Friday, January 27, 2006

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.

hiyayakko ($3.00)
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.

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sushi banzai
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

Wednesday, January 25, 2006


ever since i was a little girl my moms and i would go to san francisco's japantown to do a little grocery shopping every few months. and ever since i can remember we would stop by one of those little restaurants in the mall for some lunch, usually at oskaya. if you're not familiar with osakaya, it is one of those restaurants that exemplify what people mean when they say that in japantown the japanese food is mediocre at best. recently (as in the last ten years or so) new restaurants have appeared in the mall that have their loyal followers like ino sushi, maki, takara, etc. but i still had yet to find a decent place to grab lunch with moms.

that is until a fellow chowhound recommended kansai. at 1:00 on a saturday the place was jammed to the rafters with busily noshing japanese people. my moms took this to be an excellent portent and i didn't bother to remind her that the sub-mediocre osakaya was also always full of people from the motherland. upon entry we were ushered past the long gleaming sushi bar to a cozy little table near the rear of the restaurant..the last available table. the host and waiter were one and the same, a nervous-seeming japanese man full of stammering little bowing motions and a manically ernest gleam in his eyes. i've been back several times now during the lunch hour and he is always there, comical, stressed out, stress inducing, fluttering about and making sure everyone is well attended to.

anyhow, you won't find any $4.99 bento boxes here. lunch choices range from $7.25 for zaru soba and top out at $19.50 for the chirashi deluxe. there is a daily lunch special that costs around $9 but we usually order either the lunch combination (choice of two items plus salad, soup, kobachi, rice and pickles) for $12.95 or the lunch set (one item plus salad, soup, rice, pickles) that average around $11.00. the courses are numerous, portions generous, presentation immaculate and ingredients top quality. all things considered it is an incredible value.

a small bowl of miso soup and a salad begins the meal. the miso soup is light and flavorful, not overly salty or ham-fisted. the salad is comprised of finely shredded carrots, red and green cabbage atop romaine leaves studded with cherry tomatoes and cucumber slices bathed in a creamy miso-ginger dressing. i was particularly pleased with the absence of iceberg lettuce, the presence of the finely shredded cabbage and the fact that flavorful little cherry tomatoes were used instead of those giant, pale, watery hunks of pink tomato-ish wedges.

our meals also came with kobachi, which if i recall correctly, my moms said just meant "small plate". in this instance it was a vinegared cucumber salad and kampyo. for the "japanese pickles" dish we were given lightly salted and pressed napa cabbage.

i ordered the vegetable tempura lunch set ($11.95) which came with rice in addition to the above mentioned dishes. the tempura was perfect. a light coating of batter fried to a golden brown. all the vegetables were cooked to tender perfection inside.

my moms ordered the lunch combination with the kaki (oyster) fry and maguro sashimi. four generous sized oysters fried with a panko coating came accompanied by japanese potato salad, shredded cabbage, steamed broccoli and a dab of karashi (yellow mustard) on the side.

on a separate plate came five pieces of maguro on a bed of shredded daikon, shiso leaf and radish sprouts. the fish was reported to be very fresh. it certainly was very pretty.

my man ordered the lunch combination ($12.95) with saba shioyaki and hamachi sashimi. the mackeral was perfectly grilled and came with japanese potato salad, cabbage, broccoli and grated daikon radish.

and then there was the hamachi. beautifully presented and very fresh.

i've eaten at kansai for lunch several times now and the food is consistently good. highly recommended.

