How do you judge a Japanese restaurant? Most of us have a system. My friend Amy goes by the broccoli tempura. Did the chef dip and fry the broccoli with the speed of a ninja, or did the batter have time to seep and settle into the floret? If her buds detect raw dough, it's over.

I take a more purist stance. Even though I order a wide variety of Japanese food, from sushi rolls and yakitori to barbecued short ribs, I base my final opinion on the taste, aroma and overall quality of the sashimi, since that's what most of us crave when someone suggests Japanese.

Is the raw fish vibrant? Is it watery? Does it smell?

Steve Lin, owner of Kaki Sushi, displays a Chuck Norris roll, consisting of shrimp tempura, avocado, salmon, spicy crab, fish eggs and green onion, at his
Steve Lin, owner of Kaki Sushi, displays a Chuck Norris roll, consisting of shrimp tempura, avocado, salmon, spicy crab, fish eggs and green onion, at his sushi restaurant in Pleasanton, Calif., on Thursday, Oct. 10, 2013. (Doug Duran/Bay Area News Group) ( Doug Duran )

On two recent visits to Kaki Sushi, a Pleasanton mom-and-pop place where the walls are covered with handwritten specials on withered paper, the salmon nigiri ($4.25) and hamachi sashimi ($6.95) passed my test. Both tasted and smelled fresh and had a sweet, buttery quality. Despite that, I have mixed feelings about the restaurant. I found the service spotty and the decor tired and overly kitschy, from the yearround Christmas streamers to the old, flattened seat cushions.

Still, some dishes were home-runs, particularly when they were free, like the generous, fried white fish dressed with diced, pickled veggies that our waitress presented "on the house," or the mini veggie omelet spiked with soy sauce that arrived with miso soup and edamame. Check out the 277 reviews on Yelp and you'll see that offerings like these really dial up diners' opinions on Kaki Sushi.

Yes, we all love free food, especially when it's good.

But, I don't like imitation crabmeat. Kaki lost a star because they don't use real crab or offer it at an extra charge. It's tough to avoid the fake, stringy stuff, since crab is used as the stuffing in so many rolls.

On the plus side, using imitation crab keeps their prices below average. Kaki Sushi rolls with one or two kinds of fish were often priced at less than $10, including the Shrimp Tempura ($6.95), with crab, avocado, cucumber and shrimp tempura. To fake ourselves out, we opted for spicy rolls, like the Angel Mama ($7.95), which masked that imitation taste and texture with spicy crab, avocado, tempura crumbs and soybean paper.

We also loved the crab-less Washington Roll ($9.95), which had spicy salmon and avocado inside and salmon on top with a thin slice of lemon, and boasted great acidity and texture. Yelpers swear by the Chuck Norris ($12.95), with shrimp tempura, avocado, salmon, spicy crab, fish eggs and green onion, and the inexpensive bento boxes (starting at $6.95 for lunch; $12.95 for dinner).

If I went back to Kaki, I'd get the sizzling hot Barbecued Beef Short Ribs ($13.95) again. They come sliced and stacked atop pickled goodies, with salad and steamed rice. Also good: the Kaki Special Fried Chicken ($9.95), a generous plate of popcorn-style, deep-fried dark meat chicken. I was expecting it on the bone with Japanese accouterments -- wasabi-tinged batter, perhaps? a sweet dipping sauce? -- but I still liked it and suspect picky kids would, too.

What Kaki needs to work on is communication and consistency of service. Our waitress was friendly and attentive on a quiet Sunday night, but didn't have answers or make an effort to seek them out when asked about the ingredients of certain rolls. During lunch on a busy weekday, another server left our table mid-order, saying she'd "be right back." But, on a hopping Saturday night, my husband and his friend received fine, swift service, he says.

I suppose the service is like their decor -- all over the place. But if you can get past that, you'll certainly find some good, affordable eats. And free ice cream for everyone.

kaki sushi

" * *

WHERE: 3120 Santa Rita Road, Pleasanton
CONTACT: 925-484-4827; www.kakisushica.com
HOURS: 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Mondays through Fridays for lunch; 5 to 9:30 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays and Sundays for dinner; and until 10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays
CUISINE: Japanese
PRICES: $$
VEGETARIAN: Try the vegetable udon or a veggie hand roll.
BEVERAGES: Soda, juice, sake, domestic and Japanese beer and a few Livermore wines
RESERVATIONS: No
NOISE LEVEL: Moderate
PARKING: Shopping center parking
KIDS: Try the Beef Yakitori or Kaki Special Fried Chicken
PLUSES: Fresh, affordable sushi; some free food
MINUSES: Imitation crabmeat, tired decor and spotty service
DATE OPENED: 2007

Policy

We don't let restaurants know that we are coming in to do a review, and we strive to remain anonymous. If we feel we have been recognized or are given special treatment, we will tell you. We pay for our meal, just as you would.

Ratings

Restaurants are rated on a scale of one to four, with four representing a truly extraordinary experience for that type of restaurant.

Price code

$ Most entrees under $10
$$ Most entrees under $20
$$$ Most entrees under $30
$$$$ Most entrees under $40