[Photos: Aubrie Pick]
Ichi Sushi in Bernal Heights, co-owned by chef Tim Archuleta and his wife Erin Archuleta, has been serving sushi in the traditional Edo style for the past three years. Given their small space, which seats 23, the wait for fresh nigiri, sashimi and traditional rolls can be quite long. That's why the Archuletas will expand to a second restaurant in the fall: it'll be a quaint and cozy place with an equally small footprint (30 seats), but will offer tables to accommodate larger parties and an expanded menu. (The original location will become an omakase-only spot.) Eater recently chatted with Erin Archuleta about the best way to get a table, thoughts on soy sauce, and eating adventures in Japan.
7:30 p.m. on a Saturday night, what's the wait for a table?
Anywhere between 30 to 45 minutes. If it's really busy, about an hour. We don't accept reservations here, and you can see how tiny the space is. We're 23 seats in total, so our policy is first come, first seated with the entire party present. Because we're so small, we are unable to accommodate parties larger than six.
So they have to split up.
Yeah. The great joke is, I'm the oldest of six kids in my family and I have a few parents, so we can't all sit together. [Laughs.] We're opening a second location on Mission and 29th in the fall. We're only adding seven seats, so we're not making it big. It's still going to feel intimate and very much like the same experience you'd have here. But we're reconfiguring the seating. One of the things about Bernal is that this is a big family neighborhood, and we needed it to have a way to seat big families all together.
What do you suggest for people to do while they wait?
We're so blessed. This is such a fun neighborhood and there's a lot to do. You can go up the road to El Amigo, the 3300 Club, or Rock Bar and have a drink with one of them while you're waiting. Secession Art & Design next door has something fun going on every weekend. They always have different artists, they always have a show. 31 Rax is nearby, so people go and shop. There's a lot to do actually, which is nice. But if you have a larger party, like 4 or 6 people, it's best to come early. We open at 5:30, so if you can have your party in line at 5:15, it's easier.
Do people ever try to negotiate for a table?
It's funny, it's never happened. I think it's because we're a neighborhood spot and all the neighbors know each other for the most part. I think people are more surprised if there is no wait.
Do you ever get outrageous requests from customers?
Before I met Tim, before we dated, my version of sushi was nonexistent. I'm from Flint, Michigan, so fish sticks were wild for me. I remember when I first went out for sushi everyone taught me to put wasabi into the soy sauce, mix it up, and then dip your fish. That's actually the opposite of what we do. Tim really wanted to create a menu in a more traditional Edo style, so all our nigiri comes pre-dressed. So the outrageous request is not so outrageous—it's people asking for soy sauce and wasabi. We're taught to eat with these two things.
So the only outrageous request is soy sauce?
It's not even that outrageous. And we have soy sauce for rolls because it's a family restaurant, and sometimes you just want a roll. But you'll notice that even our rolls are super-traditional. We don't have rice on the outside of rolls. We don't have fish on top of rolls. They're all really traditional sushi rolls. I think the wildest thing we have is the uni masakawa—the ocean trout skin. Even then, it's served with gobo and pickled burdock root. It's just, we're a little bit different than what would be expected. It's just more traditional.
But not if you're from Japan.
Actually, we feel really honored. Members of the Japanese consulate have come here. There's travelers who come from Japan who say, this is a style that is familiar to me, to where I grew up, to my reference point. That's a real honor.
Who are some of your favorite customers?
Our regulars and neighbors who come in. You get to watch kids grow up. I mean, just even in three years. That's a big change if you're a young child and growing up. So we might see kids who start with rolls and shrimp, then they graduate to wanting more adventurous fish, like shark-skin flounder. You wouldn't think of a 7-year-old being really excited about shark-skin flounder, but they love it. [Laughs.]
Who are your VIPs, and how do you accommodate them?
For us, feeding another chef or a bartender or a winemaker or a server or a busser or a host. You've come in on your night off and you've chosen us. That's a big deal, a real honor. And feeding another chef is always incredible. That said, it's just as important to feed anyone. That's a real precept for how you make sushi. Everyone should have the best meal every single time, with the same technique and high level of experience.
Do you visit Japan?
Tim's going in August, actually, for a few weeks. He's going to eat a ton before we open the new space. And I knew I couldn't keep up with the eating on that trip. [Laughs.] I'm not tough enough. Next time.
What are your favorite things on the menu?
Right now is a really exciting time for the golden eye snapper. It's perfect right now. It's so beautiful. It's something that people really like, because it's a really pleasing pair of nigiri, and it's got that light citrus, that herb. I would say also the hotaru ika, otherwise known as the firefly squid. They're these little teeny tiny squid and they're dressed with a miso citrus. What you really get is this pop and this slight creaminess and umami. Geoduck clam is always a favorite, and that's just from right up North, in Washington.
Where do you eat when you're not here?
In this neighborhood, is the short answer. We go to Blue Plate all the time, we go to La Ciccia all the time. Incanto. The Front Porch are really good buddies of ours. I love to go there for brunch. Oh my God, La Ciccia's wine list is amazing.
Tim and I eat in other cities a lot. I was laughing because I just know how much they're going to eat when they're in Japan. But when I go to New York, I have to wear stretch pants. [Laughs.] We'll eat six times in a day. To always be learning, to always be engaging, to have that experience, you have to just eat.
Any advice for other Gatekeepers?
Tim and I, when we built this place, we wanted it to be like a sushi living room. You have this elevated experience, but we want you to feel comfortable. We play hip-hop, it's jovial and warm and celebratory. And we're serving you this food that we've put a lot of love, care, and thought into, so we try to balance that with a real warm experience.