218 East 3rd Avenue (near B Street)
San Mateo, CA 94401
Lunch Tuesday through Saturday
Dinner Tuesday through Sunday
Last tried: November 2007
Sushi Sam's is one of the few places that caters to the black diamond sushi addicts (Uni, Kohada, Spanish mackerel) as well as to the green circle (makis) and blue square sushi eaters (tuna, yellowtail). At first glance, visitors from Japan scoffed at the chipped plates and plastic mugs, decrying the place as a "California roll" restaurant. After just two or three introductory tastes from the Omakase sushi selection, they were reciting poems about the taste and allure of the bonito and demanding to know where in Tokyo the sushi chefs trained (turns out Chef Sam Sugiyama trained in Osaka). Not surprising that chefs from all over the Bay Area make a beeline for this place whenever they can.
Initial impressions from a year earlier:
Third Avenue in downtown San Mateo seems to have more Japanese restaurants than Japantown in San Francisco, yet none of them are very crowded. Except Sushi Sam's Edomata, which has people spilling out from the jam-packed restaurant onto the sidewalk.
After winding my way through a horde of people-- some of whom were sipping beer while waiting-- I signed my name on the clipboard in the doorway between the sushi bar and the dining room and (im)patiently waited to be seated. Approximately fifteen minutes later, a table opened up in the back, next to the storage closet and the bathroom and right beside the cash register, where busy waiters ran to every few minutes and rapidly hit the various buttons with expert familiarity, ringing up the tabs of diners who had finished their meals. Although I am admittedly a complete pain in the neck about restaurant tables (and also hotel rooms, neither of which I have any hesitation about asking to be moved several times if I dislike them for any reason, rational or not, or spot a different one I would prefer), I quickly assessed that this mattered not at all in the Spartan, functional decor of Sushi Sam's. Sure enough, people jealously eyed our group as we were led past a hungry crowd to this rather unglamorous table.
Once I tried the sushi, I understood why. As I had discovered in trying to select a sushi place among the myriad outside the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo, the lines do not lie. The toro, hamachi, maguro, sweet raw ebi, butterfish, and red snapper were all delectably fresh, despite being rather unattractively cut (particularly the sashimi pieces, which were so large that they practically needed a knife). For my test of a sushi restaurant, I ordered uni (sea urchin roe) and tamago (sweet egg omelette). The uni was bright yellow in appearance, with the scalloped surface plainly visible, and sweet and creamy in taste. The tamago, although clumsily rectangular in appearance, was soft with a hint of gentle sweetness. Score.
Interestingly, the maki, such as negihamachi (green onions and yellowtail chopped together), California roll, etc., which are pervasive and generally innocuous at most other sushi places, were so large with disproportionate ratios of rice to filling that they were not very appetizing (but filling for the people at the table not into adventurous sushi). Amusingly, Sam scoffs at rolls but appreciates their place and value for the general public.
The best way to experience Sushi Sam's is to sit at the sushi bar, if you can manage to squeeze in, and leave yourself in the chefs' hands by ordering the Omakase sushi (which has the bonus of homemade Japanese dessert). Do not go near any additional soy sauce or wasabi with the Omakase sushi-- the sushi chefs individually tailor the seasoning of every sushi creation, such as minced scallions with grated ginger on hand-torched kobe beef "sushi," yuzu and sea salt-dressed toro, lemon and diced white onion on ocean trout, and toasted sliver of garlic with a drizzle of sweetened soy on butterfish.
Among the cooked dishes, the agedashi tofu was flawless, with a light tempura coating outside and hot creamy tofu inside. The "special" unagi-- recommended by a friend who has never let me down with any of her recommendations-- was meltingly soft with an edge of pleasantly charred, mildly salty skin.
In addition to beer and wine, Sushi Sam's has a short list of sakes (the Horaisen and Kubota are my favorites but they are pricey). If you decide to get the sake, ask for it in a glass rather than the traditional box, which I find tends to overwhelm the scent and flavor such that all you taste is wood. The cafeteria-like atmosphere, from the bright, flourescent lights and the white tables and walls to the plastic-covered menus and plastic plates, serves to highlight the fact that this place serves no-frills sushi to people who do not care about anything but fresh fish. If you can, go early, whether for lunch or for dinner. The good stuff, usually designated "special" on the whiteboard behind the sushi bar, disappears fast.