On most nights, you won’t see a Japanese face in the place. And it doesn’t seem to matter. See for yourself. Behind the glass cases delineating Shinsen’s sushi bar, a tall, lean white guy uses stainless-steel chopsticks to maneuver green onions onto a row of nigiri. To his left, a stocky cook from Palau uses a squirt bottle to dab brick-red mayonnaise across wrist-thick rolls sprouting green leaves and tempura’d claws. Flanking the bar, diners — Filipino, Latino, black, white — sip hot tea from fluted stoneware mugs and coo over their plates of gyoza and saba shioyaki.
Co-owner Theresa Reloj e-mailed me a while ago to tell me about the restaurant she’d just opened. “Being a native San Franciscan, I craved ‘good eats’ every evening after I moved to Hercules,” she wrote. “I thought for sure someone would open up my favorite type of restaurant, sushi … but two-plus years down the line and no sushi. So we did. It’s nothing fancy. We just wanted a place where others, like myself, could enjoy fresh fish and then some.”
After a message like that, I expected Shinsen to be a linoleum-lined storefront run by twentysomethings swigging beer and slapping raw tuna onto mangled lumps of rice. In fact, that’s why I decided to go.
But Shinsen offered a few surprises. For one, the place looks great. The walls are flat panes of cream and sage, the tables polished wood, the sushi bar a graceful arc. Just as surprising, Shinsen sidelines the lists of single-fish nigiri and sashimi that make up the bulk of most sushi restaurant menus. At center are Japanese-ish appetizers and entrées, as well as creatively named, elaborate megamaki, which require extra typography to describe: The ingredients listed in brackets come inside the roll, the rest on the outside. For example, the Mermaid roll contains “[spicy scallops, salmon] tobiko” and the Roggie “[crab, avocado] maguro, albacore, tobiko.” You’d be hard pressed to find a single one of these creations in Japan.
A millennium ago, food historians say, sushi was a means of preserving fish by wrapping it in rice and letting the concoction ferment for six months. The rice was then discarded. You can still find narezushi such as this in Japan — it’s a bit of a rarity — but over the years the rice eclipsed the fish in importance. Sushi now refers to rice cooked in sweetened vinegar and served with small bites of raw, marinated, or cooked ingredients.
When they arrived in the United States, Japanese sushi chefs quickly began tweaking classic styles of sushi to appeal to local tastes. According to John F. Mariani’s Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink, Tokyo Kaikan restaurant in Los Angeles is generally credited with inventing the California roll in the early 1970s, a time when urban America was first falling in love with sushi. This simple maki containing crab, avocado, tobiko, and cucumber — the original was presented nori-side out, even — has evolved into a species of sushi so foreign to the Japanese that only a few hipster restaurants in Tokyo serve it.
In many parts of the United States, you can say “sushi” and still evince an “Eww, raw fish!” Now some sushi chefs even dispense with the seafood. In her 2004 book Sushi American Style, California-trained Tracy Griffith presents recipes for BLT, barbecue, and even fried-chicken maki. Shinsen doesn’t go that far, but it proves the Bay Area is on the verge of dispensing with the notion that sushi is Japanese food. It’s everybody food.
And everybody at my table liked the Prozac Roll — tempura shrimp and avocado playing off crisp against creamy on the inside, the outside striped with maguro (red tuna) and unagi (barbecued eel). Sweet soy-based unagi sauce permeated the roll. The same interplay between crunchy and tender, cool and warm, animated the classic Spider Roll, which was centered on a deep-fried soft-shell crab. The menu says, “Awesome vegetarian rolls available … just ask,” so one night we did, and scored the best roll of the night: a big, American, rice-on-the-outside maki stuffed with cucumber, avocado, and tempura asparagus.
With five, six, seven ingredients in the specialty rolls, it’s not hard to make a meal out of two maki. Generally, however, the bigger the roll, the sloppier it is. The maguro and albacore (white tuna) strips wrapped around the Roggie Roll were unevenly sliced, the meat looking like chunky strands instead of smooth stained glass. The spicy scallops and raw salmon at the core of the thick mermaid roll had no spice and little flavor, leaving only the texture, a cool mushiness.
Restraint improved the kitchen’s success rate. Biting into the salmonskin roll produced an appealing fishy crackle. Simple unagi and hamachi (yellowtail) nigiri, as well as a kappa (cucumber) maki were all formed with care, the rice pressed neither too loosely nor too tight. Even the new-school Tropical Triangle, a roll pairing hamachi and ripe mango spiked with shavings of Thai chiles, kept its focus by staying small.
For diners who want to forgo the sushi route, the restaurant offers Cal-Japanese appetizers and entrées. For the Tuna Hots, for example, the chefs cover a spread of albacore sashimi splices with dollops of wasabi-infused tobiko and those incendiary Thai chiles. Thin-skinned gyoza (potstickers), crisped and brown on the bottom, are stuffed with a gingery pork filling, and the mixed greens in the Shinsen salad come lightly covered in a robust miso-sesame dressing. The only entrée we tasted, a weekend special described as salmon in a coriander sauce, came to the table overcooked, surrounded by a bland beige sauce with a faint hint of ground coriander. Perhaps more classic dishes like tonkatsu (breaded pork loin) and chicken teriyaki were more successful. Otherwise, stick to the sushi.
What Reloj and her friendly pack of servers have mastered is a casual, neighborly vibe — which is good, because on weekends the house is already getting packed. On my first visit, the sushi bar ran out of its principal ingredient — sushi rice — by 8:30 and had to rush to make more.
That night it took fifteen minutes to order, another fifteen for our waiter to bring our sake cocktails, and ten more before the first rolls arrived. And we weren’t alone — diners at all the tables around us spent a long time looking at their neighbors’ food before they saw their own. But I didn’t see anyone checking his watch or puffing herself up into a huff. The mood was relaxed, jovial, appreciative.
Clearly, Reloj has opened the right restaurant at the right place and the right time. She also is following a broader trend. According to Don Ikezawa, publisher of Japanese Food Trade News, the number of Japanese restaurants in the country continues to grow swiftly — he estimates that non-Japanese own 80 percent of new restaurants. Like Italian, French, and Mexican cuisine, sushi has gone so far mainstream that it no longer has to prove its authenticity. All hail the melting pot! Grab your chopsticks and dip in.