In Memoriam: Ryosuke Yoshioka, the Sushi Man of San Francisco

Welcome to our memorial page for Ryosuke Yoshioka, the Sushi Man of San Francisco. If you have an anecdote, story, or remembrance of Ryo, feel free to leave a comment and share it with us!

Ryosuke Yoshioka, Chef-Owner of Sushi-Man Restaurant in San Francisco

Ryosuke Yoshioka (1950 - 2009), Chef-Owner of Sushi-Man Restaurant in San Francisco

I was chatting with a friend the other day when she asked me if I had heard that the owner of Sushi-Man Restaurant in San Francisco was stabbed to death. No, I hadn’t. I quickly searched Google and found the article on the San Francisco Chronicle’s website about the killing. Needless to say, I was shocked, dismayed, and downright sad to hear the news.

Taking a Chance, Making a Friend

I remember the first time we met “Ryo”. I had brought Annie and Daniel up to San Francisco to watch the 4th of July Fireworks from the Marina. I also wanted to have some good sushi while we were up in the City.

We had recently been turned on to high quality sushi after many years of so-so California rolls and cheap sushi boat sushi. I found a few names of sushi places in the Yellow Pages but when I called them, I found they were all closed for the Independence Day holiday.

Searching online, Annie found the reviews of Sushi-Man sounded good. I was dubious (I mean, with a name like “Sushi-Man”, doesn’t that make you think of cheap sushi boat-type places?). But I figured, why not give it a try, since all the other places were closed. When we drove by the storefront on Bush St., we spotted a middle-aged Japanese man out front sweeping up and watering the plants.

“Are you open today?” we called out from the car.

“Sure, come back at 5:30,” he said.

It turns out that the man was none other than Ryo, the chef. We sat at the left side of the bar, in the corner where we could leave Daniel in his stroller (he was about 4 months old at the time). After perusing the menu, we ordered the sushi dinner for two (pictured above).

Since we were the only customers there at the time, we had his full attention. So we struck up a conversation with him. Being neophytes to high-quality sushi, we had a lot of questions about the proper way to eat sushi. Ryo answered them with patience, candor and humor.

Nothing Compares to Ryo

That positive experience left a lasting impression on both of us. The sushi itself was good (albeit on the expensive side), but it was the conversation, the relationship we struck up with Ryo that made us want to come back.

We tried out other sushi places in San Jose, but they were all lacking. Both in quality of fish and in quality of service. Nothing else compared to Sushi-Man.

Giving Us His Best

So, we went back. And instead of ordering from the set menu, we told him to just give us the best. He took care of the rest. What a difference it was!

Now Ryo had free reign to showcase his sushi. We weren’t served just the normal salmon or tuna. Ryo introduced sanma (pike mackerel) to us. It is a seasonal fish, flown in from Japan only in Autumn. Sanma has a nice flavor, just slightly bitter but not off-putting like normal mackerel. It is now one of our favorite fishes.

Ryo would also serve us different things besides fish like mirugai - fresh geoduck clam.

“Watch this!” he said, then slapped the hunk of clam neck flesh in his hand. The flesh contracted and curled on its own. “See? The flesh is still moving. It’s very fresh. Now look at this.” He took another hunk of clam from his refrigerator and slapped it. No movement. “This clam is dead. No good. I will only serve you the fresh clam.”

Mirugai (Geoduck Clam) Nigiri from Sushi-Man (San Francisco)

Mirugai (Geoduck Clam) Nigiri from Sushi-Man (San Francisco)

We also got a pair of amaebi (sweet freshwater shrimp). These shrimp are incredibly sweet and succulent. Ryo even deep fried the shrimp heads for us – so crispy and savory! A perfect counterpoint to the nigiri.

Amaebi (Sweet Freshwater Shrimp) Nigiri from Sushi-Man (San Francisco)

Amaebi (Sweet Freshwater Shrimp) Nigiri from Sushi-Man (San Francisco)

Becoming Real Fans

We became real fans of Ryo the Sushi Man. He gave us amazing food but beyond that, he was kind and generous. He always treated us special.

