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Down on the Corner 

26's Corner

Wednesday, Sep 5 2001
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The first time a friend told me about 26's Corner, I was reminded of the time a different friend told me about Sanraku: Once again I learned that there was a really, really good sushi place whose name and location a so-called friend wasn't about to reveal. I suppose that's how it goes with sushi -- everyone has a favorite spot, and nobody wants other people to discover it because no one wants to have to wait to get in. In both cases, I wore my friends down via persistent inquiry. With Sanraku, I never felt bad about sharing the secret (the place is so over-discovered that if you don't end up waiting in the doorway for at least a few minutes you've missed out on the true experience). At 26's Corner, on the other hand, I've never had to wait, though the place was approaching maximum capacity (about 20 customers) on my latest visit.

I guess the word is out about this homey little spot, where they serve funky, new-school sushi rolls until midnight, or on weekends until the shockingly late hour of 2 a.m. After five visits, I'd say the experience is more enjoyable on some occasions (say, 6 p.m. on a quiet Sunday) than on others (the prime sushi-eating hour of 8 p.m. on a Thursday, when the quarters get so tight that the Japanese waitress in the platform sneakers has to prop the door open to keep the windows from steaming up). Dishes arrive slowly during the busier times, which isn't surprising considering that there's usually only one sushi chef on duty and the kitchen is a bit smaller than my own. Still, the food always ranges from mighty good to entirely magnificent, with a definite focus on the Americanized branch of the centuries-old art of sushi-making.

As an added bonus, 26's Corner is a fine place to check out the faces of today's Outer Richmond. I've seen Russians, yuppies, young hipsters showing each other their newest back tattoos, and a man dressed entirely in black leather (boots, pants, jacket) except for his shimmering, tangerine-orange shirt. Hell, I've even seen Japanese people who apparently weren't too disturbed by the idea of sliding a little cream cheese into the maki. It's a friendly, neighborhood place where the kitchen sometimes comps an appetizer or a dessert, where the sushi chef may eavesdrop on your order and suggest whatever specials he has on hand. The only real drawback is the parking: At times, I've circled the block for so long that rolling my own sushi began to seem like less trouble.

Of course, rolling my own would have been a lot more trouble. Anyone can purchase a bamboo mat and throw together a futo maki, cucumber, or mango-salmon roll, but these basic morsels relate to the more complex creations at 26's Corner the way a $5 ukulele relates to a Stratocaster. The menu offers all the standard sushi-house fare -- beer, wine, sake, a goma ae spinach salad, a bold, flavorful miso soup, deep-fried soft-shell crab, gyoza (Japanese dumplings), steamed edamame, and hefty portions of non-greasy tempura. They're all perfectly good, yet they pale in comparison to, say, the genius of the tuna naruto appetizer. Here, shaved cucumber is rolled into a swirling, rice-free maki laced with ahi, avocado, and crab, then topped with tobiko and bathed with an exquisitely light vinegar sauce -- a cool, crisp, fabulous salty/sweet/sour combination.

The sashimi combination isn't the biggest plate in town, but it's one of the better deals. For $12.50, my friend Alexandra and I received three slices of octopus, two slices of pungent mackerel, three slices of pale, clean-tasting snapper, two puny nubbins of hamachi (we got the feeling the sushi bar was running low), three pieces of ahi, and a whopping six slabs of gorgeously marbled salmon. Among 23 nigiri offered, the most expensive (and the most memorable) is the sweet shrimp, which comes with a pair of deep-fried shrimp heads as large as D batteries. The heads look like garnish, but they're quite edible -- the heat-softened shell succumbs with a sharp crackle, revealing meaty, semimolten pockets of flesh. Don't forget to eat the antennae (they're extra crispy) before moving on to the delicate, sublimely textured morsels of raw tail flesh.

Then order a filler roll or two (cucumber, avocado, tuna, pickled radish, salmon, hamachi -- they're all here) to go with a few of the more elaborate maki. You'll find the classic (at least in Americanized places) Spider, Rainbow, Dragon, and Caterpillar rolls, as well as a handful of daily special rolls listed behind the sushi bar. The regular menu presents other intriguing creations, like the Dancing Eel Roll -- a long, curling thing in which tempura'd shrimp is rolled in rice, then topped with unagi, avocado, and tobiko. Ask for a Philadelphia Roll and you'll get a maki filled with unagi, avocado, and rich, gooey cream cheese. (I know people who would sooner die than eat sushi with cream cheese in it; me, I like the stuff, but I rarely admit that in public.) The House Special Roll is also good -- it has a center of sweet, deep-fried salmon and hamachi, and comes topped with glistening, raw ahi -- but it doesn't live up to the 26's Corner Roll, in which a flawless, multihued skin of raw tuna, salmon, tobiko, and avocado gives way to a wickedly fiery spicy tuna center.

The Swan Roll is misnamed (it looks more like a long, thin lawn than a swan, though "Long, Thin Lawn Roll" doesn't sound particularly enticing). In it, luminous green shreds of wakame (seaweed) sit atop a basic spicy tuna roll -- a sesame-rich, seaweedy crunch giving way to a blast of heat. Then there's Sunshine Sushi, which isn't a roll, but rather a pair of inch-long rice cylinders wrapped with salmon, then topped with a heap of bright orange tobiko and a quivering raw quail egg. It ain't beginner sushi, but if you're looking for something different, this is it. Consume each piece in a single bite and your mouth fills with a silky cloud of egg laced with tender fish, firm rice, and fragile, popping fish roe.

Desserts -- ice creams and mochi -- are nothing special. I usually get the green tea version of one or the other and a wine glass filled to the brim with candy-tasting plum wine. You could get the latter anywhere (even my corner liquor store now carries plum wine), but after a fine meal of shrimp heads, raw egg, and maki that look like tiny football fields, anything more exotic would be overkill.

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Greg Hugunin

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