Most afternoons, I bounce around the Sunset going from Chinese snackeries to dive bars like Cinderella Saloon for a beer and a game of pool. There’s everything from dim sum and banh mi to diners and bakeries, most of them with tons of high school kids on their lunch break. And on one particular Tuesday, I struck gold on Taraval Street. I happened to notice a parade of students clumped by the entrance of a little sushi restaurant, leaving with little containers of food. Further investigation was of the utmost importance — and oh boy, did it pay off.
Sushi Zen, on Taraval Street between 20th and 21st avenues, is a seemingly ordinary Japanese restaurant with run-of-the-mill nigiri, tempura, donburi, and udon. But none of this is what we’re here for. We’ve come for something rarer: the student lunch special!
During lunchtime — 11:30 a.m. to 3:45 p.m. — Sushi Zen’s takeout window offers a special menu with little dishes like salmon teriyaki served over rice, spicy fried sweet-and-sour chicken, fish katsu, and California rolls, all for about $5. As they say: “When in Rome, do what the cool kids are doing,” so I ordered the chicken teriyaki. For $4.50, a heaping pile of white rice is scooped into a plastic container and slathered with plump strips of sticky chicken. The sauce is sweet and syrupy, with a salty-soy flavor and a sharp gingery bite. It’s utterly simple and irresistibly delicious. There is just something about eating a big bowl of food on the street that feels like a guilty pleasure. The kids reveled in the moment when they get to leave campus, run amok, and stuff their faces on Japanese takeout. Some of my young comrades were flipping over their rice bowls and loading the bottom surface with extra sauce to enhance the dish’s wickedness and consequently, their own street cred.
What’s the best part of this little deal? Being a student isn’t even a requirement; jump in line and try to blend in. Just like that, the adolescent storm was gone as fast as it arrived. A wave of students rushed back to sixth period, leaving only a couple stragglers wearing oversized backpacks like tumbleweeds. And then there’s me, walking back to Cinderella’s in an empty street with a belly full of teriyaki, ready for another round of pool.
Sushi Zen, 1041 Taraval St., 415-681-1789 or sushizensf.weebly.com