I was in San Jose a few weekends ago to visit my mom for her belated birthday celebration. Since I’d been too busy with the choir during Holy Week and Easter and she hadn’t been able to come up this way, I wasn’t able to spend time with her until the weekend after Easter. She & I are cool like that, though: most special days can still be special a week or so later (except for Thanksgiving; I’d get shot if I missed that one!). We’d decided to just have an easy, relaxing girl’s weekend without any concrete plans, except for heading to Kazoo Japanese Restaurant for some sushi.
Located in historic Japantown, Kazoo sits quietly on the corner of Jackson and 6th Streets, unfazed by the larger, modern buildings across from it while it hangs on to its traditional Japanese appearance & composition. It is a small restaurant, making use of almost every available square inch with tables sitting very close together, making it feel a bit tight but not claustrophobic. The decor is far more traditional than any other Japanese restaurants I’ve visited in the past; no trendy dark paneling with excessive cherry blossom use or futuristic, metal-heavy themes here. Just simple, authentic decorations of small Japanese lanterns, good luck cat figurines, and plenty of bamboo. I haven’t been to Japan yet, but I felt a little closer to being there at Kazoo as opposed to being at, say, Mikuni (which I do like, just not decor or price-wise). My mom decided we should sit at the crescent-shaped sushi bar as opposed to a table, and we were seated promptly.
I’d never sat at a sushi bar like this, but I’m assuming they’re not uncommon (they just haven’t made it up to Sac yet). Instead of telling the sushi chefs what you want and watch them assemble your nigiri or hand-rolls, you choose your meal from adorable little wooden boats that float along this little “river” in front of you. The rolls or other fish are placed on small porcelain plates with signs telling you the name & ingredients of each piece (for the most part). The porcelain dishes all have different designs & patterns on them, and the sushi is priced according to the plate, starting at a ridiculously low $1.20. Don’t let the super-low prices fool you: this is not your average sushi.
I’m willing to bet that a lot of what floats past you in those cute little boats is not on the standard menu, which is what makes it kinda fun to sit at the bar. Again, you’re not really interacting with your chefs as much, but just watching the different selections float past you is entertaining enough, and a bit time consuming if you’re a little obsessive like me and want to know what all your choices are before selecting a few. Our first choice was the Mexican Hat: spicy tuna on a crispy, sturdy tortilla chip, topped with mango & cilantro. It sorta did look like a cute little sombrero, but it tasted phenomenal! The tuna was super fresh and very spicy, but oh-so-delicious & addicting! I could have eaten my weight in those hot little sombreros, as long as the ice water kept coming. Alas, we were there for variety, so we tried a little bit of everything. Here’s a list of what we had:
- San Jose Roll, which was pretty much a California Roll with some spicy sauce on top
- San Diego Roll, with tempura ebi (shrimp), spicy tuna, and avocado
- Tropical Roll, made with tuna, avocado, banana, tempura flakes, and a spicy sauce
- Philadelphia Roll, with salmon, masago, and cream cheese
- New York Roll, made with fresh shrimp, avocado, and cucumber
- California Roll – the standard (but for those who’ve never had this, it’s crab salad & avocado)
I pretty much took care of the spicy rolls because my mom has severe reactions to anything spicy. It took awhile for us to find the cooler, less spicy rolls float by us because the bar – and the whole restaurant – was very full, due to the Saturday lunch rush. These were still very delicious and the couple pieces I was allowed to try (she was very possessive of her birthday lunch!) were nice distractions from the flames that were setting up camp in my mouth. I didn’t care though! Everything we tried was of the highest quality & flavor. Part of what I enjoy about Kazoo’s sushi rolls, aside from the freshness of the fish they use, is their rice. It’s slightly less heavy & sticky than a lot of the rice used in sushi joints here in Sacramento, and has the best flavor. I realize sushi rice does need to be of a certain consistency to make sure everything stays together, but sometimes I think they use glue in some restaurants. This was perfectly cooked, perfectly seasoned, and perfectly tasty. As with the decor, I have the feeling Kazoo uses a much more traditional way of cooking that allows for more authentic flavors. You can tell this restaurant is not all about snazzy sauce combinations that drown out the flavors of the rice, seaweed, and fish, but downright quality Japanese food. Of the sushi we tried that day, my two favorites – by a landslide – were the Mexican Hat, whose virtues I’ve already extolled, and the Tropical Roll. I have never had sushi with fruit other than mango in it, and I was very surprised by how beautifully the banana in this roll complemented the spicy tuna & avocado, and the tempura flakes added a delightful little crunch.
Now for the best part of this entire experience: we gorged ourselves on a total of 8 little dishes of high quality, authentic sushi and a pot of green tea. The grand total for this lunch? *drumroll please* $22.18 (!!!) As you can tell by the photos, it’s not like we had only one piece of each roll. Though these weren’t the usual large rolls served at most sushi restaurants, they were all very healthy in size and amount of fish, and 4-6 pieces of each were served. Even at lunch prices, I don’t know of any sushi restaurant in this area that can give you this much food for less than $40, let alone under $25. I’m interested to see the rest of the menu someday, to see if having a sushi-less meal with choices like udon noodles & teriyaki would be just as affordable. I am fairly certain that would be the case, but I don’t know that I can have a meal there without some of their sushi, it’s just that good.
If I had some sort of rating system, Kazoo would earn the highest marks for quality and service. All the servers we’ve encountered have been very obliging and not pushy at all, and you are always greeted with sincerity. Those of you who know me well know that I’ll forgive the lower quality of food over poor service, and I feel Kazoo does a great job with both aspects. If you’re ever in the San Jose area and have some time, definitely stop by this hidden little gem of a restaurant. And once you’ve stuffed yourself with their amazing food, there’s always a chance to walk it off while taking in the sights of historic Japantown, a tiny piece of San Jose just bursting with history & culture.