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Blast San Francisco Bureau

Don't judge a book by its cover and never evaluate a sushi place by its decor. Passersby often mistake Berkeley's Party Sushi for a pub with its neon lights and dark interior. The frog and deer-shaped plastic balloons dangling from the ceiling and the ceramic masks popping out of the walls don't make it any easier for you to recognize the funky place as a sushi restaurant. Despite the gallery atmosphere, people flock to Party Sushi for its large selection of sushi with reasonable prices. The rusty, metal tables covered with plastic clothes, classroom chairs, quick service, and cheap sushi attract a young, hip crowd to this Berkeleyan restaurant.

The Berkeley dynamite roll, with barbecue eel, avocado, topped with Vietnamese hot sauce, is a Party Sushi original and a must-try for first-timers. Don't be fooled by the word "dynamite," Vietnamese hot sauce is mild and even on the sweeter side. Six pieces of spider roll, which translates to soft-shell crab tempura, tobiko (flying fish egg), and avocado wrapped in rice and seaweed, only costs $3.45. The nigiri selection, or larger sushi pieces with raw fish, ranges from the usual tuna, salmon, eel, to natto (fermented soybeans), spicy codfish egg, and pickled garlic. Prices range from less than $2 to about $3 for two pieces.

Don't expect to see a Japanese chef making sushi at such a bizarre-looking eatery. But the Hispanic American chefs working there do a decent job. For the hungry ones, go for the lunch specials that give you California roll, four kinds of nigiri, soup and rice for less than $5. Special dinner deals include teriyaki chicken, steak, or salmon fillet, with soup, salad, rice, and California roll for between $7 to $9. The lukewarm miso soup is bland and the overcooked appetizer, cold soba noodles, taste soggy. But who's to complain when all these come with 12 pieces of fish rolls and five nigiri sushi for less than $9?

The place is small, but the wait is usually less than 10 minutes on weekdays. Vegetarians have more than 18 kinds of sushi rolls to choose from, including ume, or plum rolls. Japanese beer -- Asahi, Kirin, and Sapporo -- are served. And so is ginseng-up, Asian ginger ale that claim to boost your energy. If you still have room for desert after gulping the large portion of food served, go for the ginger or green tea ice cream with red beans. Like many Asian restaurants, Party Sushi only accepts cash. Closed on Tuesdays.

Jae's is an awesome Asian fusion restaurant, featuring a mix of Korean, Chinese, Japanese and other Asian fare. Order some sushi as an appetizer and some bibimbap, a Korean rice plate, as the main course. Their sushi -- which come in cute, little, fish-shaped plates -- is decent if you need a fix, but it's nothing to get orgasmic over. The bibimbap on a hot plate, however, is just heavenly: eggs, beef, vegetables over sizzling rice. It will wipe away your post-sushi disappointment -- and your hunger. During one visit, I ordered lobster fried rice in place of bibimbap and it was pretty good, but not as satisfying.

The wait people are courteous and knowledgeable about the menu, especially when you're overwhelmed by the variety. The prices are average: I usually spend $10 to $12 on three plates of sushi and about $10 on the bibimbap.

The two-level restaurant is always packed, so expect at least a 15 to 20 minute wait. Also, be prepared to spend $10 on valet parking. Street parking around the South End neighborhood is near impossible to find.

I entered this restaurant on the spur of the moment. I was driving aimlessly through the Capitol Hill district. It was late, around 9:45 p.m., and I was starving when I passed this cool-looking sushi bar. I slammed on the brakes, parallel parked, grabbed my dinner companion – The Seattle Times – and walked in. I ordered some salmon, salmon eggs, tuna and California roll – and an order of Chicken udon from the kitchen. The sushi was mediocre and expensive – and the udon was bland. The chefs and wait staff were nice, though. They served me even though I entered 15 minutes before they closed. About 10 minutes after the restaurant shut its doors, one sushi chef even asked me if I wanted to order anything else before he cleaned up.

Diners entering Isobune Sushi for the first time will be dazzled by the set up: The main dining area is a humongous, oval-shaped table with tiny, wooden boats circling the table in a small moat. Customers sit on the table's perimeter, grabbing sushi dishes as the boats float by. The chefs stand in the middle, wrapping sushi and filling the boats with fresh cargo.

Isobune is perfect if you want a quick sushi fix. And it's good for people who've never eaten sushi before because you get to see the food and pick whatever you want. To enjoy your meal, you must concentrate on what you are eating and not get mesmerized by the non-stop flow of assembly-line sushi that's zooming past you at eye-level.

Picking the dishes off a moving boat is sometimes tricky. One time, a friend nearly capsized a boat while reaching for some unagi. Another friend once reached over to pick up a plate of octopus and spilled it onto the boat. His mistake was reaching for it when the dish had already drifted past him. The waiter saw the botched pick-up attempt and quickly cleaned up the mess. Lucky for my friend, he was not charged for it. The sushi bar charges per plate, which vary in price depending on the color.

The service is excellent. The wait staff is attentive and comes by every few minutes to fill your cup with green tea, to take special menu orders, or to plop more wasabi on your plate. The restaurant also carries my favorite Japanese beer -- Asahi.

The seating, however, is rather impersonal, as you're forced to sit side by side with your friends -- and sometimes -- with complete strangers. It's a tight squeeze. Another negative is that it's hard to judge the freshness of the sushi. For all you know, the sushi has been riding around in a boat longer than Captain Stubing. The staff does recycle unwanted sushi though.

Prices are average, but the plates can stack up quick.

This sushi boat place is comparable to Isobune Sushi, except for one horrible fact: it plays really annoying '70s music. Which is a shame since the food and service is good. A friend didn't like this place as much as I did, however. He had some seaweed sushi and wanted to know the type of seaweed it was -- and the sushi chef and waitress didn't know. "You go into a Japanese restaurant for an authentic experience," he complained afterward. "If you're going to surrender yourself to this food, you want to surrender it to safe hands, not to people who don't know the kind of seaweed they use." The faux pas was akin to calling a tomato a mere "vegetable," he said.

The tune that annoyed me the most was that depressing, slow ditty that goes, "When will I see you again?"

Maybe the next time I want to hear crap music.

Izumi-Ya, located just across from the Kinokuniya bookstore in Japantown, has quickly become my favorite. The sushi is a bit pricey, but the size of the fish you get is also above average. The yellowtail, mackerel, tuna, salmon -- everything is excellent. The menu has many items that go beyond the standard sushi bar fare, like pancakes and cone-shaped seaweed filled with tempura. The restaurant has modern decor: contemporary Japanese with lots of natural wood and tables with vinyl laminates.

The wait staff has more than once forgotten to bring us our sushi orders or made mistakes on our udon and soba orders, but that's OK, because the sushi and sashimi are delicious.