Sushi Tei (Mountain View)
This business of being Sushi Monster is not all sweetness and seaweed. No, my friends, at times it's long hours of bitterness, tough rice and heartache, all in the service of the sushi-eating public. Spring is right around the corner. That means goodbye mirugai and hirame, hello West Coast salmon. And it means it's almost time for v. 2.5 of the Big List. In my epic quest to devour the Peninsula, my goal for this revision cycle was to take the total number of sushiya reviewed from 37 to 45. Like my old neighbor Hall of Fame wide receiver Jerry Rice (whose name would be Jerry Shari in Japan...), I wanted to set the bar so high that no foolish person would ever even attempt to top it. Getting to every last sushiya on the Peninsula would mean batting cleanup in the bottom tier. In other words: Eating ugly. My intrepid friend KK tried to talk me out of it. To which I replied: "I'll call you if I end up in the hospital."
This week has been one of the most profoundly disturbing and dyspeptic of Sushi Monster's great sojourn. In the space of five days, I hit three San Mateo shops – Joy, Shiki and Kyoto – that were so uniformly awful as to almost put me off sushi altogether. They are so bad that I won't even bother posting mini-reviews for the Hounds unless some masochist specifically asks me to. And so today, still reeling from a triple-play of skunky nigiri, I shuffled off to Mountain View for what was probably going to be Act IV of the dismal drama. But, as they say, even a blind shark finds a yellowtail every now and then. My luck turned around. All is right in the world again. And I have Sushi Tei (1036 Castro St., 650 961-7272) to thank for that.
Based on pre-meal intel, I hadn't expected much of anything out of Sushi Tei. The few reviews that were out there were mostly lukewarm. Yet, this unpretentious and largely unheralded shop on the quiet side (read: west side) of El Camino is about the only sane "middle way" I've found in the dysfunctional sub-sphere of Mountain View sushi. On one end of the spectrum, you have high-quality Tomi, with unconscionably high prices. And on the other side, four simply awful places downtown. With the notable exception of Momoya, Tei is the only everyday, go-to joint to fall somewhere between the two extremes.
What I found when I rolled in at the height of the Friday lunch rush at 12:30 was a full house at the tables in the large dining room and an empty eight-seat bar. They do boom lunch business with the seven set bento boxes (mostly tempura and teriyaki) priced from $7-$11, which are particularly popular with Tei's older Asian clientele, who make up a significant chunk of the audience.
Service, even at peak hours, is wicked fast and very cordial at this Japanese-run shop. I was disappointed initially to be handed the default standard order sheet for sushi. Not seeing a whiteboard, I asked the older itamae, "Any special fish today?" To which came a curt and unapologetic, "No." Not a good sign. But on the upside, the bar's work areas and fish case were immaculate, even by sushiya standards. The blow-by-blow was mixed: The tired hotate was skippable. Ikura, sake and hamachi were all decent. "White fish" was a stringy cut of hirame. The itamae went a couple clicks too heavy on the wasabe for my taste.
Not being one to take "no" for an answer, I pressed again and asked for a couple nigiri calls not on the standard order sheet. Engawa (halibut fin muscle) is a personal favorite, and a sublime nigiri tane that is very easy to botch if not cut and scored properly. The itamae smiled thinly and said, "One moment please." He disappeared into the back of the shop and reappeared momentarily with the engawa strip, which he prepared expertly and served with the requisite ponzu sauce. It was delicious. No tai/madai or shima aji/kanpachi in his case today. But he did deliver an un-sauced pair of aji nigiri that were flat-out gigantic by Japanese standards – and quite tasty.
Overall, $44 for seven nigiri plates (including my customary 20 percent tip) is not an outstanding value. But given the bi-polar nature of the neighborhood, if you're not prepared to fork over almost $7 per plate down the street at Tomi, Tei is the only edible option downtown.
Bottom line: Superior service, mid-range (but thoroughly acceptable) quality, not-so-great value and somewhat limited fish selection. I would not make a special trip back. But for anyone who finds themselves in Mountain View at lunch, Sushi Tei is worthy of consideration. On the Big List, I'm slotting Tei right in the middle of the middle tier -- at No. 19, just below Masa in Mountain View and just above Bonsai in Atherton.
sushimonster – et – emeraldlake.com
The first time I discovered Sushi Tei was back in 2000 (two Japanese coworkers had already known about this place) when I first started working in Mountain View. Not knowing Sushi Tomi at the time, this was the place for us in the day to have Japanese (cooked) food.
They had on display the two lunch sets of the day, (A) lunch and (J) lunch, with each letter of the alphabet representing our country and Japan. The J lunches were the gems to a few of us and my coworkers, great value meals that were homey, down to earth, and simple (whether it be a grilled fish, or a simple stew of some sort). The A lunches were either teriyaki or tempura and almost always the obligatory California Rolls. Chirashi sushi was simple but good, with a decent vinegared rice to go with it (that was then).
The last time I had the "A" lunch, the food was overall too salty.
I haven't been here in ages, and in the last visit to the sushi bar, some of the fish were still at near frozen temperatures (warm enough to be bent onto the shari haha). I'll take nicely cool refrigerated and much cheaper nigiri from Nijiya 5 mins down the strip of El Camino, thanks!
But yeah SM, thanks for the report. I would have joined you, but pho ga at Pho Vi Hoa was on my want list today to cure the hopefully end phases of this little cold (and the pho ga was uhhh pho gettable...)
I found that so far I only like the following from Pho Vi Hoa, and that is pho with beef and not chicken (chicken had no flavor, poached/cooked a little too long, all breast meat), seafood noodle soup is good (I like the egg noodle there), iced coffee, 3 bean drink (little on the sweet side but nice). Sugar cane shrimp is aweful (looks deep fried, had batter on the outside) and the shrimp used was like a dry paste instead of freshly ground shrimp. Definitely not the same kind of sugar cane shrimp like at the Vietnamese restaurants I recall in Hong Kong.
Another delightful review. I love reading these.
On the subject of Sushi Tei, I always pass by this place on the drive home in the evening and the dining room is almost always completely empty save for the seats at the sushi bar, so there must be something about the sushi that keeps the customers coming. I've only had sushi there once, and the brother Howie Long (of "Broken Arrow" fame) happened to be sitting next to me. For those curious, he looks just like his brother.