Where the Gills Are 

A trip to TrueWorld, a sushi-grade fish market.

"I'm used to this, but how are you?" asks Jimmy Kim, owner of Mijori Sushi Restaurant. It's 6:15 a.m. and we are on our way to San Leandro to visit the fish market.

Jimmy wakes up at six in the morning several days a week to visit one of the four fish markets he purchases from. All four deliver, but he thinks it's always a good idea to visit the source regularly to check it out and make his presence known. Then he goes home, has breakfast with his wife and kid, and comes back to the restaurant at ten o'clock to receive orders and start lunch and dinner prep.

Jimmy took over the fifteen-year-old Mijori in January 2001, several months after his father, the previous owner, died. He redecorated the space and added a slew of newer, fusion-style sushi rolls. Business has been good since: It has increased 100 percent in the past year and continues to grow.

TrueWorld, formerly a Japanese company and now owned by the Moon Unification Church folks, is one of the largest suppliers of sushi-grade fish to the Bay Area. The mineral smell of the sea hits us as we enter the building, but it smells nowhere near as pungent as the retail fish markets in Chinatown. Our breath steams in the chilled air.

Fifteen or so fish cutters are bustling around the main room, a wide-open warehouse space with cement floors and rows of racks. They are wrapping and bagging farm-raised Atlantic salmon and yellowtail, checking them against the manifests, and filling long waxed boxes with orders, one per customer. Once the trucks are loaded up, they go out to Fremont, San Francisco, Oakland -- as far south as Monterey.

We walk around four-foot-long gutted salmon and inspect ice-filled plastic bins with scallops, whole monkfish, and sole. "They go to the airport every day to pick up truckloads of fish from all over," explains Jimmy. Right now the uni is from Boston, and Spanish mackerel is in season.

Most of the fish is fresh. Soft-shelled crabs are frozen. So are prawns and Japanese scallops, still in their shells. Some tuna, yellowtail, and eel comes frozen solid, but Jimmy prefers fresh fish, because the taste is cleaner and the texture better. We spy a six-foot-long headless halibut lying on a cart. A half hour later it's still there. Jimmy lifts up the top half of the fish, and the meat in between has gray patches. No good. With our fingers, we pulp the skin and feel how soft the meat is underneath.

Most of our time is spent in the tuna room, where huge loins of yellowfin tuna are being trimmed. All of it is marked A or B grade, and designated for its target based on the weight of the loin. The tuna is graded at the source, when the fish buyer cuts a small slit in the tail and looks underneath to judge color and texture.

Jimmy goes through twenty pounds of tuna -- at $11 wholesale -- on weeknights, and double that on weekends. One pound of tuna yields approximately twelve orders. It's the most popular fish, followed by salmon and yellowtail.

"What time did you start work?" I ask the tuna cutter. "Three o'clock," he replies. "Yeah, they're just finishing up," says Jimmy, and smiles in sympathy. Or maybe envy.

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