just the messenger of this story; I have no idea if this is, or isn’t true!) Very rarely is saba served “as-is” and in the majority of Japanese restaurants, it will be prepared in a vinegar concoction that helps to preserve the fish while decreasing some of the natural fishiness of the meat. Mackerel also spoils quicker than any other fish, and for this reason, it’s always “pickled” to increase its lifespan, so to speak.
That said, these two mackerels were the least impressive out of Okina’s selections for the evening. They were a bit too heavily pickled — both too much vinegar taste and too long in the vinegar, given how “cooked” the meat was — though both were within “acceptable” range.
At the end of our meal, the chef offered a small slice of the tamago on the house, and I thought it to be quite tasty, though that is the only thing that I never order at a sushi restaurant.
I am an avid deep-sea fisherman — I live to fish for fresh fish in the Pacific and/or Atlantic! On one fishing expedition in Oregon, I caught a Coho Salmon once that yielded a huge pack of salmon roe in its belly. It was then that I realized that preparing salmon roe was an artform as on its own, the taste was pretty awful or nauseating, actually.
While I have always been a fan of Ikura as it is commonly prepared in restaurants, I’ve learned to appreciate keeping salmon roe as close to its original taste as possible while making it appealing to the palate. To my understanding, this involves quite a process of marinading in sake, along with various secrets that individual chefs may have. The way that the chef at Okina Sushi prepared his Ikura was extremely good, much in line with the ikura that Chef Inoue at Ino Sushi serves. Two thumbs up for this!
We ended the meal with some additional pieces of hamachi and kanpachi, then requested the tobiko, too — which was very good. That is a true compliment given that I am not a fan of this particular roe, but we ordered it because the selection at Okina Sushi is extremely limited, so we might as well try everything.
Which brings me to the fourth interesting point about Okina Sushi, in addition to the pre-sliced fish, lack of sake and odd business hours: the limited selection of fish. This is not the place you go to in order to find gonowada, engawa, multiple varities of toro, salmon from all parts of the world, or other interesting items. But the basics that they do have are very fresh and quite tasty.
Then, the fifth oddity about Okina Sushi came forth: for two people, including two flasks of room temperature sake, the bill came to $69 dollars.
Normally, I can’t feed myself for $69 at a sushi restaurant, never mind two people!
Bear in mind, though, that I could easily eat double this amount, and had I done so, the final bill would probably be approximately $150, which is still about 60% of my usual sushi bill at a Japanese restaurant — and I was adequately full.
All in all, I found Okina Sushi to be a very simple and sweet dining experience. For the basic sushi eater who likes the typical items like tuna and yellowtail, but doesn’t need the other “Americanized” stuff like Dynamite Roll, etc —Okina Sushi is the ideal place at which to do it. They offer no cooking, no appetizers, no miso soup, and no rolls — hence, my title, “Sushi and Only Sushi”! You can order sashimi, but because the sushi rice here is good — I’d recommend sushi, especially with the pre-sliced fish, as sashimi should be cut a bit differently (thicker).
Worth a try? Yes!
Will I be a regular? Probably not, but given that I am perhaps the most adventurous sushi-killer I know, and take full responsibility for depleting the oceans of a massive amount of fish on a yearly basis — that doesn’t mean much; it just means that Okina Sushi doesn’t offer the selection I need. What they did serve, however, was good quality for sure. The service was nice and polite, and my tea cup was constantly refilled with hot green tea!
Okina Sushi is located at 776 Arguello Boulevard, and is open only from Thursday to Sunday. I can’t find a website for them, but it looks like they do have a Facebook page.
NOTE: Okina Sushi only accepts cash. No credit cards.
Addictive Factor: 6/10
Overall Rating: 7/10
Grace Keh is the author of "Food Lovers' Guide to San Francisco" and the critic, editor and photographer behind San Francisco Food. In her regular day job, she consults for corporate clients in marketing and event strategy. Once the sun sets, she's on the hunt for great food in what she considers to be one of the world's greatest cities, San Francisco.