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Hama-Ko -- Thank you, Limster!

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  • Andrew Raskin Jun 29, 2001 03:09 AM
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[long post]

On Limster's recommendation, I went to Hama-ko (Carl @Cole) tonight. It was one of my most memorable sushi experiences ever. I am in huge debt to Limster, not only for sending me there, but also for his excellent advance education through Chowhound.

When I arrived, my friend was waiting for me by the door, and she complained that the sushi chef had already given her a few dirty looks and said "No" when she motioned toward a table with a "reserved" sign on it. With both of us there, the wife seated us at a table near the counter. I had called ahead and asked in Japanese if they take reservations. She said they didn't.

I'm often unsure at a new sushi place whether I should speak Japanese, since sometimes they take it as showing off. The wife seemed friendly, though, so I automatically started talking to her in Japanese. I ordered Suishin, one of my favorite sakes for room teperature, in a masu (box), and the sushi chef overheard, so he was watching me closely. The ankimo sushi and smoked salmon that Limster recommended weren't on the menu, so I said, "I heard from a friend that you have ankimo sushi and it's really good, but it's not on the menu." She looked surprised, and then said, "Oh. I see you've been referred. Who told you about us?" Since I only know Limster's chow-name, I said I heard about it from an Internet site called Chowhound from a guy named Limster (in Japanese it came out more like "Rimustah"). I guess she didn't know Limster from his chow-name, but they were intrigued that I heard about their restaurant on the Internet. "Did it say on the Internet that we're really mean and we make people leave if they try to make a follow-on order?" the wife asked, chuckling. I said no, even though Limster had actually shared that piece of info with me.

After the chef heard me order in Japanese, he must have taken a liking to me, because when he finished preparing our sushi, he leaned over the counter and said in Japanese to me, "I have made some especially good sushi for you. Most Americans do not get to eat this." I bowed my head a little to indicate my surprise and gratitude. Then I told my friend that I wasn't sure but I had a feeling he was going to bring the sushi over to our table himself because he was really proud of it. Sure enough, he brought it himself (the wife usually brings orders to the tables). At the table, he told me where each of the fish came from -- tai from new zealand, saba from mexico, etc. Most saba in restaurants has been vinegared by a distributor -- he said he does it himself. I asked how long he lets the saba marinate -- he said it was a good question, but that the answer was a company secret and he couldn't tell me. Perfect.

As for the sushi -- the tai was the softest, most tasty I have ever had. The hamachi was out-of-this-world buttery. Same for the white tuna. The mirugai was alive shortly before being served to us, and it still had the taste of the sea. Limster's recommendations of the ankimo sushi -- fresh, not processed in a cylinder, just as Limster said -- and the smoked salmon were excellent. Definitely best I've had in SF in my brief 1.5 years here. As we ate, the chef and I talked about his life in Japan. He said he has a blowfish license from 40 years ago, "a real classic." I asked about his knife. He said the knife he uses at the restaurant most nights is just a "demo" knife. "His real knife is like a sword," the wife said.

By 9:30 the place had cleared out to just a few tables of folks, and that's when the chef broke out the photos of Isaac Stern and Yo-yo Ma eating at Hama-ko. Stern prefers sashimi to sushi and has been to Hama-ko about 35 times, according to the chef, Ma about 20. One picture showed Ma playing cello in the restaurant for the other patrons. Needless to say, the wife told me, Stern gets to make a reservation.

The chef came out to my table and talked with me a little. He asked me what other Japanese restaurants I'd been to in SF. I told him Kabuto, and for some reason I mentioned Tenichi (Pacific Heights). He said he golfs sometimes with the Tenichi owner. "Next time you go there, tell them you were at Hama-ko," the chef said. "And tell them Hama-ko is better than Tenichi -- it's okay, they won't get mad. They know it's true." The chef said only one other place in SF -- Kyo-ya -- is decent, but that it's expensive. Cost-performance-wise, he said that nobody beats Hama-ko.

