218 E. 3rd Avenue
San Mateo, CA
Tue-Sat 11:30-2, 5-10
I’ll be the first to admit that I may be the only person age 25-35 in San Francisco (or any urban city) to not get excited about sushi. Maybe it’s that copious amounts Sriracha has burned off my sushi taste buds, or maybe it some unconscious manifestation of my Chinese grandparents’ deep-seated racism against the Japanese (a joke, please). The true reason, I think, is that the “sushi” that is widely available is the Applebee’s of the true Japanese tradition: old tuna chopped with some spices in it and wrapped in a roll, stringy warm salmon—bleh. And people get more excited when it’s “cheap”. It makes no sense. I find myself trying to talk friends into getting shabu shabu and ramen or trying to steer them towards Eiji for their silken tofu or fresh strawberry mochi dessert. I’ve been sort of saved by the izakaya trend. Maybe I’d agree to Sushi Bistro again, for their creativity.
So when my friends Mark and Naomi told me they knew a place I would love called Sushi Sam’s (“omg, their omakase is amazing!”), I was afraid to tell them that I was skeptical. Didn’t they know me? I was ashamed to speak up.
They weren’t wrong—Sushi Sam’s is amazing. Tucked within several blocks of equally amazing Asian food in downtown San Mateo (ahem, Little Sheep), it has an inconspicuous storefront. You wouldn’t know its awesomeness by their menu, which looks like any other generic sushi joint menu complete with plastic menu protector: edamame, bento box, teriyaki, the usual varietals of spider, California, and spicy tuna rolls.
Don’t be fooled: get the sushi omakase (8 pieces ~$40, but you’ll want 12). It’s served nigiri style in separate courses, in crude cuts of generous proportion but impeccably flavored and paired. The waiter describes each when he brings it, and I can’t remember them we went into devour mode. Baby lobster with an odd but genius dried fruit garnish. Delicious fatty piece of slightly seared toro. I suppose they may accommodate dietary restrictions, but I wouldn’t risk missing out on whatever sushi surprise they bring. The waiter brought some amuse-bouche of roe to be eaten with a spoon and salted and fried shrimp heads (this was delicious, trust me). My friend dining with us was literally jumping out of his pants.
If you look more closely at the menu, other things stand out. Their Yosenabe ($19) with seafood, chicken, veggies, and glass noodles is warm and filling, a cold-day dish. Their grilled hamachi kama (hamachi tuna collar, A.Q.) was shockingly satisfying, the prime rib of fish.
I can’t they have the best sushi in the Bay Area, and compared to sushi in Japan, Sushi Sam’s is probably at best Outback level (assuming we agree Outback is ages better than Applebee’s…worth another post). But it’s so much better than the usual. It’s is worth the slight extra you pay and worth the half hour drive from the city. They staff is friendly and let you make a small mess as you stuff your face. I would bring my dad (who always insists on eating Chinese food, even in Copenhagen) here. And, they take reservations.