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A Maki Among Maki 

Wednesday, Sep 29 1999
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Like many before me who've migrated to the city of St. Francis, I first hung my hat in the perpetually fogbound Sunset District, that unassuming neighborhood where the parking is ample and unending avenues slope gently toward the Pacific. Ah, those were the days -- way back in 1993, when the word "yuppie" conjured images of New York City in the '80s, and $350 a month got you a room with a view and a tremendous red Kool-Aid stain on the carpet.

I eventually fled inland in search of a hipper neighborhood and warmer climes (one image burned indelibly into my memory is of old folks shivering in their winter coats during the summer of 1994). But I still have fond recollections of that time in my life, when my roommate and I stayed up until 6 a.m. each night playing gin, everything about the city seemed new, and Peko Sushi (and Cocktails) on unpretentious Irving Street sat just a few blocks away.

The thing about Peko is that, in addition to serving fine sushi at three tables and a half-dozen seats at the counter, the place doubles as, well, I'll call it a regular bar, since on any given night you can find a handful of regulars sipping cocktails while a television set churns out keno numbers. Peko Sushi also features what has to be the city's most intriguing wallpaper, a 1970s-style depiction of a lush, green forest, which trails off toward the jukebox (which offers everything from Barbra Streisand to Rush) and the pool table (which is always available), which in turn shares space with a pair of well-maintained dartboards in Peko's cavernous back room.

Some of the strangest things that ever happened to me in San Francisco happened in Peko Sushi -- karaoke night was always an adventure, and then there was the time two drunken Irishmen got in a brawl that ended after a few seconds because the combatants had grown too tired to continue (for those who don't like bar fights with their hamachi, I should point out that this was the only such incident I witnessed in some two dozen trips to Peko).

But the best thing about Peko is its undiscoveredness: Even my friend Bob, who lives a few blocks away, had never been there, a situation I remedied when, along with Bob's girlfriend, Alexa, we ventured down to Irving Street for what I promised would be an experience they would not soon forget.

Taking our pick of three empty tables, we scanned a menu that still contained one of my old Peko favorites -- unagi (broiled freshwater eel) over a bowl of rice ($7.95). While Alexa marveled at the neon green Belfast Sparkling Water clock over the bar and the fact that "the song from Cats" was playing on the jukebox, I got us started with a large sake ($6) and a sashimi appetizer ($6.95), three slices each of tuna and octopus, accompanied by thin, neatly arranged slivers of cucumber.

Since writing about nigiri (raw fish over a ball of sticky rice) would be a tad monotonous, I limited our order to one saba ($2.60) -- two huge pieces of savory mackerel -- as well as a nice tekka maki (tuna roll, $3.50) and a fiery Kamikaze Roll (spicy tuna and diced scallions, $3.95). Big deal, you say: I could get that stuff anywhere. And you're right. But what blew our minds -- and Peko always seems to blow your mind -- were the roll specials, delightfully innovative maki that were each served on a different-shaped black lacquer tray and carried out one at a time by a grand-matronly waitress who showed a particular concern over whether or not we were eating all our wasabi.

Before I go further, I should say that the lone chef at Peko Sushi is a master, his ingenuity in combining various ingredients rivaled only by the generousness of the portions, the beautiful presentation, and the epic names given to his creations. The Red Sun Roll ($9.95) was a monster, featuring spicy tuna on the inside and thick slices of fresh tuna on the outside, and came sprinkled with, alternately, tiny piles of scallions and tobiko (flying fish roe).

The Red Sun Roll was followed by the Hurricane Roll ($8.95) -- which arrived shortly after the jukebox switched from flamenco to what Alexa called "Italian restaurant music" -- fresh tuna and mango on the inside, fresh salmon (as opposed to smoked) on the outside, which in turn was draped diagonally with still more thin-sliced mango. Our eyes glowed with delight as we sampled this wondrous invention, which, in addition to providing a marvelous blend of -- how to say it? -- sweet and salmon, truly did look like a hurricane on some subliminal level, though how this effect was achieved I cannot say.

For our third maki, we indulged in a traditional Spider Roll ($7.95) -- soft- shell crab and avocado, coated with tobiko and the same sauce used on the restaurant's barbecued eel. The helpings of soft-shell crab were generous. The jukebox switched to Carole King. Bob lost a chopstick, prompting the following koan: What is the sound of one stick chopping? (A hungry man.) We ordered more sake just in time for the Dragon Roll ($9.95), which, like the Hurricane Roll, is reason in itself to visit Peko.

The Dragon Roll at Peko is a maki among maki -- tempura-fried crab topped with tobiko, scallions, avocado, and, for a kicker, slices of broiled unagi. "Good lord," I exclaimed as the disparate flavors melded into a symphony of delectability, the whole creation holding together nicely. Alexa observed that if you don't like sushi, you will after visiting Peko.

Though nothing could top the Dragon Roll for flavor, our final maki, the Caterpillar Roll ($8.95), beat it on presentation. Featuring tempura-fried shrimp and slivers of cucumber, the roll was topped with thin slices of avocado laid one atop the other, like plates of armor, then glazed with two stripes of the unagi sauce and arranged in a sort of caterpillarlike meander that rendered it almost too beautiful to eat.

Almost.

All in all, my promise of an unforgettable experience was fulfilled -- the maki were spectacular, and, as an added bonus, the following phrase mysteriously appeared in my notes the next day: "If you touch me, you'll understand what happiness is."

Oh my.

And since we were already on Irving Street, I figured we should drop by another old haunt, the Silver Spur, a tiny, low-ceilinged bar where two dozen or so locals were knocking back cocktails and Bud in the bottle, and a letter from the Health Department announcing that the smoking ban would now be enforced shared wall space with a petition asking those opposed to the ban to sign right there.

Not much seemed to have changed at the Silver Spur during the past six years -- the Doors and AC/DC dominated the jukebox, and the pool table was packed as always on a Thursday night (and if you want to shoot more than one game at the Spur, you'd better be pretty damned good, as I recall). But what I really remember about the Silver Spur was a gentleman by the name of Blackjack, a gravelly voiced old-timer whose seat at the end of the bar was always occupied, unless, of course, it was a slow night, and you needed someone to shoot a game with.

I never actually got to know Blackjack all that well -- he knew my name, I knew his, and we always had friendly words for one another back when I hardly knew anyone and was just beginning to explore what the city had to offer. Though I was something of a regular when I first moved to the Sunset, visiting the Spur became less and less of a tradition as the months passed and I found new places to cool my heels. All the same, I was deeply saddened when I dropped by a few years back and the seat at the end of the bar was empty, and I learned that Blackjack had passed away.

For me, there's a beauty to that whole neighborhood around Irving and 20th, a regular place where people accept you as you are and the mysteries of life manifest themselves in subtle ways, like a sushi bar with Queen and ZZ Top on the jukebox. Not that I'd ever go back -- it's just too cold -- but all the same, I miss the Sunset from time to time, a quiet place where the fog floats gently over the rooftops and you never have to wait to get a stiff drink or something good to eat.

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Greg Hugunin

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