I received the ultimate sign of acceptance from the chef when he said to his wife "Kare o toroku shite ii yo", which means "You can register him." At that point, she asked my name. Apparently there is another Andy who goes there, so she gave me a nickname so they can keep us straight. Then she wrote my name down in a book by the phone. She also gave me a business card with her name, Junko, and his name, Tetsuo, written in Japanese. "Next time, please call ahead and make a reservation," she said. I almost wept.

So next time I'll call ahead. She said I can reserve a place at the counter, but only if I expect to enter around 7, since she said they usually don't fill counter seats more than once an evening. All I have to do is give my nickname -- that'll be the password. What's my nickname? Ah, that's a company secret.

Thanks you, Limster!

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  1. I'm glad you had such a great time at Hamo-Ko. However, this does confirm for me that sushi restaurants are really a closed club, and since I don't speak Japanese, I'm destined to always be one of those "most Americans" disdained by the sushi chef, even though I'd never order a California roll. Other chowhounds' thoughts?

    41 Replies
    1. re: Dixie Day
      a
      Andrew Raskin

      I think there are a lot of people who don't speak Japanese besides Isaac Stern who get to "registration status" at Hama-ko, though the language skills probably sped up the process.

      Anyway, if anyone ever wants to go just let me know...

      1. re: Andrew Raskin

        this tiny place is just around the corner from us and we've tried to go many times, but have only succeeded once-much to our delight. andy, if you ever need someone to keep you company at the counter...

        1. re: Rochelle
          a
          Andrew Raskin

          Okay, let's do it. I want to wait a couple weeks, though, so they don't think I'm abusing the reservation privilege. Maybe around the end of July?

          1. re: Andrew Raskin

            definately game!

            1. re: Andrew Raskin

              I'd love to join, especially with the deep sushi knowledge of other chowhounders!

          2. re: Andrew Raskin

            Can you read Japanese as well as speak it? Have you been to Tekka? It's on Balboa and 7th. They have limited sushi/sashimi but it is pristine. The best saba I've had ever but now I'm even more curious about Hama-Ko. But back to Tekka...They have a menu of cooked dishes that are written on the wall in Japanese. My husband remembers a little and can pull out enough to read the name of one dish every once in a while. Whenever we order from that menu, it's always an education and an experience. Some of the dishes we've had: cubes of steamed kabota squash in a mirin-rice vinegar sauce, fried skate wings with the bones still intact, trapezoidal balls of rice that have been sauced with soy sauce before being grilled, clear nabemono with chucks of firm white fish, clear noodles, and some greens in what I think is a very light dashi broth, pork that has been braised for 5 days (according to the chef) that is meltingly tender with a wonderful sweet-savory broth. There are a few others that I can't remember now but I've never had Japanese food like this, not during a kaiseki meal or when we've ordered omakase. I'm curious to know if this is a kind of Japanese cooking - like would you find this in a home or is it more what they serve in a ryokan or what they cook for special occasions like New Years? If you've been and you can share an opinion, I'd love to hear it. If not, let me know if you want to check it out sometime.

            And by the way, if there's room for another one at Hama-Ko, I'd love to join.

            1. re: Tida
              a
              Andrew Raskin

              Yes, I can read (though it might take me a second to recognize "trapezoidal") and I am really intrigued by your post on Tekka. This is the first time I've heard of it (I'm still kinda new to SF). Most of the food you mentioned sounds like good home-style cooking. The 5-day braised pork sounds like Buta no kaku ni, which is my favorite dish of all time. I've had 3-days-braised -- at a place in Japan where the wife was rumored to stay awake during the entire 72-hour process -- but never 5. I'm free tonight, so if they're open on Sundays, I'm heading over to Tekka at 7pm. If you and your husband (or anyone else) want to join let me know!

              1. re: Andrew Raskin

                Can't make it tonight but please report back on what you think. I'm just really curious to know what style of cooking this is and don't have enough knowledge of Japanese cuisine to know.

