May 18, 2022

Why This Japanese Restaurant’s Most Unforgettable Dish Is A Bowl Of Rice

Some dishes look a lot like dreams. You wake up and the things you thought you recognized in that dream turn out to be strange, retextured versions of real people and places. But in the moment, as you were suspended in a world created by your own subconscious, you could have sworn your mother still had red hair.

In many ways, the ishiyaki ($28) at Yuzu, a small Japanese restaurant in San Mateo, captures that feeling of weirdness. Is it bibimbap? A molcajete? Tahdig? An understated show, it’s the brainchild of chef-owner Yoichi Arima, but it’s done in such a way that it has the feel of an age-old classic. You feel like you’ve seen it before, but it’s a total lie that your brain made up.

And like a dream that sticks to the roof of your brain, I can’t stop thinking about this dish. Here’s the bottom line: It’s a bowl of rice. It pops up on a menu of sushi and interesting ready meals, like Jelly Tuna Marrow and Velvety Brown Curry ($17), with a warning that it’s going to take a while to make.

What comes out after a short 25-minute wait is a hot stone bowl filled with stone-seared rice; but its spectrum of tans and browns is much more toned down than the carnival-like Korean dolsot bibimbap. Toss the rice with an assortment of well-cooked, coarsely cut fish—chunks that are still high-quality, but not quite appealing or large enough for sashimi processing.

A bowl might contain albacore tuna, yellowtail, salmon, dried anchovies, or other delicacies from the depths; whatever is available, really. In the kitchen, the rice is seared, then stirred and seared again to maximize its toasted character. At the table, the waiter puts the crispiest pieces of fish and rice in a small bowl for you to enjoy. The grilled rice, always the best part of any pot in my opinion, is obviously the star of the show here. But there is more.

Ishiyaki is a bowl of hot stone rice mixed with different types of fish.

Justin Katigbak / Special for The Chronicle

To follow, the waiter then pours a hot mixture of seaweed broth and green tea into the larger bowl, causing the tea to spit with its residual heat. The leftover rice is turned into a salty and flavorful porridge, allowing you to enjoy both sides of the same bowl of rice. There are no toppings, but the broth, deepened by the earthy tone of the rice, is entertainment enough.

Before going to Yuzu, I had never eaten this dish, but it gave me an intense feeling of deja vu. Yes, the parallel with dolsot bibimbap was clear, but there had to be something more. Although called “ishiyaki” – or stone-grilled dish – on the menu, the receipt revealed another clue: the same dish was listed as “hitsumamushi”.

The name brought to mind a memory of walking around Nagoya and seeing many restaurants advertising “hitsumabushi”, an eel dish that is a regional specialty. It is a dish that is eaten in three stages: first, plain; then with added condiments such as wasabi; and finally with a pour of green tea and kombu on top. At the time, I was too short of money to try it; but I knew it was a totally different dish than what I had at Yuzu.

Yoichi Arima cooks sushi for customers at Yuzu in San Mateo, California.

Yoichi Arima cooks sushi for customers at Yuzu in San Mateo, California.

Justin Katigbak / Special for The Chronicle

Chief Arima, a KISS fan who advertises Yuzu as a “rock and roll sushi” place, was initially hesitant to discuss this dish with me. He didn’t want to crowd out his regulars by revealing too much.

So, for context, I turned to another Japanese food expert: Yukari Sakamoto, author of “Food Sake Tokyo” and culinary guide to Japan’s capital. In an email exchange, she noted the dish’s similarity to hitsumabushi and another dish called ochazuke, a bowl of rice with fish served with hot tea or dashi poured over it. She attributes the spelling difference on the receipt to a difference in dialect: in the Kansai region, a similar unagi dish is called “hitsumamushi.” While you might miss the creaminess of grilled eel in the non-traditional version of Yuzu, the leftover dish gets major points for sustainability and reducing food waste.

Yuzu Shushi and Grill in San Mateo, CA.

Yuzu Shushi and Grill in San Mateo, CA.

Justin Katigbak / Special for The Chronicle

After promising that I would include specific tips for Yuzu beginners on the best times to show up (see “best practices”!), Arima revealed the plan for the dish. His influences range from Japanese, Korean, Chinese and “otherworldly” cuisines. On that last note, while some might believe this dish could rival the Pyramids of Giza, I don’t think it’s necessarily an “Ancient Aliens” scenario here. I like to think Arima dreamed up this dish while having a particularly transcendent shredding session on his guitar, drawing inspiration for supremely crunchy rice from an inner region beyond sublime.

It’s this powerhouse of a specialty dish that cements Yuzu as a standout izakaya worth visiting. This is especially notable in a town like San Mateo, which is full of interesting Japanese restaurants like Sushi Yoshizumi and Sushi Sam’s Edomata. As a bonus, when you return to Yuzu as a hitsumamushi veteran, you can customize the amount of broth to your liking. The nice thing about a whole new dish is that there are no rules, after all.

Soleil Ho is the food critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: soleil@sfchronicle.comTwitter: @hooleil


54 37th Avenue, San Mateo. 650-358-0298 or www.yuzusushishanmateo.com

Opening hours: 11.45am-1.45pm from Tuesday to Friday; 12.30pm-1.45pm Saturday (omakase only); 5.30pm-8.45pm from Tuesday to Saturday; 5:30-8 p.m. Sunday.

Accessibility: No steps. Tight clamping in the dining room.

Noise level: Very loud during peak hours; no music.

Meal for two without drinks: $50-$70

What to order: Ishiyaki, curry, anything on the specials board.

Meatless options: limited to a handful of items.

Drinks: Beer and sake.

Transportation: Ample street parking.

Best Practices: Calling ahead to reserve is highly recommended. Weekdays after 6:30 p.m. are preferable to avoid waiting for a table.