Thursday, June 30th, lunch
911 W Las Tunas Dr, San Gabriel, CA
Part 1 in a two-part series on seafood markets
In this and the next post, we’re going to be highlighting two seafood markets whose bounties we’ve had the pleasure of sampling this past week. This first entry is on Yama Seafood, a small Japanese grocery that’s about a fifteen minute drive from us. The next entry will be about Quality Seafood, a pier-side market right in the middle of the Redondo Beach boardwalk.
So far in our time living in Pasadena, the only Asian grocery store that we’ve really patronized has been Ranch 99. This is by no means a bad option, as Ranch 99’s selection is quite varied. Coming from the neighborhoods around San Jose, my preference definitely leans towards Japanese grocery outlets a lá Mitsuwa and the like. Mitsuwa is great because they tend to source higher-quality produce that looks fresher and better-prepared. They’re also neater and tidier than most Chinese grocery stores I’ve been to. The end result is that as a shopper, you can tell that the managers and employees take great care and pride in their responsibility of running the store.
Thus, when we heard about Yama Seafood, I became excited by the prospect of a Mitsuwa doppelganger so close to us. Upon walking in, my expectations were immediately thrown out the window. The store is long, narrow, and dark, with a seafood counter to the right as you enter, and shelves of bottled sauces and alcohols lining the wall on the left. Further in, refrigerated shelves display an assortment of Japanese goods, ranging from pre-made sushi, seaweed salad, pickled ginger, sake, beer, and a variety of soft drinks (lychee-flavored Calpico being my favorite), among other goodies.
I was definitely hoping for a lot more variety, and while they offer the basics here like bags of rice, soy sauce, wasabi, and Japanese snacks, it is by no means a full-fledged Mitsuwa. But, the main reason that brought us here was the promise of affordable, fresh, plentiful sashimi, and on that front, Yama does not disappoint.
We bought roughly half a pound each of salmon and yellowtail, about a third of a pound of tuna, and a small container of ikura, which is salmon roe (simply point out what you’d like to the person behind the counter). Upon selecting which pieces you’d like to purchase, they give you the option of having it sliced up into sashimi or taking your pieces of fish home whole as they are on display (they don’t charge you extra if you’d like it sliced up). We chose the former and also took home two drinks and a seaweed salad, which the clerk bagged up along with a pack ice to keep everything fresh. In total, our bill came to $36.55.
At home, we steamed some rice, unwrapped our packages of sashimi (they also include plenty of wasabi with your fish), and tucked in at our own dinner table. The experience starkly contrasted with all of our previous sushi dining experiences in a few ways. Most obviously, we were forgoing the atmosphere and environment that comes with sitting down at a sushi bar, a porcelain cup of soothing green tea warming your hands and a skilled, witty, and charming sushi chef inquiring as to your preferences on sushi and sashimi whilst deftly handling and preparing the fish in front of your eyes.
The other deviation was the portioning. We love sampling as many varieties of fish as we can during a meal, which typically means one piece of toro, uni, snapper or what have you for each of us. This time though, we had relatively large portions of salmon, tuna, and yellowtail. If the quality of any of the three cuts of fish had been sub-par, then the entire meal would have been knocked down a peg. Yama Seafood wholly delivers on this front such that the portioning was never a drawback.
The salmon, tuna, and yellowtail were each delicious in their own right, and we gobbled down every morsel, accompanied with hot rice, ikura, and seaweed salad in what were akin to homemade chirashi bowls. Each type of sashimi provided its own distinct texture and flavor: salmon with its trademark butteriness, tuna with a soft graininess, and yellowtail with a pleasing firmness. Ikura, in the form of small orange bubbles, popped in our mouths, releasing puffs of slightly briny umami. Indeed, the meal felt homey and comforting, like a lazy home-cooked breakfast of bacon, eggs, and pan-fried tomatoes rather than a brunch of eggs benedict with hollandaise sauce and buttery croissants at a posh cafe or restaurant.
Due to the nature of Yama Seafood, the fact that it is simply a market, means that our normal review process will have to be tweaked. Whereas we’d place a certain amount of weight on criteria such as service, atmosphere, and how well we thought the chefs prepared and cooked the food that we were eating, in this case either that criteria isn’t as important, or is missing entirely. In fact, signs posted by the counter ask you explicitly not to eat inside the store.
Our experience with Yama rests mostly on the back of our opinion of the quality and value of their sashimi, which is considerable. It’s not the best we’ve ever had, but you’d be hard pressed to find this amount of high-quality sashimi at this price point. A pound and a third of sashimi can easily run you twice the amount we paid. You get none of that here at Yama, and in certain situations, that’s absolutely ok, perhaps even preferable.
In the end, Yama Seafood fills in a niche that we didn’t know needed filling: that of acquiring good sashimi relatively quickly and cheaply without the frills of sitting down at a sushi restaurant. It’s as close as you can get to a fast food joint specializing in sashimi, and on that front, Yama definitely excels.
4 stars out of 5
Review by Sean Chen