Like the one time we arrived and there were people sitting in “our corner”. He actually asked if the people wouldn’t mind moving one seat over so that there would be enough room for us to squeeze in. Or the time he comped us a glass of unfiltered, premium sake, just because it was my birthday.

Premium Unfiltered Sake at Sushi-Man (San Francisco)

Premium Unfiltered Sake at Sushi-Man (San Francisco)

Eating at Sushi-Man was not cheap. We were getting the best quality food, and paying for it. We couldn’t afford to do Sushi-Man on a monthly basis. But we resolved that, whenever we had a craving for sushi, we’d set that money aside into a special “Sushi-Man” kitty until we had enough to afford a dinner there.

Eating at Sushi-Man was not quick, either. When we went there and told Ryo, “omakase” (meaning, we trust you), the experience would be at least a 3 hour affair, if not longer. First, he’d set us up with appetizers like ankimo (monk fish liver – like a fishy pâté), soft-shell crab, or even shiokara (squid marinated in its own innards – not for the faint of heart!)

Ankimo (top left), Soft-Shell Crab (right), and Shiokara (bottom left) at Sushi-Man (San Francisco)

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After the appetizers, it would be a methodical procession of sushi, a pair at a time, with long breaks in between to enjoy the food and also enjoy the conversation with Ryo and the other customers at the bar. There was real camaraderie at Sushi-Man’s sushi bar.

A Little Bit About Ryo the Sushi Man

Ryo originally came from Kobe, Japan where he trained as a sushi chef. His restaurant, Sushi-Man, is one of the oldest sushi restaurants in San Francisco. He was there before sushi became such a big thing in America. But he didn’t like to do the typical fancy roll sushi like Caterpillar Rolls or Dragon Rolls. He’d do rolls because the customers would ask for them but his real passion was for quality, traditional sushi.

He’d been in the business for a long time. Things kinda slowed down for him when a strip club opened up next door. Somehow the restaurant managed to survive through all its ups and downs. He was looking forward to retiring one day so he could golf more. But since he married late in life and his son (now 15) was still in school, he didn’t know when he might quit. We (selfishly) hoped he would remain as long as he could.

Going Back for More

Of course, we talked about him a lot whenever the subject of sushi came up amongst our friends. We brought several of them with us on different dates. On one of those dates, our friend’s wife said she couldn’t eat fish, thus springing the surprise announcement that she was pregnant! So for her, Ryo fixed a special marinated cucumber and shrimp salad.

Marinated Cucumber and Shrimp Salad at Sushi-Man (San Francisco)

Marinated Cucumber and Shrimp Salad at Sushi-Man (San Francisco)

Another time, we were visiting with my sister for dinner in San Francisco. After we said our goodbyes, we decided on a whim to stop in at Sushi-Man to see Ryo and get some dessert. He always served the best green tea ice cream. We all loved it, including Esther.

Esther Eating Green Tea Ice Cream at Sushi-Man (San Francisco)

Esther Eating Green Tea Ice Cream at Sushi-Man (San Francisco)

Ryo really loved our kids. Many times he’d come around the counter to sit and play with Daniel and Esther. He wasn’t just the sushi chef anymore — he had become “Uncle Ryo”.

The Last Visit

The last time we were there was in October 2006, for our anniversary. We made reservations and told Ryo specifically what the occasion was. Here is the sashimi platter he made for us. Not only did he have our favorite fish, sanma, as part of the platter, he also used the fish head and spine to make a beautiful presentation.

Sanma Sashimi Platter at Sushi-Man (San Francisco)

Sanma Sashimi Platter at Sushi-Man (San Francisco)

We haven’t been back to Sushi-Man since. We wanted to eat sushi more than once a year, and a little closer to home so we started going to Akane in Los Altos. The prices were more affordable there and the quality was still very good. But there was no connection between us and Shu-san or Shin-san like we had with Ryo. It seemed as though Ryo was our first love, and we were cheating on him by going to other sushi bars.