                FYI, we now make it a point to go after 9PM. The chef has had some sake by then and has loosened up. It's also just easier to get a seat as they only have about 10 or so. If not, you just have to wait and wait and wait. Also, parking can be tough in that nabe so the chef recommended parking one block north at Cabrillo and 7th in the safeway parking lot if there isn't anything immediately around the restaurant. There is no English sign announcing the place but it's mid-block on the north side of Balboa, down the street from the corner Chinese restaurant.

                I hope they are open. I'm sure you'll have something delicious so please let me know what you think.

                1. re: Tida
                  a
                  Andrew Raskin

                  I called a few times, but no answer, so I'm thinking it's closed tonight. I'll try again another time and post on the experience.

                  1. re: Andrew Raskin

                    Tekka's quite a small place. It's run by an older
                    Japanese couple; they take off once a year for a trip
                    back home, so don't worry. It's reopened now.

                    Place is very small; seats about 9 total (6 or 7 at
                    the bar and one table). A friendly place, but the
                    chef has to warm up to you.

                    Good quality, fairly typical sushi bar food. There are
                    a number of dishes similar to what you might find at an
                    izakaya, but I'm not expert enough to know which dishes
                    are usually served where.

                    It's an informal place. For example, they serve one
                    cheap sake, and one better one. No list.

                    Sushi menu is listed in English, other foods in
                    Japanese only. But you can ask what's available.

                    BTW, it's on the South side of the street (someone
                    earlier posted North).

                  2. re: Tida
                    m
                    Melanie Wong

                    Cousin Tida, you've caught my eye with this one. I don't know anything about this type of Japanese cuisine but would love to join a scouting party.

                    1. re: Melanie Wong
                      a
                      Andrew Raskin

                      How about Tuesday night?

                      1. re: Andrew Raskin
                        m
                        Melanie Wong

                        Tuesday I'm on the road. I'm in SF on Monday and Thursday. You?

                        1. re: Melanie Wong
                          a
                          Andrew Raskin

                          Thursday could work. Wanna do it?

                          1. re: Andrew Raskin

                            Need another diner? I'd be very curious to go on thursday! thanks,

                            1. re: Andrew Raskin
                              a
                              Andrew Raskin

                              I just swung by Tekka to see what their hours are. There was a hand-written sign in the window saying the following:

                              "Sorry! Tekka is closed from July 1 to July 26. Maybe August. Keep guessing!"

                              I guess Thursday is off. Not sure what happened at Tekka, but from the sign I wonder if they'll open again. Anyone know?

                              1. re: Andrew Raskin

                                Boy, I hope they aren't closing. Since you've seen it, you could probably tell that it's not run by a huge staff, only the chef and his wife. They probably went on vacation. That's what I'm praying for anyway.

                                1. re: Andrew Raskin
                                  m
                                  Melanie Wong

                                  Hopefully, it's just a vacation closing. I've blocked out Thursday night - any other ideas?

                                  1. re: Melanie Wong

                                    I'd recommend Maki in Japantown for similar fare.

                                    1. re: Limster
                                      a
                                      Andrew Raskin

                                      Okay, since it sounds like they had izakaya-type stuff at Tekka and we want to try some of that, I'm going to assume that the folks in this thread are serious enough about this to travel all the way to...San Mateo! Lakuni caters to Japanese businessmen, it's the real thing. There is no sushi, though there are a couple raw fish dishes. Aside from that it's a lot of little dishes -- all kinds of grilled seafood, yakitori, vegetable dishes, ochazuke, some noodles, that pork dish (buta no kaku ni) etc. They also have a great shiokara (squid marinated in its own guts). I know the couple that runs it, and they're really sweet. It's small, just a bar counter and no tables, so I'd say 5 is the maximum group we can bring and not overwhelm the couple. Melanie and I are in, who else? Dixie, Caryl, Limster, Tida? We'll meet there at 7:30. My guess is the tab will run around $25 per person when all is said and done, but just a rough guess.

                                      Lakuni (325 East 4th Avenue, San Mateo (650) 347-3140) is on 4th Ave in San Mateo near the tracks. From 101, get off the 3rd Ave exit West, take a left on Delaware, and a right on 4th. It's on the right.

