Cha-Ya: Sushi without Fish

Samantha Levens
The Cha-Ya roll.

As the director of conservation programs for the Coral Reef Alliance, I’m familiar with the arguments for weaning society off seafood. For most common sushi and sashimi varieties, truly sustainable seafood options are practically nonexistent. Tools to help consumers make informed seafood choices can be exasperatingly complicated. And even if you manage to find sustainable sushi, there’s still the issue of mercury and other environmental contaminants.

Cha-Ya, a vegetarian Japanese restaurant specializing in fishless sushi in San Francisco’s Mission District, catches you by surprise. A small restaurant on a quiet block of Valencia Street, it doesn’t try to wow you with décor. It’s a cash only business with an ATM in the middle of the dining room. You get to the restrooms by walking through the kitchen. Even the service is what I’d graciously call minimalist. But all that doesn’t matter. Cha-Ya manages to serve up a meal that comes astonishingly close to eating the real thing.

I decided to order dishes that might have some parity with a typical order at my favorite sushi house. I ordered the kinoko miso soup, the hana gomoku—a chirashi-like mixed sushi bowl—and then a few two-piece nigiri selections of inari, hijiki, eggplant, and shiitake. And because my eyes are always bigger than my stomach, I finished with the Cha-Ya maki roll.

The hana gomoku was a work of art. Skillfully cut and perfectly steamed shiitake mushrooms, broccolini, lotus root, baby carrots, edamame, snow peas, tofu, and pickled daikon knots sat atop a bowl of warm brown rice sprinkled with briny dried seaweed.

The nigiri sushi was also aesthetically beautiful. As with traditional nigiri, Cha-Ya serves its vegetarian versions atop a small ball of sticky white rice. The hijiki was a chopped, fresh black seaweed that came topped with a single verdant edamame bean. It tasted like the ocean. The eggplant nigiri, cut identically to an order of hamachi nigiri, had the same texture and mouth feel you would expect from fatty tuna, but with a more earthy taste. The shiitake nigiri, topped with a delicate floret of steamed broccolini, would give my much-loved yet increasingly depleted unagi (eel) a run for its money. And the Cha-Ya roll, a tempura battered, flash-fried maki roll filled with asparagus, yam, avocado, and carrots, was delicious. If you buy in to the culinary concept of umami, an ineffable savoriness unique to many Japanese foods, you will certainly find it at Cha-Ya.

More than 75 percent of the world’s fisheries are fully exploited or overfished, with as many as 90 percent of all the ocean’s large fish dangerously depleted. The most highly desirable species for sushi, such as tuna, are not even given a chance to spawn, pushing the industry to catch smaller and smaller juveniles as fish stocks decline. Japan, as the largest per capita consumer of seafood in the world, is the primary market for global seafood harvesting, with fisheries from Europe and the United States satisfying much of that demand. While exclusively vegetarian sushi restaurants are not common in Japan (the Lonely Planet travel guide to the country, for instance, provides no guidance here), vegetarian nigiri options have been regular staples at most Asian and U.S. sushi houses. But these more sustainable options comprise a tiny minority of typical sushi house menus.

Has Cha-Ya convinced me that I can end my seafood habit, have my sushi and eat it too? I’m not sure I’m there yet. But if a trade-off on authenticity can deliver a delicious experience while safeguarding the ocean, who am I to cry foul?