Third Street is jammed with commuter traffic. Crossing streets requires weaving through stopped cars in the early evening San Francisco sun.
The dark wood on the outside of the narrow space is echoed by the dark shine on the tables in the room, and from the bar in front of the Hakashi sushi stations. Five or six serious chefs work at their tasks, slicing, chopping, mixing.
When we arrive at Hakashi, just north of Bryant, isn’t crowded on this Wednesday evening. Chef Julio Zapata, though, is busy creating – and yes, creating is the right word – an elaborate special order that looks to contain 50 separate items. With a final flourish of lemon zest, he turns to us and says “Now I will focus on you.”
For the next two hours, a steady stream of sushi, interspersed with soup, Wagyu beef and lamb, landed in front us. We were there for omakase, and we let Julio take us wherever he wanted us to go.
As we sat there, the small space steadily filled, and by the time we left, it was almost completely full. “A slow night,” said Julio, handing us the next course.
It might have sea bream, or barracuda, or sea trout – after a while the details blended together. But what didn’t blend was the distinct flavors and sauces on each small bite. On some the aftertaste was sharp and briny; on others, smooth and slow.
Zapata imports his fish from Tokyo, and it arrives less than two days from when he orders it. It is impeccably fresh, and the variety is exceptional. “I have 35 different kinds of fish,” he says. “Most sushi places have four or five.”
By this point, “Julio” and “Zapata” might have caused some category confusion. Yes, the chef is Mexican, a Mayan from the Yucatan, and at the same time, he is a sushi master. He spent nearly 20 years honing his craft at a variety of San Francisco spots, and he has run Hakashi for the past four years. Soon, a Hakashi outpost will appear on Locust Street in Walnut Creek, bringing this high-end sushi to a suburb that doesn’t offer any.
And for those suburbanites like me who haven’t sampled elite sushi before, it will be a revelation. For example, Zapata leaves a small strip of skin on some nigiri because there’s a little fat that adds extra flavor to a fish that might not have quite enough. Or he might serve a fish in the winter, when the water is cold and thus the fat content is higher, because in the summer, it would be too dry and lack taste.
Zapata also uses the edomae technique, which involves subtly marinating the fish, often in vinegar, before serving, rather than simply setting for the flavor of raw fish.
And all of this creates variety, so the parade of plates never elicits anything but anticipation – and then a burst of flavor different than the plate before, and different than the one that follows.
So the Wednesday night crowd is no surprise, as Hakashi is not just another sushi place. It’s not just another stop for some quick appetizers and some sake or beer. Hakashi can be that, of course, but it’s better seen as a destination, a place worth seeking out in the late afternoon traffic, or late-night fog.
And definitely worth seeking out in the suburbs, when it opens in Walnut Creek in just a few weeks.