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1737 buchanan mall
san francisco
415 775 2770

Thursday, January 19, 2006


hanabi sushi is a cozy little neighborhood japanese restaurant located in the lower haight. the music is usually good and eclectic in a fantastic plastic machine way, for which you can thank the sushi chef. the owners are warm and welcoming and the is food fine. not fine as in fine dining or the finest sushi, but fine as in consistent, warming and relatively inexpensive. and as an added bonus, there are lots of options for vegetarians. we usually order the dinner box which goes for around $12. sounds like a lot but you get your choice of three items, plus soup, salad, a little tofu salad plate, rice and tea. the tofu salad plate consists of salted and vinegared bean sprouts, daikon radish shreds and cucumber with a few pieces of firm tofu. very tasty.

these days we don't go to hanabi much since we don't live in the neighborhood but, during a recent drunken promenade around town, we found ourselves gripping an empty flask of bourbon with gurgling stomachs in the old 'hood. right in front of hanabi, as it so happens. and so in we went.

and it was like stepping back a fistful of years. same faces, same food, same, to be honest the music was bad on that night. japanese pop ballads al la celine dion. maybe shinya the sushi chef was feeling old, or nostalgic, or just has a twisted sense of humour. or all of the above.

anyway, out came the miso soup, tofu salad and beer. the beer was very good.

and then our dinner boxes. and some more beer, which continued to be very good. i won't say how many of these very good beers we put away, but you can judge for yourselves by checking out the rapidly degrading quality of the pictures. suffice to say the image in the viewfinder looked as sharply defined as did my dining companion across the table.

my blurry companion ordered his equally blurry dinner box with tuna sashimi, saba teriyaki and california roll. the california roll was basic - the rice isn't the greatest quality but is passable and not overly seasoned, the crab was really surimi (but this is the norm, even in japan) and the avocados were quite ripe. the mackeral was nice and fatty and bathed in your standard teriyaki sauce. the sashimi was reported to be okay...neither great nor awful.

i selected the natto gyoza, vegetable tempura and stir fried tofu. the tempura is of the type with a heavier batter, not the delicate lacy type found at less homestyle restaurants but i like it both ways. the coating was crispy when it came out and stayed crispy through the last bite with the vegetables cooked thorougly. the gyoza, i don't know why i ordered it, i don't like gyoza. it was greasy and flaccid and i wouldn't recommend it. the tofu stirfry however was very tasty. lots of vegetables and firm tofu slices bathed in a slightly sweet and spicy sauce. we finished with a green tea ice cream ($1.50) which came out in it's little single serve carton. very creamy with a strong green tea flavor.

hanabi is the quintessential neighborhood japanese restaurant. it's not someplace to get the most sparkling still wriggling fresh sushi, the best rice, or the most daring flights of culinary fancy, but if you're in the neighborhood and crave a nice comforting box of japanese food in a warm environment and (hopefully) good music this place is a good bet.

citysearch reviews
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hanabi sushi
509 haight street
san francisco
415 621 1500

Monday, January 16, 2006

tokyo fish market, berkeley

tokyo fish market in berkeley has finally expanded! well, this is not hot off the press as the store moved into its new digs sometime during the early fall, but it came as a surprise to me as i pulled into the old, tiny, unexpanded parking lot and was greeted by this fresh, gleaming, big structure. the old building now houses a housewares/miscelleaneous department, which is half empty and has yet to hit its stride. the inventory is sparse and kinda random with such items as overpriced japanese pottery (for better deals on japanese pottery, try to hit the pottery section of mitsuwa grocery in san jose during one of their sales), hawaii aprons, bobble head refrigerator magnets plus a few hawaiian and japanese cookbooks. it seems a waste of space when a little video/bookstore or, dare i say it, an ichiban kan would be much more interesting.

that fish counter is bigger than my apartment

for those of you who aren't familiar with tokyo fish market, it is probably the best place to purchase sashimi fish in the area. prices are reasonable, quality is consistently good, service is excellent. in their old building they also stocked what was an astounding inventory of japanese groceries and produce in a space not much larger than a tiny one bedroom apartment. it felt like a rush hour tokyo subway, minus the chikans . the new supermarket is big, gleaming and immaculate with enough room to blithley wheel around shopping carts.

yes martha-san, to the left is an entire refrigerater case filled with japanese pickles!

if you, like me, don't indulge in the gustatory pleasures of the flesh-colored rainbow, tokyo fish market stocks everything you need to prepare your vegetarian or vegan japanese-insired meals.