Annie and I were just talking about going to see Ryo in February for her birthday. It would be the perfect opportunity and I was already thinking of what other adventurous friends we could invite to join us. And then we come to find out this tragic news.

Thank You, Ryo

Ryosuke Yoshioka’s life was ended much too early. Our hearts go out to his wife and son. We, along with all his other loyal fans, will mourn his death. I do not know whether Sushi-Man the restaurant will remain in business. But Ryo the Sushi Man will always live in our memories and our hearts.

For all the good food and good times, Doomo arigato, Ryo. You will be missed!

Aloha, Nate and Annie

Annie, Nate, Ryo and Daniel in front of Sushi-Man (San Francisco)

Annie, Nate, Ryo and Daniel in front of Sushi-Man (San Francisco)

40 Comments Post a Comment
  1. Andrea says:

    >What a lovely tribute you wrote to Ryo and such wonderful memories you have of his sushi artistry. I can only imagine what it was like to enjoy his restaurant.

  2. nick says:

    >Sushi Man was an amazing human being, always so happy and smiling. The first time I went out with my girlfriend we went to Sushi Man’s, it became “our place”! We went back a few months later and again received nothing but the best in service and food. He came over and chatted with us for upwards of 45 minutes. He truly made us feel like we were at home. We will forever remember Sushi Man and his wonderful sushi.

  3. dwix says:

    >I just learned of the terrible news today, May 6, 2009. I’ve been to Sushi Man many times but I was a regular when I moved to SF in the summer of 2003. I transferred jobs and my new employer put me up in a hotel on Bush St. and paid for everything (including meals) for two months. Thus, that summer I went to Sushi man all the time!–Hey my boss was footin the bill so I was going to eat the best food!!And the food was so great!! Sushi man was such a nice guy, and one of his waitresses became a really good friend! It turned into a helluva great summer–I’d meet my friend when she got done with work at Sushi Man and she’d bring me Sushi man food (most of it was actually her dinner), and then we’d go out. We saw the White Stripes in concert in Berkeley, we went to movies, to bars…it was fun. She has since moved back to Japan and I have since been stuck under a mountain of work. …I was chatting with her today, I hadn’t talked to her in months which happens when friends move away…I was telling her how much fun that summer had been and we were catching up and she gave me the news about Ryosuke Yoshioka–our beloved Sushi Man. I was shocked, I still am shocked, but now I’m just plain sad. What a terrible tragedy. God Bless you Ryosuke Yoshioka I pray your family will find the strength to make it through such a terrible time and I will always think of you, the wonderful food, and the fun I had summer 2003.

  4. Su Ling says:

    >I actually use to work there at Sushi-man!

    Sensei was a really hard worker and at times he would be really hard on us kitchen and wait staff but he had a passion for his food. We'd always end up eating after our work session and there were times when he'd be so tired he'd pass out from exhaustion. When that happens we'll lock everything up and carry him to the back.

    You were right, he absolutely HATED doing the fancy ass rolls and anything that was not traditionally Japanese. I remember we had a customer who came in asking for Brown Rice and he felt so insulted telling her 'We only have high quality Japanese rice'

    Did you know that all the fish you see in the glass cabinets at the sushi bar are taken away every night and stored at the back in a special freezer that only contained fish?? Unlike other sushi places where they leave the raw fishes in these glass cabinets with freezing attachments. Naturally I asked him why he did that and he yelled at me saying that integrity of the fish would be jeopardized!

    That was how meticulous he was in preparing his food. He was a hard worker no doubt about it, there were times I was close to tears because of me screwing up in the kitchen or in the restaurant but despite everything he cared so much for us, feeding us every night and telling us good job.

    He will be missed.

  5. Cate says:

    >Mr. Yoshioka, or "Ryo" as he asked to be called, made every meal at Sushi Man feel like a special occasion. Whenever I entered, he would remember me and my son, and speak with great pride about his own boy. I will greatly miss seeing him, and joking with him over an excellent meal. My heart goes out to the family of this amazing individual.

