Picture this: You’re at lowkey Inner Sunset haunt Red Tail, a DJ set thumping behind the bar, and a zhuzhed up California roll with real Dungeness crab sails your way. This treasure only emerges in the otherwise foodless bar thanks to Debra Dong and Winn Child-Phillips’ pop-up It’s Just Fish, a rotating installation of wild-caught tuna, jammy shoyu eggs topped with ikura, and those ultra-fresh California rolls. In early 2022, the East Bay couple, who grew up in Richmond and Berkeley respectively, thought it could be the right time to make their mark on the region’s booming culinary scene. “We were out of our jobs,” Dong says. “We wanted to get creative and do what we really wanted to do.”
The couple — who are business partners as well as romantic — are bridging austere, minimal sushi with the jubilant, casual rolls prevalent at corner sushi joints. Dong has worked as a server in the restaurant industry for about 10 years, currently at the Rite Spot Cafe on Folsom Street; Child-Phillips is shooting commercials for a living these days, but he has a penchant for fishing locally and has been surrounded by good food with his mother working in kitchens like Chez Panisse and Caffe Venezia. Child-Phillips and Dong met about four years ago, and she introduced Phillip to the splendor of sushi. He began to intersect his fishing and cooking skills, practicing his sushi rolling-skills. That practice shows in their pop-up. “We don’t claim to be something we’re not,” Child-Phillips says. “But we do claim to have quality and take pride in what we do.”
The menu is simple: three appetizers, five rolls, and two sashimi offerings. Prices are quite affordable, with only a roll topped with salmon, tuna, egg, and eel exceeding $20. That said, the couple’s Dungeness-filled California roll fluctuates along with the price — and availability — of the crab. Child-Phillips knows numerous producers in the area, tapping his pals for fish when it’s most fresh, and Dong makes sure to dish up only what they can serve for each pop-up to avoid waste. For now, the two keep residency at the Rite Spot and Red Tail in San Francisco. But, if all this works out, Dong and Child-Phillips would like to have their own sushi shop someday. “The dream is to find a permanent home,” Child-Phillips says. “We want everyone who enjoys this to continue to enjoy it.”
It’s Just Fish will pop up at Red Tail in the Inner Sunset on Thursday, January 26, and on the second and fourth Thursdays of each month. On Sunday, February 5, the pop-up will appear at the Rite Spot once again.