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No Place Like Homma's

Patience is rewarded at Homma's Brown Rice Sushi

By Todd Inoue

SOMETIMES, Homma's Brown Rice Sushi requires the patience of a Red Sox fan. On a recent night, the hole in the wall located down an alleyway across from the old Icon Supperclub in Palo Alto was backed up with orders. A gentleman with exquisite taste had a $70 sushi binge gumming up the one-man, one-cashier operation. Four couples camped out at the mismatched tables, twiddling their chopsticks, running low on conversation and blood sugar. A walk-in, expecting instant service, heard that it was at least a half-hour for kappa maki and left. The campers seemed to exchange the same look: "Yesss! More for us!"

The rush wasn't normal, but it doesn't take much to cause a logjam at Homma's. Those who choose to stick it out sit with Zen patience and are rewarded with unfussy handcrafted rolls and nigiri. That night, campers noshed giddily and thanked proprietor and chef Momoyo Homma on the way out. I've never seen brown-rice sushi turn whimpering hungry adults into eternally patient throne sniffers. Then again, I drove 20 miles and waited 30 minutes for brown-rice sushi simply because there's no place like Homma's.

Now in its 18th year, Homma's is an anomaly in a valley of assembly-line sushi and related gimmickry. There's no pumping house music or exotic names. The sad-sack décor, plastic chairs and fluorescent lighting have all the homey ambience of a Hawaiian-plate lunch counter. Miso soup is served in Styrofoam cups. Order hot tea and get a second Styrofoam cup of hot water and a tea bag. My wife, who loves the sushi, would rather eat on the sidewalk than eat inside Homma's. (I'm a guy; I'll eat off stadium asphalt if I'm hungry enough.)

For the uninitiated, humble Homma's only serves brown rice instead of white—not because of prejudice, but because brown rice retains all the nutrients that its albino cousin lacks. It boasts more bite, texture and taste than its pale counterpart.

But I'll save the health-food speech for C. Everett Koop. Let's get to the good part. The unagi hosomaki ($3.50)—eel quickly broiled until the skin and sauce caramelize, then rolled with brown rice, seaweed and cut into six bite-size pieces—replaced Spinal Tap punch lines in my long-term memory bank. It was that good. Even better is the unagi donburi ($9.50). Five or six broiled unagi pieces layered on top of brown rice with some other goodies is just too much of a good thing.

I'm dedicating one whole paragraph to Homma's version of chirashi. It's just assorted seafood over rice, a staple of good Japanese restaurants, yet easy to do badly. Homma's version is one of the prettiest, freshest and tastiest examples of chirashi I've ever had, and it's definitely the least expensive at $9.50, which is around half of what you'd pay at upscale restaurants. Chunks of tuna, squid, salmon, snapper and fatty tuna mingle with tobiko, seaweed, tamago (sweet egg omelette), shiitake mushroom, shiso leaves, radish sprouts and sesame seeds aboard a glistening mound of brown rice. This is like Japanese jambalaya—a glorified rice spectacle. If he put it on a $300 lacquer plate with sculpted wasabi and gari, Homma-san could get away with charging much more.

The veggie options are many and listed in order of difficulty: from beginner (cucumber, avocado, asparagus, spinach) to advanced (burdock root, mountain potato, fermented soybean). See what the fuss over fermented soybean, or natto, is. It's an acquired taste; Anthony Bourdain described it as having the consistency of the contents of a dentist's spit cup. Screw him—natto rules.

If Greenspan needed an example of a stable economy, Homma's is it. Prices haven't changed in years. The most expensive six-piece vegetarian roll is $2.60, and a deluxe nigiri combo (eight pieces) tops out at $10.80. You'll laugh yourself to sleep at the bargain. Come here for a change of pace and don't be in a hurry. How does that beer commercial go? "I once drove 150 miles for six rolled tacos." I drove 20 miles and waited a half-hour for brown rice sushi, and I'll gladly do it again.

Homma's Brown Rice Sushi
Address: 2363 Birch St., Palo Alto, off California Avenue
Phone: 650.327.6118
Hours: Lunch 11:30am-2:30pm Mon-Fri, noon-2:30pm Sat; dinner 5-9pm Mon-Fri; 5-9:30pm Sat; closed Sun
No alcohol, just sodas and tea

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From the October 27-November 2, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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