for more talk about tokyo fish market, go to this chowhound search page.

tokyo fish market
1220 san pablo avenue
berkeley, ca
510 524 7243

Wednesday, January 11, 2006


glowing come hither burgermeister neon beckons weary safeway shoppers

it's come to this dear readers. a review of a hamburger place on a "mostly vegan" restaurant review blog. the irony does not escape me, but let's face it, most of us don't live in a little meat-free bubble, hanging out exclusively with like-minded herbivores all bemoaning the fact that we do not have the mighty cows second stomach that might relieve a little of the, um, pressure of eating so much fiber. most of us eat and live with those who prefer to eat the full spectrum of the meat-rainbow. and sometimes they want a burger and you don't want to be a sanctimonious, rigid pill. and so you go. and take pictures. and drool. and feel just like a pornographer.

surprisingly two of the easiest places for a vegetarian to get a decent meal (at least in this part of the country) are at the carnivores most meatiest eateries: steakhouses (tons of sides and baked potatoes and salads) and burger places (veggie burgers, fries and salads).

i don't eat burgers but my man does. and he loves burgermeister. we go to the one on church street although they have outposts in northbeach and cole valley.

boca burger ($6.95)

burgermeister goes above and beyond the one token veggie selection and offers three different types of meat-free burgers: a garden burger, a boca burger and a grilled portobello burger. now, i don't like garden burgers and i may be the only person on the planet who doesn't like grilled portobello mushrooms as a sandwich, but luckily for me i do love boca burgers. for $6.95 my boca burger came with the usual garnishes (onion, pickles, lettuce) plus the choice of coleslaw, green salad or fries. i can't vouch for the salad or coleslaw, but the fries are very good. they are nicely browned, not soggy with a nice crunch and you get a pretty gi-normous portion. washed down with a fat-tire ale on draft it make a very tasty if not particulary health conscious feed.

the onion rings are battered, crispy and deep fried perfection.

onion rings ( $1.35 for the "upgrade")

as for the meat-burger i am in no position to comment. but it would be silly to go to a burger place and not discuss the meat. so here he is, my man, discoursing on the merits of the burgermeister burger, which he always gets in the child size (1/4 lb. versus 1/2 lb.) which looks plenty big to me.

1/4 lb. child sized cheeseburger with fries (5.80)

what do you look for in a burger?
"well, first there's the bun. i like a bun that is not too bready or oversized. and i like to have control of the condiments - serve 'em up plain and let me add onions and the like. but most importantly is, of course, the meat which has to be organic. i like to be able to really taste the meat through all that condiment junk in the burger. the meat flavor has to come through in a good way and not in a stanky way. in some burgers you can't taste the meat at all, in other burgers you can taste the meat but it's, you know, stanky, and then in other burgers you can taste the cow and it tastes good. hmm, and consistency is important. the place has to be consistent, not like kellys burgers on 16th where sometimes the burgers are good and sometimes they're awful. did i mention that the meat has to be organic? i did? yeah, well, you don't want to eat sick, mistreated mad cows all shot up with hormones. you might grow breasts or something. not good for a man. unless you're into that kinda thing..."

on a scale from 1 to 10, how do you rate the burgermeister burger?
"9. definitely a nine."

some claim that burger joint is better than burgermeister. what do you think?
"well, i haven't been to burger joint in a long time because i know three people who have gotten sick after eating their burgers. last time i ate there, there was grease on top of the buns, which i hate. and the meat had that bad stankiness i was talking about earlier."

where have you had an equivalent or better burger?
"burgermesiter has the best thin-type burger. back in the day the medici burger in chicago served up the best thick type burgers. i don't know about now."

given the choice between a swift kick in the pants and eating a burgermeister burger, which would you choose and why?
"i'll take the burger. my ass is kinda bony."

burgermeister homepage
citysearch review
sfsurvey review

138 church street
san francisco, ca
415 437 2874
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