Thursday, July 23, 2009

West L.A. Sushi Smackdown

I was in a manic sushi-craving mood, and was jonesing to try some of the many places in L.A. that I had not yet experienced.

So I came up with this crazy idea to gather a posse of close friends together for the first-ever Rawfishionado L.A. Sushi Crawl.

Yes, it was the antithesis of leisurely traditional sushi: I wanted to try stopping at several (2 to 3) sushi places in one night, tasting a bit at each stop and providing a good Rawfishionado comparison guide.
I had a few places in mind that are fairly close to each other, in West L.A.

I figured with a group of us, we could each order something different at each place and get a good variety, and I thought we could keep it affordable by spending only about $20-25 a person at each place (2-4 orders of nigiri sushi, or one dish) - especially if we were to hit up as many as three places.

So I picked 3-4 places, planned a logical itinerary based on geography, and our merry band started our Crawl at 5 p.m. on a recent Saturday.

Of course, most of my ideals were unrealistic: ultimately, we only got to two places, and we each spent way more than intended at each place because we didn't follow the "everyone order something different" rule.

So it wasn't the Crawl I envisioned. I was truly crazy thinking we could cram so much into one night.

But I DID end up with a very good Sushi Smackdown, pitting two comparable places against each other.

And producing a very clear winner.

Photo slide shows and a full report follow.

Here's the (unrealistic) itinerary I started with:

First stop: Hiko Sushi
Neighborhood: Palms
11275 National Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 9064
(310) 473-7688
Yelp reviews described it as a smaller place serving up simple, affordable but quality nigiri sushi and sashimi. Sounded like Rawfishionado's kind of place.

2. Echigo
12217 Santa Monica Blvd., Ste. 201
Los Angeles, CA 90025
(310) 820-9787
Rawfishy Erika had raved about this place, saying the fish was exceptional AND could be had for $30-$40 omakase. Clearly a Rawfishionado kind of place.
And Yelpers confirmed the quality - though I found some Yelpers preferred Sushi Zo. So that became my candidate for ...

3. Sushi Zo
Neighborhood: Palms
9824 National Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90034
(310) 842-3977

Finally, if time, stomachs and wallets allowed, I put a fourth option on the itinerary:
4. Lucky Fish
Neighborhood: Beverly Hills
338 N Canon Dr
Beverly Hills, CA 90212
(310) 274-9800
This is the intriguting, modern kaiten sushi place in Beverly Hills that got me curious because of the oxymoron: conveyor-belt (aka "affordable") sushi in Beverly Hills?
To be honest, I put this option at the end because I really didn't want to spend my money at Lucky Fish. The prices on the web site sounded outrageous for kaiten sushi, and I figured you pay for the novelty and atmosphere, not the quality of the fish.
Needless to say, we didn't make it here anyway.

Meanwhile, No. 1 Hiko was knocked off the list as we were literally driving over to it! I had failed to check on hours of operation before hitting the road, so I called to make sure they opened at 5 p.m.
A recording informed me Hiko is CLOSED on Saturday and Sunday!

WTF? How do they survive not serving on the weekends?
It was baffling and disappointing.

So we started our night at Echigo, located on the second floor of a rather ugly shopping center.
Our party of five walked in at 5:30 and the place was sadly EMPTY. But that meant we would get great service, even if we sat at a table to comfortably accommodate all of us.
And sure enough, everyone from the waitresses to the sushi chefs treated us VERY well.

Every piece of fish here was sublime, the quality so fresh and supreme that you can SEE it in my photos that follow.
And of course, the sushi chef(s) know the fish so well that each piece came out either unadorned to allow the fish to shine, or with a very subtle, perfect touch of ponzu or other condiment to enhance, not overwhelm or cover, the taste.

Echigo went beyond my expectation and knocked me out with its quality.
And if that wasn't enough, the pricing was incredible: all five of us ordered omakase, and the wait staff was very smart and practical - they asked if we wanted one-piece-each omakase, or a full order of two pieces for each of us.
Clearly in our situation, one piece each was plenty, and allowed us to enjoy more variety; we each ended up having about a dozen different pieces.
And the bill (including beers and tip) came out to about $40 each for the incredible meal.

I was so satisfied with Echigo that I almost called off the crawl right there. In fact, some of our party had other plans and did call it a sushi night.
But my curiosity about Sushi Zo was still strong, so Erika and I forged on.

Sushi Zo is a smaller place and it was pretty filled up, but a waitress/hostess said we could take a table for 2 for about an hour, before a party that had reserved the table came in.

Definitely sensed a snobby vibe immediately, confirmed by this sign:
I got a little excited, thinking: With all that snobbery could come some amazing cuts of fish!

Well, let me cut to the chase and say Sushi Zo disappointed me completely, and made me really see the value of comparing two places back to back in one night.

The fish was high quality at Zo, but not as sublime and out-of-this-world as at Echigo, as you'll see from the photos and descriptors that follow.
PLUS, there were the ATTITUDE and RULES that seemed misplaced here, having just had incredible sushi without snobbery at Echigo.

