Tokyo Fish Market’s Lee Nakamura: A veteran fishmonger

Lee "Cubby" Nakamura has worked at Tokyo Fish Market for more than 20 years. Photo: Sarah Henry

On any given day, the seafood counter at the Tokyo Fish Market — with its tank of live Dungeness crabs, rows of gleaming whole snapper, and variety of bright, orange-pink salmon steaks — is awash with customers keen to select their seafood of choice.

Established in 1963 by Isamu and Tazuye Fujita, the grocery store, on San Pablo Avenue in north-west Berkeley, has been a mainstay in the Japanese and Japanese-American community for decades and, increasingly, a popular place to shop for both Asians and non-Asian customers who enjoy Japanese food.

The store is an East Bay institution with legions of loyal customers who flock there for sushi-grade fish, soy sauce and rice, as well as other staples of Japanese cuisine. The market is now run by the former owners’ son Larry Fujita, and Lee Nakamura, who can frequently be found behind the seafood counter that dominates one side of the shop.

There’s a family-friendly feel to the place — some customers have been coming since the ’60s, drawn to its fresh fish and Japanese specialties. The seafood counter stocks more than 100 kinds of fish, including bluefin tuna from Japan, farmed salmon from Scotland, and local, wild-caught halibut. Tokyo Fish Market also stocks a wide array of Asian condiments, rice in many varieties, all kinds of noodles, and Japanese-style snacks and sweets, as well as a range of sake, bento boxes, and to-go sushi.

Housed in front of the current food emporium is a squat brick building with a dark wooden façade, which served as the original store until 2005. The space has been made over into a gift shop, featuring bamboo bowls, Asian-style dishware, teapots, sake sets, cookbooks, origami paper, and trinkets with Japanese themes (including Hello Kitty).

Lee “Cubby” Nakamura, is a born and bred Berkeley resident, who lives near Berkeley Bowl on Oregon, where he worked in seafood for eight years, before moving to the Tokyo Fish Market, where he has worked for more than 20 years. Buying seafood can seem complicated: consumers face a barrage of choices before they put fish on the table, such as whether the fish is wild or farmed, how it was caught, how much is healthy to eat, and whether the sea creature in question is threatened.

Tokyo Fish Market fish. Customers tend to ask: "What's fresh? What do you recommend? How would you cook it? Photo: Sarah Henry

Nakamura, 54, who has also done a stint as a chef at a Japanese restaurant, is a partner in the business, and has dealt with all these challenges and more — like the oil spill in the Gulf and its effect on people’s willingness to purchase prawns from the region, and the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant meltdown and fears of radiation-contaminated fish.

The veteran fishmonger talked with Berkeleyside over the counter this week.

When you buy seafood for the store, who is your audience?

We try to accommodate everybody. We don’t sell what our customers don’t buy but we don’t dictate to people either. We have some customers in their ’80s — they’re kind of old school — they come in and they want what they want, even if it’s Chilean sea bass, which is an endangered species. Other customers only buy sustainable seafood, which is raised and caught in ways that protect their numbers. We give our customers information, answer their questions, and then we let them make their own choices.

Do you have a favorite fish that you stock?

Scottish Salmon “Loch Duart” because of the oil content and the flavor.

What kind of seafood do you eat at home?

I eat a lot of sashimi. Also a lot of salmon which I cut thin and pan sear quickly. And raw oysters like Miyagi, I prefer the ones that are a mouthful. Come to think of it, I probably eat more than the recommended amount of seafood.

Tokyo Fish Market staffers: "It's really important that our workers be personable and interact with our customers". Photo: Sarah Henry

What kinds of questions do you field from customers?

The first one is always: what’s fresh? The second one is usually: what do you recommend? And that’s followed by: how would you cook it?

What do you and your seafood counter crew recommend regarding cooking?

We tell our customers: keep it simple. Cook it quickly in some olive oil, add some good salt and some lemon zest.

What do you like about Berkeley customers?

