Between the cities of San Carlos and San Bruno, downtown San Mateo has the best selection of Japanese restaurants. Scattered through mostly 3rd and 4th Street, ramen, sushi, and yakatori are some of the most popular Japanese specialties. Of the Japanese restaurants serving high quality fish from the sushi bar, I highly recommend trying Sushi Sam's. Be warned that like most Japanese restaurants in the area, Sushi Sam is closed all day on Monday's. Every other day of the week, it is common for there to be a very long line of customers waiting for a table.
In my younger days (think high school before college), the most I could stomach paying for was bento boxes and I always sat at a table where I ordered off the menu plus a few added rolls. And from what I can remember, the line was always long then, but it was always one of my favorites. To be fair, my opinion of restaurants at that age was rudimentary. Then during college, I was exposed both to more flavors, but also cheaper sushi (living on a college budget). For some reason, I always perceived Sushi Sam's bento boxes as expensive and rarely returned. That is until working in the area when coworkers raved about the amazing selection of seasonal nigiri fish at the sushi bar.
The only time I've eaten at the bar at Sushi Sam's was my most eye opening experience with sushi. I've generally order common nigiri like salmon, tuna and yellowtail, but this time around, we tried everything but the common fishes. Of the lunch, two of my favorite nigiri orders from the bar are Miyazaki (highest grade of wagyu from Japan) and Copper River Salmon. But for a more comprehensive walkthrough of my experience (in no particular order):
Copper River Salmon Nigiri - Amazingly tender and flavorful, mainly due to the fact these salmon must swim upstream against the Copper River currents in Alaska. Because the Copper River is a long river with a great altitude change, Copper River Salmon are prepared with higher than average stores of oils. This provides flavor and tenderness.
Miyazaki Nigiri - This is actual a type of beef, not fish. I believe it is lightly seared, but mostly raw. Apparently one of the high quality cuts of Wagyu. Served as nigiri, this beef is as tender as fish. It's mind blowing when you find out it's beef.
Fresh Squid Nigiri - If you like frozen squid nigiri (the standard kind), the texture on fresh squid is completely different. Frozen squid is rubbery and chewy. Fresh squid is rubbery and chewy, but also much more slimy.
Bluefin Tuna Nigiri - I've always heard of bluefin tuna, but have never ordered it. It tastes a lot like regular tuna, but without as strong a flavor. It has a lighter more distinct flavor, as well as being tender.
Baby Mackerel Nigiri - This was a colorful fish. It's not at all like Mackerel (saka), which I actually dislike. Instead, this flavor is again lighter, but delicious. Since these baby fish are much smaller, its more difficult to tell how tender each one is. To give you an idea of how small each baby mackerel is, each piece of baby mackerel nigiri consists of 2 to 3 slices of the baby mackerel, skin side up, presented in a nice fashion.
Keep in mind that the availability of fish selection at Sushi Sam's is very dependent on the time of year. Part of what makes Sushi Sam so successful is the unique variety of fish. And one of the reasons Sushi Sam's can afford to purchase such an amazing selection of fishes is they have a strong customer base that both enjoy high quality (and expensive) sushi. That being said be aware that the price is not listed, and it does not come cheap. Our bill at lunch including 3 sakes (for two) and a selection of nigiri at the sushi bar was approximately $180 before tip. That being said, I plan on introducing family and friends to give Sushi Sam's sushi bar a try.