As noted on the sign, Zo is entirely omakase, even when you're sitting at a table, which is fine.
But there's a minimum charge - you must consume at least 8 orders. So we could only have the table for an hour, and we were full from our Echigo meal, but we weren't allowed to cut off the omakase when we were satisfied.

If the fish was as sublime as Echigo, I would have excitedly anticipated each new plate.
But as you'll see, the fish was mostly bland, and there was a very unfortunate honey-dijon situation that appalled me.

So we ended up paying $50 for about 12 orders that really were "meh" in quality - better than average sushi places, to be sure, but not as good when compared to its premium peers. I feel compelled to only give Zo a rating of 3 stars because the overall experience, while impressive for some diners, did not make me personally want to return.

This was similar to the experience I had at Ikko in Costa Mesa recently: high quality in general and a modern willingness to experiment, which I admire, but not always on the mark. And when you have to pay a lot more for the food - including the experimentation that doesn't work - it can leave a bad taste in both the mouth and mind.

Needless to say, the clear winner in the Rawfishionado West L.A. Sushi Smackdown was Echigo, rating 5 stars for unforgettable food quality/chef expertise, conscientious service and surprising affordability.


Monday, July 20, 2009

Fukada 2 Go: One reason I love working in Irvine

I started a new job in Irvine in May, which is partly why I neglected this blog for about a month and a half while I was busy acclimating to the new job.

But this job is also Rawfishionado-friendly in that it puts me close to all the really good Japanese places in Orange County. (If you haven't read my theory on why Costa Mesa-Irvine has such a concentration of authentic Japanese food, click here.)

One of my happiest days was when I literally stumbled upon Fukada 2 Go, just a mile away from my job.

I already knew about the main Fukada, the fast-casual Japanese place near Irvine Spectrum. People wait close to an hour there to slurp the handmade udon and enjoy other Japanese comfort foods like unagi bowl and spicy tuna bowl, all made authentically delicious with fresh, often organic ingredients, and so affordably priced it puts other Japanese restaurants to shame.

But I had no idea there was a Fukada outpost hidden at the base of a gleaming high-rise condo complex at Jamboree Road and Campus Drive - until I turned into this complex, drawn by a sign for a Vietnamese eatery.

I found the Vietnamese place, but was more excited when I saw what was next door:
More photos follow ...

Fukada 2 Go has apparently been open for about 8 months now.
It's a small place with seating for maybe 10 diners - it's "2 Go," after all.
You'll see by the menu, available online, that there is definitely more "2 Go"-friendly food from Fukada's main menu: rolls and rice bowls, plus bento boxes, all for an average $5!

In fact, when I first came upon Fukada 2 Go in May, they weren't serving the signature udon - which made sense since noodle soup isn't takeout fare.
But apparently there was enough customer demand - or the owner was waiting to see how business went before offering it here - because in June, handmade signs proudly announced "Udon now available!"

They've also recently added tako-yaki - Japanese dumplings made of flour, tempura batter, diced octopus, red ginger, and green onion, topped with sauce, seaweed, mayonnaise, and bonito - on weekends.

Fukada 2 Go is clearly the place to go for lunch - especially if you only have an hour break. Unlike the main Fukada, there's no line of people waiting to get in, and actually very few diners there whenever I've stopped in (both at lunch and after work).

Here are my favorites:

The kara-age bento box, featuring the Japanese fried chicken (marinated in soy sauce before fast frying), with rice, sesame green beans (gomae ingen, a homestyle favorite) and my favorite hijiki (a type of seaweed stewed with carrots and fried tofu pieces).

All this for only $6! Though I should warn some of you that they serve Japanese-style portions here - just right, in my opinion, but perhaps not enough for some American appetites.

But then, you can order more, and still not break the bank! In fact, I love the sides so much that I often order several of them.
The sesame green beans are especially perfect: the soy sauce and brown sugar in the sesame mix are nicely balanced, not cloyingly sweet; the sesame seeds are not pulverized to a pulp; and the beans are boiled but still firm.

The spicy tuna roll ($5) is a refreshing, light version:
I ordered it once with the brown rice, which didn't work for me: brown rice has such a distinct flavor, not just nutty but more robust, so it actually clashes with the spicy tuna roll.

But I DID like the brown rice in the shrimp roll (also $5), which complemented the tempura shrimp and asparagus - the whole roll is yummy with crunchy, smoother flavors:
The udon here comes in two sizes: a nice smaller cup (about the size of a large mug) that satisfies me perfectly for $5, and a larger size, about the size of a regular soup bowl, that will probably satisfy most other diners for about $7.
The basic udon here comes topped with both the tempura crumbs and sansai - often a mix of Japanese seaweed and "mountain vegetables," typically green-bean-like root veggies and mushrooms.

Those handmade noodles are sooooo good, slightly chewy yet delicate.
I must admit that while the small bowl is really the right portion for me, I'm always disappointed there aren't just a few more noodles when I get to the end of the bowl.

