Sure, I'd noted the scarcity of Japanese terms on Tataki South's menu. But when I spotted the California roll banished to Tataki's "Old-School Rolls" list, it sparked a moment of reckoning akin to receiving that first AARP card or spotting your first computer in a museum. American sushi hadn't just moved out of the house and set up a new life: Its kids were having babies of their own.
Tataki South and another new San Francisco restaurant, Sushirrito, are taking American-style sushi into new territory, barely nodding at 1960s inventions like the California roll. According to The Story of Sushi author Trevor Corson, Japanese sushi has taken many forms over the centuries: salted fish preserved in fermented rice; great blocks of seasoned grains topped with cured fish; thumb-length nigiri molded by robots and dispatched to diners via conveyor belts. But maki, or rolls, are a minor form of sushi in Japan, and until sushi chefs there started imitating Americans, Japanese sushi was never filled with spicy scallops, apple, and seared albacore like Tataki South's Golden State, or packed with raw salmon, mango, and ginger-serrano sauce like Sushirrito's Latin Ninja.
Tataki South, a Noe Valley spinoff of Pacific Heights' 2-year-old Tataki, specializes in creative American rolls, including a full page of vegetarian and vegan sushi. It also addresses a concern that very few sushi restaurants in this country do: sustainability. Sustainable-sushi advocate and Greenpeace staffer Casson Trenor has helped Kin Lui and Raymond Ho source fish since 2008, all in accordance with Monterey Bay Aquarium recommendations. That commitment earned the place enough popularity to launch this new branch, with Trenor joining in as a business partner. The new storefront is small and attractive, decorated in dark woods and burnt-sienna walls, with Lui and Kenny Zhu, another new partner, working an eight-seat sushi bar.
Lui, who picked up sushi-making in Hawaii and then worked at Hana Zen and Kyo-Ya just before opening Tataki, does know how to do the classics: Spanish mackerel nigiri ($7.50 for two pieces) was cleanly sliced, the meat still sweet and tasting of sea spray, the rice pressed together just enough to collapse in the mouth. Tataki South's best sustainable-substitution may be its faux-nagi ($7.50 for two pieces), brushed in the sweet glaze we love on unagi; the nigiri shows the buttery fat of black cod in ways that eclipse the original.
But the majority of the dishes on the tables are ornately garnished, balls-out American rolls. Here is where I have to admit that my own anti-maki prejudices took over. To me, not only do rolls made with four kinds of raw fish taste mushy, eating one is like being invited to a listening party where the hosts are simultaneously playing Elliott Smith, Nick Drake, Joanna Newsom, and Black Sabbath. Who can make out the lyrics?
So rolls like the Golden State ($15) — gorgeous, square-edged slices sprouting out of a bramble of garnishes like a Mayan temple complex — tasted fleetingly of apple and scallop, but not enough to contemplate. The classic California roll may be geriatric, but I'm not sure Tataki South's new-school California roll ($4.50 at happy hour), showered with enough sweet soy sauce and tiny, crackly specks of tempura batter to mask the crab, was an improvement. Then there was Lui's newest creation, the Russian Roulette ($15): six slices of a crawfish-cucumber-tobiko roll topped with slices of scallop and served with a shot of nigori sake. One of the slices is spiked with habanero pepper. It was a fun piece of dinner theater, but after my tablemate discovered the spicy maki, I realized the nonspiked rolls tasted awfully bland.
The American rolls I liked best didn't pile fish on fish. Rather, they highlighted the crispy textures we Americans adore. Tataki South's happy-hour tempura sweet potato maki ($4.50), with its warm, crackly center, made for a great snack to accompany $2.50 pints of Sapporo. The ratatouille roll ($9), with tempura eggplant, zucchini, peppers, and fried garlic chips, set the crunch of the deep-fried batter against the custard-soft eggplant, the nutty chips, and the vegetal bite of the peppers. None of the flavors got lost.
I had a similar response to the Sushirrito, a crossbreed of sushi roll and San Francisco burrito dressed up in Latin and Asian flavors. Like Tataki South's rolls, sushirritos are stuffed with Loch Duart salmon, Cleanseas hiramasa, and handline-caught tuna — fish that are either farmed or caught in relatively low-impact ways. Can you think of a dish better targeted to the average San Franciscan? San Franciscans apparently can't. Block-long lines formed outside Peter Yen's takeout spot on day one.
Six weeks later, the threat of an hour-long wait may have scared people away, or perhaps the staff just found its rhythm. In my two visits, it took less than 10 minutes to pick up a sushirrito. The counter of the brightly painted, narrow space is barely 8 feet long, but it's enough for one cook to pull sheets of nori, evenly coated with half an inch of sushi rice, out of a machine and heap a multicolored mix of vegetables, fruit, and fish or meat on top. Another cook covers the sheet in squiggles of squeeze-bottle sauce — a different sauce for each kind — and rolls it tightly.
A sushirrito, somewhat ironically, is the girth and length of a rice-free La Taqueria burrito. You will be able to fist it, and while a few stray shredded peppers or carrots drip out of each end, the wrapping is tight enough to proceed down the roll vertically.
Whether you'll enjoy it is another matter. Half the varieties I tried got pushed away after a few bites. One was the Latin Ninja ($9), with its mushy salmon-mango-avocado core flavored only with the clanging notes of daikon and pickled onions. Another was the Mamacita ($10.50), whose candylike "Mexican kabayaki" sauce combined with the sugary Japanese gourd inside to overpower everything else, primarily a gushy blend of tuna, shiitakes, and avocados.
The other half of the rolls? I'd order them again: The Smokin' Chicken ($8.50) followed up on a hit of gingery, soy-marinated fried chicken with a flash of bell peppers and spring onions and the creamy sweetness of fried plantain. Sounds weird, I know, but it worked. So did the Buddha Boy ($8), a straightforward vegan roll stuffed with marinated tofu, sweet gourd, mushrooms, and a host of crunchy vegetables. And the normal seafood-cheese-pairing alarms didn't sound with the Crispy Ebi ($10.50), which topped tempura shrimp with pepperjack cheese and Sriracha crema. The Crispy Ebi tasted like it was filled with some fried stuff, some spicy stuff, and some mixed vegetables. I couldn't parse it all out, so I simply ate. FiDi lunches are about power, not grace — picking up something healthy and tasty you can down in 30 minutes — and by those standards, these sushirritos make for a fine lunch.
When I told Corson about the sushirrito, he snorted, then pulled up the restaurant's website to read while we talked. He quickly stopped laughing. "These things are closer to authentic futomaki than most American rolls," he said, referring to a popular Japanese picnic snack stuffed with cooked ingredients. It was my turn to snort. The sushirrito is so new-school it's positively retro.