  6. Michael says:

    >I am sitting here in my office in Chicago weeping. I used to go to San Francisco 5-6 times a year on business and every trip I ate at least twice a week at Sushi man. Ryo was the kind of chef where I would sit in front of and tell him to serve me whatever he pleased. We would have long talks about family, food and life and I would always feel happy walking back to my hotel after being with him. My picture was on his board and my son still wears his Sushi man t-shirt. I have not been back to SF for 4 years. MY wife,son and I are taking a trip out there the end of December and I just googled Sushi Man to make sure he was still open. Thats when I read the sad news. May Ryo's memory serve as a blessing. Do you know if there is a memorial fund for his family ? Please e-mail me if so at flashstar@mindspring.com

    Thanks for the tribute to him,
    Michael

  7. Victor says:

    Wow.. I just found out yesterday that my old friend Ryo is no longer with us. In 1980ish I was traveling with “A Chorus Line” playing at the Curran theater. Several members of the company ate there and met Ryo. I ate there every day and became very good friends with him. All the comments I have read here are true. He was a remarkable man and chef. We used to go out at night to these Japanese clubs and Karaoke bars. He once showed up in Los Angeles and asked me to get him five tickets for the show. He had brought 4 Japan Airlines Stewardesses with him and told me that I had to help him out and take two. Hahah.. Of course all we did was go to the cafe next door and talk with Ryo being the interpreter. I have spoken to him only a few times in these last thirty years but always dreamed of showing up at Sushi Man and sitting down to see how long it takes to recognize me. I will never get over knowing that that will never be possible. I pray for his family.
    RIP Ryo san

  8. Sherry says:

    I was so sad to learn about Ryo’s death. I stumbled upon the restaurant 6 years ago when visiting San Francisco. I sat at the sushi bar and talked with Ryo for several hours, just us. Such a nice man. I told him I would be back and the next day I brought 30 people with me (our entire Ortho group) We took over the restaurant. I believe he made every sushi known to man and then some for us. He looked at me and said Miss Sherry what am I going to do with all of these people and laughed! We stayed there for hours. I’m sure he was exhausted by us. My visit there this year and last just weren’t the same.

  9. Shannon Phillips says:

    I am glad that this page remains as a tribute to all those who were touched by the Sushi-Man’s incredible craftsmanship. Here is the long blog post I wrote in 2005 after discovering his restaurant for the first time: http://dracunculus.livejournal.com/30739.html?thread=299539 . I was a huge fan and remain incredibly saddened by his loss.

    • Nate says:

      Shannon,

      thank you for linking in your blog post. Quite a read!

      I miss Ryo and his sublime sushi. He may have called himself ordinary, but there was nothing ordinary about him and his sushi.

  10. Shannon Phillips says:

    Oh, I have another anecdote to share: one time Ryo told me that he read three different newspapers every morning, in three different languages, so as to be able to carry on intelligent conversations with all the travelers who came to his restaurant. He was that dedicated — not just to the quality of the food at his sushi bar, but to the whole experience there.

  11. Emiko F says:

    2008年に息子と行きました
    オーナーの奥様が私のJALの後輩でかつ、私のセミ同期のCAの知り合いで
    びっくりしました

    ANAのキャプテンもたまたまいらしてしばし楽しく話しました

    今日そのセミ同期の友達に会って話をしてオーナーが無くなったことを知りました

    言葉が見つかりません
    ご冥福を祈るばかりです

  12. ハシモト チカコ says:

    ずっーとサンフランシスコで活躍されてる事と思ってました。

    こんな事になっていたなんて・・・
    ショックで知ってから眠れない日々が、続いています。

    彼は、高校の同級生でもあり、アメリカ旅行で
    お世話になったり、1979年の第1号店にも
    お邪魔しました。

    学生時代は、家族含めて仲良くしてました。

    生き方に大きな影響を与えてくれた人でもあります。

    もう一度、話したかった・・・

    今まで知らなくてごめんなさいね。

    チカコ

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