sushi banzai, berkeley
sushi banzai is a little family-run japanese restaurant tucked into a professional building just a few blocks from tokyo fish market. the interior is no-frills yet homey with a small sushi bar that can seat maybe four and around seven or eight small tables taking up the rest of the interior.
during a recent shopping excursion to the newly expanded tokyo fish market, moms and i decided to get a bite to eat. i'd read good things about sushi banzai on the chowhound board and decided to give the place a go. lunch prices are very reasonable ranging from 5.75 for chicken teriyaki up to 7.50 for the daily special. sushi prices go range from $3.00 for 3 pieces of inari to $11.oo for something called the b-29 roll which includes hamachi tempura, ebi and unagi.
lunch special of the day ($7.50)
moms ordered the lunch special of the day which included salmon maki, chicken cutlet, shredded cabbage salad, rice and miso soup, all for $7.50. even though the cutlet was white meat, the chicken was reported to be extremely succulent and flavorful with a crispy, surprisingly non-greasy panko crust. as you can see, the cutlet was not completely drowned in the ubiquitous overly sweet teriyaki sauce. the fish was very fresh. the only disappointment was with the rice. moms is very particular about her rice, favoring koshihikari, which is the cadillac of sushi rice. it is highly polished into perfect fat little grains that cook up beautifully in a rice cooker. it's incomprehensible to me that japanese restaurants use low-grade rice when it is the backbone of any japanese meal. rant aside, the rice at banzai was cooked and seasoned just fine, but the grains were on the longish side and many of them were broken. for me, it didn't detract too terribly from the meal and if you're not too picky, you might not even notice. if you're my moms though, better watch out!
the truly vegetarian options at sushi banzai are extremely limited. there is a vegetable curry on the menu but ( if you want to be able to continue to eat japanese curry then do not read further my fellow vegetarians) most of the stuff is made with beef fat. yep. lard. these currys are almost always made with the house-curry type bars you can buy from the grocery store and all but one brand (can't remember which one) use el-lardo. sorry. sushi banzai has udon and soba noodles also on the menu, the soup bases of which use the ubiquitous bonito stock. being a bad vegetarian i just pretend that maybe it's not true and eat the soups as long as they don't taste too fishy. and so i ordered a vegetable soba. the server came back and informed me that it would be a 20 minute wait for my order to be preparred and so i began rooting through the appetizer and maki sections of the menu. and i'm glad i did because it forced me out a noodle-rut i've been in lately.
i chose an order of hiyayakko and an ume-kyuu maki. hiyayakko is nothing more than cold cubed tofu sprinkled with negi and ginger. my dish came out, very dramatically, floating on a bed of ice which kept the tofu well chilled throughout my somewhat spartan meal. the tofu tasted freshly made, not quite on par with san jose tofu but a cut above the grocery store variety.
ume kyuu maki ($3.50)
the next surprise was the ume-kyuu maki, which the menu described as ume and cucumber. it did not mention the shiso leaf which took the roll from "whatever" to "oh wow". the cucumber was thinly sliced with just enough ume to add a tart saltiness that was not overpowering. the shiso flavor really held the roll together and made it shine. the only (minor) criticisms of my maki were that (1) the seaweed was a little too short and some of the pieces flopped open when i picked them up. (2) the rolls had a square-ish shape that makes me think they were not rolled by hand but rather in one of those plastic thingamajigs. i don't know why that bothers me but it does.
overall this is a cozy little neighborhood place whose strength seems to lie in their sushi. as a vegetarian you can cobble together a meal (or just go to cha ya); if you're a deal-seeking omnivore get the lunch special; if you're a fish freak, order a la cart from the sushi menu, which seems to be sushi banzai's stronger point. dinnertime prices are significantly higher with dishes ranging from $9.50 for oyako donburi to $17.50 for two-item dinner boxes to around $18.00 for a variety of sushi dinners.
the verdict: sushi banzai is a decent little neighborhood japanese joint with some good lunch specials. while i wouldn't drive across the bridge to dine there, i'd drop by again for a quick lunchtime bite if i were in the neighborhood.
1019 camelia street
berkeley, ca 510 524 6625
lunch: 11:30 - 2:00 tue-fri
dinner: 5:30 - 9:30 sun-thurs & 5:30 - 10:00 fri-sat