                                      1. re: Andrew Raskin

                                        I'm in. Sounds good. Anyone else in SF want to carpool?

                                        1. re: Tida
                                          m
                                          Melanie Wong

                                          Cool! I've dropped you an e-mail.

                                        2. re: Andrew Raskin

                                          This place sounds really intriguing, but I'll have to pass. Love to hear the report.

                                          Chow!

                                          1. re: Limster
                                            m
                                            Melanie Wong

                                            Limster, when I was in NY last month, I heard two questions from the local chowhounds I met. 1) Are Caitlin and Tida really your cousins?, and 2) Tell us about Limster.

                                            1. re: Melanie Wong
                                              c
                                              Caitlin McGrath

                                              Melanie, I sure hope you told them--whoever they were!--that Tida and I really *are* your cousins [g]!

                                              1. re: Caitlin McGrath
                                                m
                                                Melanie Wong

                                                But of course, Cousin Caitlin! One doesn't tell untruths about family. (g)

                                          2. re: Andrew Raskin

                                            Something has come up and am unable to join you for dinner. Hope you all have a delish time.

                                            Caryl

                                            1. re: Andrew Raskin

                                              I've created a new post for this write-up so it's not buried in this thread. I'm including the link below.

                                              Link: http://www.chowhound.com/topics/show/...

                                              1. re: Andrew Raskin

                                                Sadly, I've been in San Diego on vacation, and didn't get Melanie's invite till today. I am assuming that the dinner was for the Thursday the 5th, right?

                                                Well, I would love to hear how it went.

                                        3. re: Andrew Raskin

                                          Hi, I L-O-V-E Japanese cuisine but always seem to order the same things at the same familiar places. If it's still on for Thursday, I'd like to be included too.

                                    2. re: Melanie Wong

                                      can't make it this week but will someone keep me posted on tekka in august if they're open? my interest is really piqued and i'd love to be part of the dining crowd when it happens?

                                2. re: Tida

                                  It sounds as if Tekka features an Izakaya menu, which is a much more refined version of our pub-grub. In most Izakaya restaurants, the portions are smallish like a tapas menu, that are meant to be shared while drinking beer or sake. It's also somewhat similar to home cooking, but with a touch of refinement. But not in the ballpark of ryokan or kaiseki refinement. I'm putting this on my list for my next SF visit. Cheers.

                              2. re: Dixie Day

                                I don't think that Hama-Ko is that much of a closed club. I've eaten there many times, and everytime I'm there there's always one or two groups of regulars (you can tell when the owners say "it's good to see you again" etc...). They just happen to have lots of regulars who love their sushi. And many of their regulars don't speak Japanese (I'm in that category).

                                If you're a chef, I'm sure you would prefer customers that appreciate your efforts, especially when you spend a lot of time getting some of the best ingredients around.

                                When you eat there enough and they realize you can appreciate good sushi, they will warm up to you. They were welcoming and gracious even on my first trip there, although it took a lot of probing to get to the ankimo. I had a long wait, but that was mainly because the next table was having a multicourse omakase dinner that was very involved on the part of the kitchen.

                                Please don't worry about impressing the chef - it takes the fun out of eating when you're stressed about that. Just order the good stuff and enjoy your meal. That's how I got be a regular at Hama-Ko.

                                1. re: Dixie Day

                                  "Other chowhounds' thoughts?"

                                  yes, strong disagreement! Bridging such divides is not only possible, but the strategizing and ernest effort involved constitutes fully half the pleasure of chowhounding!

                                  One of the most knowledgable sushi respondents on this site is Tom Armitage, who speaks no Japanese at all. He's left many excellent messages about advanced sushi ordering techniques, and has often talked about the process of building a relationship with a great sushi chef.

                                  Tom believes (and I ardently agree) that it's MUCH better to pick a good sushi place and go frequently and enthusiastically, painstakingly building a relationship, than to go to the best place in town hoping to scale the heights via a big spend or two. It's about entering an underworld and learning all you possibly can.

                                  Read these postings by Tom to get more of an idea (cut and paste into your browser):

                                  http://www.chowhound.com/california/b...

