Where to Go For Boatloads of Fresh Sushi That Paddle Right Up to You

The Japan Center Mall is a mysterious maze-like shopping center full of stalls selling Asian miscellany and a wide variety of authentic Asian eats. There are many places you could choose to eat at – with specialists for just about every Japanese food type you could think of. There are in fact a number of sushi options, but there is only one sushi purveyor inside of this massive mall that I find myself consistently returning to. It’s called Isobune and its a truly special place.

To get there, you’ll have to find it, which is no easy feat. This involves carefully navigating the rather confusing layout in an attempt to find the mall’s restaurant row – the densest cluster of sit-down restaurants in the entire place. If it helps, be on the lookout for the crowd of people you’ll often find waiting in the hall – the place is pretty popular and tends to draw lines. On the weekends, lines do sometimes build, but you won’t mind – I’ll explain why in a bit. The popularity of this place stems from a combination of its limited seating, reasonable prices, high-quality fish, and level of pure excitement that comes from eating from a literal river of freshly made nigiri. Isobune is a sushi boat restaurant that pretty much only consists of a single, large, oval-shaped lazy river bar counter that wraps around the entire space. On busy nights, a trio of sushi chefs will be working at a mad dash pace in the middle of the aquatic velodrome to keep up with the hungry patrons’ rabid consumption.

Yes, plate turnover at this sushi boat restaurant tends to happen pretty quickly and this sushi boat system has its pros and cons. In the pros category, most of the sushi pieces will be extremely fresh as they were probably only assembled under a minute before it floated around the course to you. In fact, the more full the place is, the faster the plates will need to be replenished and the fresher the pieces will be. A full-house assures super-fresh sushi.

For cons, you pretty much can only eat whats the chefs are making and placing on the loop at the moment. It’s true, the sushi chef’s do quickly and deftly rotate through many fish options, especially when the place is at full capacity. But, on slower nights, it’s completely possible to sit for many minutes waiting for the exact piece of fish you’re craving to roll around. And worse, on those crowded nights, there are times when you spot that piece you’ve been waiting for headed towards you, but the diner’s ahead of you to your left swipe the plate you’ve been eyeing before it’s in arm’s reach.

My rule of thumb is if I want it, I take it because you never know what is coming or not coming next and the popular plates probably won’t make it around the ring twice. Fortunately, there is a solution to these challenging situations. Just flag a waitress down and request a specific plate to be made, and they’re usually happy to oblige.

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The Restaurant

Now, I’m sure you’re already wondering – if the plates automatically go around on the river, how do I know how much to grab and how much will it cost me? Well, it’s both a simple and tricky thing to answer. There is a system, but it’ll only do so much for you. On the bar, there are many diagrams outlining the price to plate color cost correlation. You can try to determine the type of fish and judge the cost as they’re approaching, but the boats move faster than there is time to make a careful decision.

The simple rule is if it’s a more elaborate-looking plate, it going to cost slightly more. Honestly, you just have to let go of your compulsion to know exactly what the end cost will be and go with the flow. Most plates fall in the $4 to $5 range, which I find totally reasonable for the high-quality plates of nigiri served. Just relax and enjoy the loss of control.

Very simply, at the end of your meal, you will have built up a stack of small, rectangular, colored plates that a waitress will tally up and price out to determine the total cost of your meal. Usually I find that between six and eight plates is more than enough for me to fill up and feel satisfied. They run discount specials on most weeknights too, so make sure to take advantage of those as well.

And if you’re looking for a little extra excitement, you could even turn the experience into a game. Go ahead and challenge your friends – the biggest stack wins, the smallest stack pays. Let the towers rise!

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The Pricing System

Now, I could certainly go piece by piece and tell you exactly which ones I loved best, but I’ll just keep it brief and say that I’ve loved pretty much every plate I’ve ever grabbed at Isobune. If I had to pick a few favorites, it would probably be the Hotate Nigiri, Tai Nigiri, and Iwashi Nigiri which were all so fresh, ridiculously tender, and flavorful. But, it’s hard to go wrong with anything – everything is always so good and fresh.

Just skip the hot dishes, pick what looks good to you, and don’t be afraid to grab something just because you can’t figure out what it is. Some of my favorites, like the Iwashi, were complete mysteries.

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Arctic Char Nigiri

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Hotate (Scallop) Nigiri

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Hirame (Fluke) Nigiri

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Tai (Sea Bream) Nigiri

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Roll: Crab, Shrimp Tempura, Avocado, Fried Garlic, Spicy Mayo

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Salmon Belly Nigiri

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Tuna Belly Nigiri

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Unagi (Eel) Nigiri

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Tempura Roll: Shrimp Tempura, Crab, Avocado

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Saba (Mackerel) Nigiri

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Kazunoko (Herring Roe) Nigiri

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Iwashi (Sardine) Nigiri

So, all in all, I think this place makes pretty damned good sushi. To be honest, the quality is way higher than I’d expect from a place using the gimmicky-seeming boat system. All of the prices plate seem very reasonable, though in my opinion the best bangs for your buck lie in the massive rolls, scallop nigiri, sea bream nigiri, and sardine nigiri. And don’t forget – there’s no need to be afraid of grabbing something just because you don’t know what it is. Sometimes that’s how you end up with the best stuff.

Got another great sushi place in San Francisco that I should check out? Let me know in the comments below.

Isobune
@Isobune
1737 Post St. San Francisco, CA 94115