We Be Sushi’s slogan is “Like Mom Used To Make,” and Tony-San, as he is known to his employees, has been Sushi Mom to the Mission for more than 20 years. He opened the original incarnation on Valencia near 22nd Street, and followed up his formula for cheap and swell (if not spectacular) sushi with four other restaurants. At one point, he sold the original, but eventually bought his baby back, and currently owns and operates two of the original five. Even though the original is only half a block from my house, I’d only ever been to the larger one near 16th Street, and that was at least 15 years ago.
The ambiance at the original location stood out for me – it’s a tiny closet of a place, where the sushi chefs hover over what is essentially a cart (there being no room for a bar) to craft nigiri, sashimi, noodle soups, tempura, and other Japanese delights. The room is narrow and intimate, the walls covered with Japanese cultural paintings, wall-hangings, and posters depicting the different styles of Sumo wrestler dress. The music is eclectic (from Wall of Voodoo to Miles Davis to 80s hits) and the service is casual yet friendly. It’s definitely a neighborhood place, not a destination for out-of-towners. Then again, I heard a family of French people there our first night.
I ordered the happy hour nigiri special: one piece each of uni (sea urchin), hamachi (yellowtail), ama ebi (sweet shrimp), shiro maguro (white fish or escolar) nigiri, and a Valencia maki roll (spicy tuna).
A nice showing! There isn’t anything innovative going on here (besides the price), but everything tasted fresh and the cuts were a decent size. And they weren’t served too cold, a pet peeve of mine. Oh, and their miso soup – I almost never drink the complimentary watery miso soup every sushi bar plops in front of you before your meal – a waste of calories, I tell the BF. But I decided to try theirs, and found it quite tasty. I learned it’s made with white miso (as opposed to the more common red), and it had a rich, almost meaty quality to it. It also had onion, carrots and seaweed floating in it, instead of the usual insipid little chiclets of tofu.
The BF ordered the chicken teriyaki dinner.
As you may know by now, the BF ain’t a fish lover. He almost always gets the bento box at a sushi restaurant, but We Be Sushi didn’t have one (at least, not at this location). And he almost always gets chicken teriyaki with his bento box. And it almost always sucks. In my humble opinion. Voiced loudly. But I tasted his chicken, and it tasted fresh, and tender, and not too sweet. There was a little broccoli on the plate, as well as a nice salad with a good ginger/sesame dressing.
We split a large Asahi, but I noticed that they have a small but decent selection of sake. The food was definitely better than I’d remembered, and at another table the BF spied some tempura and noodle soup that looked appetizing. Next time!
On our second visit, I ordered a dry sake (comes in a wine glass, unless you order by the bottle), and the Hamachi collar to start:
Now, this may look like a charred mess to you, but it was wonderful. It’s fried and then put under a broiler. So, yes, charred, smoky, and with lots of lovely flesh and crispy bits. Good and messy to eat with your hands.
The BF ordered the udon noodle soup with tempura he’d coveted on our first visit.
This time, it didn’t look as good, and it appeared that the tempura consisted of some julienned veggies that were kind of smooshed together, more like a fritter, as well as the shrimp. For me, the coating just wasn’t as light as I would have liked. The noodles had a decent texture, but the BF said the broth didn’t have much flavor – a dashi (fish broth), our server confirmed. I agreed it was rather – ahem – subtle.
My sashimi and nigiri, ordered a la carte this time, were not as memorable as the first night’s, even though I essentially ordered the same thing. Although I did get the hamachi as sashimi. I’m just a hamachi/uni fanatic.
Our server this night, we found out, was responsible for the eclectic music – she said she lived above the restaurant and picked out the playlist. When I asked her about the other, sole remaining location (near 16th Street on Valencia) in Tony-San’s sushi empire, she said the vibe there was “just not as special” as the original. She did, however, say the menu was slightly different.
So, even though our second meal wasn’t quite as inspiring, I had to try the other space again, after all these years. Right?
It’s right smack dab in the middle of hyper-trendy/hip/happening Valencia, between 16th and 17th Streets, but the ambience couldn’t be more different. Some 70s R&B tunes (not the good ones) played quietly in the larger, long space. The BF commented that the music sounded like the place looked, and I had to agree: pastel-y, mellow, a bit dull, décor-wise. Especially compared with its progenitor, which has so much personality.
The walls here are a pale pink, the paintings all benign nature scenes, and the place just lacks the edge of the original restaurant, especially in the music dept. There was one nice, homey touch, however – outside the bathroom door on a bookshelf were stacks and stacks of Japanese books that I like to imagine the chefs take out back on their breaks.
AND… I have to say, I found the quality of the food slightly better here than at the first location. First, some edamame.
Our server offered me the ubiquitous sushi bar snack as I waited for the BF to show up, freshly steamed (the edamame, not the BF). It may be a standard, but edamame is never amiss. We ordered a beer and each got our bowl of miso soup – again, really good miso soup.
For my main, I ordered unagi (bbq’d eel) donburi (bowl of rice) – essentially, a giant pile of sweetly meaty unagi over rice – and surprisingly, the ratio of rice to unagi was quite fair.
Nice texture to the unagi, not a lot of dried edges as you sometimes find in this particular sushi prep. I also got a green salad with my meal, which was unfortunately underdressed.
Next, I ordered a new-to-me nigiri order – steamed awabi:
Abalone! It had the nicest chew, as you’d except, much like surf clam, although it had a rather odd smell…. Something a little … horsey? I truly don’t know what that was, but it didn’t stop me from eating it up. It tasted fresh, with the tang of the sea. I’d order it again.
The BF did very well for himself this visit:
Bento box! His favorite! Chicken teriyaki again (they don’t have beef) in a little crispy, rice flour tostada- bowl-thing, steamed rice, green salad (also not very well dressed), seaweed salad, three pieces of nigiri – maguro, shiro maguro, sake (which he gave me since he doesn’t like salmon even more than he thinks he doesn’t like other seafood), and six pieces of maki – California roll and unagi with cukes. The tempura here was night-and-day better than at the first location, all lightness and crunch, and I wished I’d ordered a whole side of it for myself. As it was, his bento box came with two shrimps, a piece of broccoli, and a slice of zucchini tempura. The BF is really working on eating more seafood lately, but I’m always right there to pick up the excess.
All in all, we found We Be Sushi to be a good, local, inexpensive alternative to highly priced, slick sushi bars that dot this City. Sure, you could go to those places, with their arty rolls and modern/industrial vibe. But this is here, in our neighborhood, right next door, always around, always waiting to feed you good food, just like Mom used to do.
We Be Sushi
538 Valencia St.
San Francisco, CA 94110
1071 Valencia St.
San Francisco, CA 94110