Chef Ryoji Arakaki prepares sushi rice
Chef Ryoji Arakaki prepares sushi rice at Sushi California on Martin Luther King Jr. Way in Berkeley. Photo: Anna Mindess

Have you ever felt at home in a café or restaurant the moment you walked in? My husband and I have been frequenting Sushi California for less than a year, but the night we discovered this cozy Japanese dining spot on Martin Luther King Jr. Way in Berkeley, we already felt like welcomed regulars.

We had just returned from a two-week trip to Kyoto, where I took cooking classes while my husband taught at a university. At night, we would wander into little family-run neighborhood restaurants. That immediate sense of shared intimacy with strangers at Sushi California resonated with our best Kyoto memories.

Chef Ryoji Arakaki has been serving sushi and other Japanese dishes to an international crowd of Berkeleyites (including students, professors and Lawrence Berkeley Lab employees) since 1986. You have probably driven past Sushi Cal (as the Chef calls it) on MLK between University and Addison hundreds of times, but with its unassuming name and façade, and its position just below street-level, like a sunken treasure, it is easily overlooked.

Okinawan black seaweed salad
Okinawan black seaweed salad. Photo: Anna Mindess

We often come on Fridays to unwind from the week and enjoy the live music — mellow, electric guitar versions of oldies from Hideo Date — as smooth as buttery hamachi.

Mimi, the gracious server, seats us at “our table” and offers to bring my husband’s favorite sake. On our first evening there, Mimi confided that Chef Arakaki hails from Okinawa and prepares some Okinawan specialties. They are not specifically marked on the menu, but, with Mimi’s guidance, I’ve fallen for the “black seaweed salad” – a refreshing mix of slippery mozuku seaweed, crunchy okra, daikon, carrot, and cucumber in a light vinegar dressing.

Okinawan salty fish- sukugarasu
Okinawan salty fish- sukugarasu. Photo: Anna Mindess

Another evening, she suggested sukugarasu, tiny, salted fish from Okinawa, served atop tofu cubes to balance their brininess. Usually we look to the whiteboard for specials or ask Mimi, “What’s good tonight?” and have never been steered wrong.

Miso soup (with the addition of clams that provide a deep richness) and crispy-coated agedashi tofu are two of my husband’s favorites. Although the menu includes the usual sushi roll suspects, and I’m not a big fan of rolls (especially if cream cheese is involved), I love the Cherry Blossom roll with delicate shreds of shiso leaves and a sprinkle of ikura.

On a recent afternoon, Chef Arakaki kindly answered my questions about the path that led him here as he prepared the sushi rice and laid out the ice and fish for the evening’s service.

He grew up on Okinawa, a chain of islands 400 miles south of the Japanese mainland. Okinawa is officially part of Japan, but has its own language, culture and cuisine. Due to the large American military presence there, Arakaki had an early exposure to, and fascination with, American culture, including rock and roll and cheeseburgers from A & W drive-thrus.

In 1971, at age 19, he wanted to leave Okinawa “because Japan was a small world.” He came to California and got his first job as a dishwasher in a successful Japanese restaurant in San Francisco. But that position lasted a year. “It was the hippie time and I had long hair,” Arakaki says. “The owner told me repeatedly to cut it, but I ignored him, so after a year I was fired.”

After hanging out in Berkeley, Arakaki moved to Los Angeles, where he worked as a gardener for three years. “But LA was too big, too flat and had too many people,” he says. At age 26, he was back in Berkeley, working nights at Yoshi’s as sous chef, making tempura and yakitori. His day job was in the original Berkeley Bowl’s fish market. These double shifts kept him busy but allowed him to save money for his goal of opening his own restaurant. After Yoshi’s, Arakaki trained at a succession of Japanese restaurants in Marin, Concord, Napa and San Francisco to learn to prepare sushi.

When a friend who had a T-shirt shop on MLK alerted him that a frozen yogurt shop between University and Addison was about to close, Arakaki saw that its counter would make a perfect sushi bar. He admits the reason he chose the name Sushi California, “I was going to have a chain of restaurants, but well, that never happened.”

L to R top to bottom: Steamed clams, Cherry Blossom roll, Agedashi tofu, unagi nigari
L to R top to bottom: Steamed clams, Cherry Blossom roll, Agedashi tofu, unagi nigari. Photos: Anna Mindess

Besides the black seaweed salad and salty fish on tofu, Arakaki serves “Okinawan soba noodles,” made with wheat (instead of buckwheat) and served in a soup with pork belly that has been boiled for three hours so it is not fatty.

Chef Arakaki admits that he used to offer other Okinawan classics like goya champura (sautéed bitter melon) but they did not sell well.

What a shame. Not only are residents of Okinawa famous for their longevity, they are noted for healthy aging, low rates of heart disease, strokes and certain cancers and boast the most centenarians (those over 100) in the world. Sadly, the American influence from military bases and ubiquitous fast-food joints are taking their toll on the younger generation who are expected to have much shorter life spans than their grandparents.

Chef Arakaki shows me the framed photographs by the door, featuring some of his most loyal customers. One couple, he tells me, have been coming almost every Friday night for 25 years. Another, who spent many dates at Sushi California, celebrated their wedding rehearsal by renting out the restaurant. One longtime customer whose photo is also in the frame by the door is Albert Einstein’s granddaughter.

Sushi Cal is cozy space with warm orange and yellow walls and seats 30 (including six seats at the sushi bar). It can be crowded on Monday and Fridays thanks to the live music. Chef Arakaki used to serve lunches, but after more than a quarter century, he has cut back to dinners only Monday-Saturday and uses the mornings to shop at Berkeley Bowl and Monterey Market.

Awamori - distilled rice spirit made only in Okinawa
Awamori: distilled rice spirit made only in Okinawa. Photo: Anna Mindess

All around the restaurant are statues, figurines (even toothpick holders) in the form of Shisa, the cross between a fierce lion and dog that is the symbol of good luck and the protector of Okinawa.

When his rice steamer dings after 45 minutes, and I have finished my questions, Chef Arakaki heats the salt, sugar and vinegar that makes “sushi rice” and mixes it into the cooling rice in his large wooden tub, using his hands and a spatula, just like he’s been doing for 27 years. Time to get ready for another dinner with customers who feel like friends.

Sushi California
2033 Martin Luther King Jr. Way
Monday to Saturday, 5-9:30 p.m. (Live music Monday and Friday from 7-9:30 p.m. by guitarist Hideo Date.)

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Anna Mindess is a freelance writer and sign language interpreter who lives in Berkeley.