Tanuki Sushi and the passage of time


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Jun 02, 2023

Tanuki Sushi and the passage of time

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By Stephanie Wildman

Sometimes a restaurant provides a place-track for our lives, woven into the fabric of how and where we spend time, much like music can provide a soundtrack. For me that place has been Tanuki Sushi in San Francisco.

By the late 80s my children were old enough to dine in restaurants, but they wouldn't eat sushi. Enter Tanuki.

Recommended by another mom, Tanuki was her neighborhood restaurant on the strip of California Street with a bus island separating the traffic from the commercial storefronts. Traffic whizzes by on the main road, but a quiet, one-way street parallels that busy stretch. Tanuki, set back from the bustling traffic flow, was and is one of those storefronts, nestled between a hair salon and a laundromat.

Tanuki was not quite in my neighborhood, but not too far from my home in the outer Richmond to make traversing the distance with hungry children too challenging. My mom-friend's kids loved sushi. What saved the day for my non-sushi loving kids was Tanuki's full menu of scrumptious Japanese food from teriyaki and tempura to edamame and miso soup (and, of course, rice!). Kid heaven, and a welcome relief from burgers for the family on a night out.

Tanuki helped us achieve harmony, a place we could all find food we liked to eat. Culinary reviewers never seemed to discover the place, which meant we could usually get a table or seats at the bar whenever we walked in with hungry little ones. And so Tanuki became a regular family outing. By dining at an early hour, we often enjoyed the company of other families at nearby tables, all feeling the calming presence that imbued the space and the smiles from happy eaters.

Through the years, as our own children matured, we watched the owners’ son grow up from waiting tables to becoming a sushi chef himself to moving away to Colorado with his own family. The formerly married owners, who worked at the sushi bar and in the kitchen, watched our children develop and eventually start ordering their own sushi, too. They cheered our son's swimming career and took pictures with him at the restaurant after he won his Olympic gold medal.

We often went to Tanuki with his college swimming teammates, and once ordered enough rolls to command the legendary wooden boatful of sushi (devoured faster than some of their races). I’m told when team members later went back without us, they would say, "We want what that swimmer orders." Aki, the sushi chef/owner, knew that request meant the fried onion, white tuna special roll. Pro tip — read the blackboard for the best sushi entries, where that roll still appears.

For years when we became empty nesters, every Saturday night (and some other nights as well) found my husband and me at Tanuki. Our kids thought we were a bit crazy for not branching out, but why go elsewhere when we loved Tanuki? The house special roll (unagi, avocado, mango, salmon, and ahi) was my particular addiction, as long as Aki made it with no crab. So when Aki told us he was retiring, we feared the worst. He assured us he wouldn't close the restaurant. In fact, he would stay on for a while with Tom, one of the sushi chefs who would take over ownership.

We remained loyal, but with some trepidation. And guess what? Tanuki is even better! (Shh, don't tell Aki.) And Tom still makes me the house special roll, no crab, even though it's not written on the chalk board anymore.

We all missed the connections of place during our pandemic lives. Some of us have emerged from lockdown more than others. I see people dining inside Tanuki when I enter, masked, to pick up our take-out order. Eating at home isn't the same as being there, even though the food remains magnificent. Diners eating sushi are happy and one feels that happiness inside the restaurant.

I am getting to introduce the next generation to Tanuki, Tom, and his sushi magic. When they come for sleepovers, my grandchildren ask me to order their own special handrolls — "ice cream" sushi. One favors avocado and ikura; the other likes his ikura with salmon. My daughter and I order the fried white onion garlic tuna roll in honor of her brother who lives far away from Tanuki in a sushi desert. I look forward to bringing them to the Tanuki in person someday soon. I have changed — from a young mother to an empty nester to a grandmother — and the city has changed, too. But that block with Tanuki remains an oasis behind the bus island, apart from the busy street, providing a sense of calm welcome inside its doors.

Stephanie Wildman is a local children's book author and Professor of Law Emerita at Santa Clara University.