I love the diversity of the shoppers we get. It’s a big melting pot of people with a wide range of flavors, tastes, and opinions. They’re also knowledgeable, ask questions, and open to trying new things.

What do you like about working with the employees behind the seafood counter?

They’re a joy to work with, some of them have been with me since they were 16  — like this one [points to a young man who has come in to say hello] — who is studying to be a doctor now. I’ve watched a lot of them grow up. There are about 30 of us who work the counter. It’s really important that our workers be personable and interact with our customers, that’s what we’re looking for in a prospective employee: someone who is willing to talk with people. The seafood stuff — like how to scale, cut, clean, and fillet fish — that we can teach.

What advice do you have for customers?

Build a relationship with a fishmonger you trust. Be willing to buy a different fish if the one you want isn’t in season, isn’t available, or isn’t the best, freshest, most cost-effective option. Come with an open mind and try unfamiliar flavors. Uni [sea urchin], Tazukuri [anchovies in sugar, sake, and soy sauce], and natto [a sticky, stringy fermented soybean with a distinct and strong smell and flavor] aren’t for everyone, but I was surprised when monkfish liver caught on.

What’s the secret to the store’s success?

Our motto has always been: don’t sell anything you wouldn’t take home to eat yourself. People put their trust in us and they’re a loyal bunch.

Sarah Henry is the voice behind Lettuce Eat Kale. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Berkeleyside publishes many articles every day. To see all our stories in chronological order, and read ones you may have missed, check out our All the News grid.

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  • Alice Kahn

    Another local hero that you have wonderfully profiled. I am a member of the cult of Tokyo Fish and it’s able leader, Cubby-San.

  • Chris

    Best fish market in the Bay Area hands down!

  • joan strand

     I love Tokyo Fish. The people there are friendly and helpful.

    They also carry Japanese plum candies that help my dry mouth (on the advice of an acupuncturist). The packages are labeled only in Japanese, so I usually take the old package in to compare graphics. The last time I wanted them I forgot the package, and the staff had to ask three people before one could be found who read Japanese. Fun!

  • Petsitter101

    Great place, you can really trust the fish being fresh.  Also, very reasonable produce.  Now, the parking lot that’s another thing.  Oh well, you can’t have everything.

  • I used to live in Berkeley and going there was such a joy–the people who work there are the friendliest! When I was hosting a sake tasting for a group of friends, Lee helped me select what to buy from their extensive collection; he was very enthusiastic and happy to talk about sake. Thank you for a great experience Mr. Nakamura! 

  • Arlene Baxter

    Even in a town with so many food destinations, Tokyo Fish is a true standout. I love that they always have the makings of chirashi, and a variety of fresh oysters. One time at the old store I went in to buy fresh ankimo to make on my birthday, but they were out. I was so disappointed! So I bought some other things and when I reached the check out Cubby handed me a small package with an “X” marked on it. It was a piece of cooked ankimo he’d brought out–a little birthday present. Yes, I’m another member of the Tokyo Fish Fan Club. Thank you Cubby-San for providing such a great local resource!

  • cranky

    one of the best places to buy Asian food in the entire Bay Area! Mr. N are the staff are totally the best. Love his philosophy of” hire the attitude, teach the rest.”  It really shows!

  • joshua a

    I love Tokyo Fish as well, but I wish they would not sell fish species that are not sustainable. 

  • Asano Fertig

    Cubby does his best to train young people in our community. He gives young people jobs and is willing to train them. This is an important community service.

  • Mick

    The only salmon I will eat is Loch Duart………….I see he agrees with my taste. Once you get addicted it is hard to eat other salmon (except similar Scottish farmed).

    Now, if you are really looking for a treat, look for the east coast soft shell steamer clams (true steamers sometimes referred to as Ipswich clams). They are so rare outside the indigenous coastal areas they are found, therefore few people have ever had them. They are simply incredible if prepared/eaten properly, one of the great gems of the sea. Thanks Tokyo Fish, they cannot be found at your store (occasionally show up at Monterey Fish.

  • Mick

    sorry previous post……….should be Thanks Tokyo Fish, they can be found at your store