                                  http://www.chowhound.com/california/b...

                                  http://www.chowhound.com/boards/gener...

                                  1. re: Jim Leff
                                    t
                                    Tom Armitage

                                    I think almost any chef is flattered by regular customers, especially those that, through their questions and observations, indicate that they appreciate the finer points of the chef's efforts. I want to reaffirm that this doesn't involve a "know-it-all" approach. Be honest, especially about what you don't know. I've found that most chefs, specifically including sushi chefs, are happy to take on the role of "teaching" regular customers who express interest in expanding their knowledge and sophistication.

                                    There are so many good sushi restaurants in Los Angeles that one could easily spread his or her business around so as not to become a "regular" at any of the restaurants. As Jim Leff suggested, I think that's a mistake. Sample them all. But then focus on a few where you would like to become a "regular." Remember that, like all relationships, a relationship with a sushi chef builds slowly. Don't expect to receive the chef's "treasures" after a couple of visits.

                                    Becoming a "regular" doesn't mean that you can't also go to other sushi restaurants. But you will notice the difference. For example, at a restaurant where you're not a regular, the chef will seldom look over the otoro in his display case, then leave and come back with a new piece of otoro which he slices and serves to you.

                                    I've really enjoyed reading the recent posts on Sushi restaurants in the San Francisco area, including the posts on this string. Sounds like I'm going to have to come up there soon and check things out for myself. If so, I'll see if some of you S.F. Hounds would like to join me and compare notes.

                                    1. re: Tom Armitage

                                      Yes - some chefs are definitely interested in teachingm their customers how to enjoy the food.

                                      I ordered a steamed skate wing at Kabuto on my first visit and was busy eating away at the flesh while the leaving bones behind. The chef peered over the counter and gently suggested that I eat the bones as well - the crunchiness of the bones was a lovely counterpoint to the soft fish - and I learnt something that day.

                                  2. re: Dixie Day

                                    Well, all this talk about Sushi..Must try Hama-Ko.....But I can't help but include what has become my standby sushi restaurant in SF.I usually don't tell anyone, as it is small and only open a few days a week, and a well kept secret. Called Okina and located on Arguello near Golden Gate.....Best Toro I've ever had. He does raw fish only and it is fresh and clean and beautiful.

                                    1. re: Dana B

                                      hama-Ko used to be a pretty well kept secret, but Patricia Unterman (Ex) and Greg Hughinin (SF weekly) reviewed it. So I don't feel so bad about sharing since it's already well covered in the media.

                                      1. re: Dana B
                                        a
                                        Andrew Raskin

                                        I did a drive-by scouting of Okina on my way to a July 4th bbq in gg park. Looks like you have shared a very dear secret. Thank you. Thank you.

                                        1. re: Andrew Raskin
                                          a
                                          Andrew Raskin

                                          Unable to restrain myself, I looked up the number for Okina and called to find out what nights they're open. The phone rang three times, then I heard a click like someone answering, then silence. Then another click. The line went dead.

                                          I called again. The same click. This time I said "hello?" Nothing. Then I said "Moshi moshi" in Japanese. An older man's voice on the other end answered, "Hai."

                                          He said Okina is open Thurdsays, Fridays and Saturdays from 5 to 10pm. Only. He said the place is very small but you don't need a reservation "because the economy is so bad in SF right now." He told me his fish is very fresh and I believe him.

                                          He said he hates telemarketing calls, so he never speaks first on the phone. Even when he heard my "hello" he thought it sounded professional. Well, that's nice to know, I guess. Anyway, if you call, say something first or he'll hang up on you!

                                          1. re: Andrew Raskin

                                            I have eaten at Okina a few times and all i can say is this: SIT AT THE BAR and let him serve you. If you drink some sake and don't talk to loudly and ask him what is good he will look you up and down and take over and you will have a fantastic meal. This is the best raw scallop i have ever had.

                                    2. I'm glad you had a good time there. Alas, it will be a while before I eat there again, seeing that I'm on a budget.