Finally, Fukada 2 Go also has the lesser-known black sesame ice cream, produced by the leading manufacturer of the ubiquitous green tea ice cream and my other favorite, azuki (red bean) flavor:
The black sesame looks - and tastes a bit like - chocolate chip ice cream, but with a very slight nutty or bitter edge, but in a good way, like how coffee has that deep roast flavor.
If you're like me and don't like super sweet, you'll order the black sesame ice cream again and again.

Fukada 2 Go
6200 Scholarship
Irvine, CA 92612


Monday, July 13, 2009

Ikko: Impressive, but not impeccable

Proof that even highly rated, raved-about places aren't flawless.

Exhibit A: Ikko Sushi in Costa Mesa.

I hadn't been here in years, but kept reading all the foodie blogs and reviews raving about the omakase here.

I finally got a chance to re-acquaint myself with Ikko, when I was introducing my San Francisco cousin and some new friends from New York to The LAB Anti-Mall and its sister center The CAMP. After a whirlwind tour of the LAB/CAMP, we had to get the New York visitors back up to LAX to catch a red-eye back east.

But we still had time, and concerned about traffic AND dinner (actually in the reverse order, natch), I suggested we stay in Costa Mesa to catch a quick bite, which would allow the traffic to die down, then we'd hit the road north.

We'd been talking about this blog o' mine, so New Yorker Melissa says, "I'd love some sushi!" My cousin chimes in, "OK, Rawfishionado, is there a good place around here?"

"Why yes, there are some EXCELLENT sushi spots in this neighborhood," I proudly proclaimed.

And we walked the few steps to Ikko.

Unfortunately, due to our time constraints, we couldn't really do a leisurely omakase. So we opted for a table that would comfortably accommodate the four of us - and our tendency to gab - and decided to simply order off the menu.

First, a couple of appetizers:
Spicy tuna on tempura-fried eggplant: tasty little morsels, topped with my favorite smelt eggs.

Yellowtail carpaccio, topped with minced jalapeno and balsamic vinegar
This "carpaccio" dish has become sort of ubiquitous these days at trendy, upscale and gourmet restaurants, Japanese and non-J. But naturally, the Ikko version was superior to many I've tried, due to the high grade of fish here. The pieces melted in the mouth like buttah.

By the way, the cheery waitress recommended these appetizers, which are apparently very popular. I can see why - they were delicious. But this was the first sign that I MUST return for omakase; I don't necessarily want what everyone else loves to eat - I'm ornery like that.

Next came long, lovely plates of our various sushi orders. The first one is pictured at the top of this post. And here's a closeup of my favorites on that tray:

Aji (Spanish mackerel) on the left, hirame (halibut) and mirugai clam (getting cut off in the photo)

The aji was buttery good with that distinctive taste that doesn't overpower. I didn't taste the hirame and mirugai, but I could tell just from the looks of them that they were fresh and delicious - probably naturally sweet. (We were all so happily engrossed in gobbling up the pieces that I forgot to ask for details about how they TASTED - doh!)

Here is a closeup of the kanpachi and albacore.

At sushi places of this caliber, I've never been disappointed with the albacore - and sure enough, Ikko's was not only super-tender and moist, it was flavored with just the right dash of ponzu-daikon sauce, with a little crispy onion on top. Albacore at lesser places often comes drowned in the sauce, which pisses me off because I can't enjoy that lovely mild flavor of the fish.

At Ikko, I was shocked and disappointed to find the kanpachi was overly sauced and flavored!

If you've been reading this blog, you know of all the heavenly kanpachi I've enjoyed. Well, here, I couldn't taste the fresh, mellow, almost-sweet fish itself because the ponzu and the very strong fresh wasabi overwhelmed my taste buds. Now, I love ponzu, and really appreciate when fresh wasabi (not the powdered stuff) is served. But the kanpachi is too delicate of a fish to have such strong garnishes, and it left me wondering about the sushi chef.

Maybe a junior/apprentice itamae prepared this kanpachi?

To finish, Rawfishionado's version of "dessert": reliably good unagi and an incredibly yummy tamago, flecked with green seaweed.
There's an art to making the perfect tamago - fluffy but firm, sweet, but only very subtly so. This one was both of those, but with an added hint of salt, thanks to the seaweed. I loved it.

Overall, the sushi was marvelous, what you would expect at a place like Ikko. But it wasn't the best I've had, and I guess I expected better. I kept comparing the quality of Ikko's fish to the quality I consistently get across town at Shibucho - for a better price.

Our Ikko sushi bill for four, with NO alcohol, came to $175; include tip, and each person paid about $50. Not outrageous, but I've been spoiled by getting sublime sushi at Shibucho for $30-$40, every time I go.

So why would I return to Ikko? I do still need to give their omakase a try.
Perhaps I shouldn't have expected knock-me-out sushi when I'm sitting at a table, ordering in bulk.

But at this point, Shibucho remains the undisputed champion in the Rawfishionado ratings.

Stay tuned...

Ikko Sushi
735 Baker St., Suite C
Costa Mesa, CA 92626

View RawFishionado's Picks in a larger map


Sunday, July 12, 2009

Sushi Saurus: Take 3 - the final chapter?

Sadly, I'm afraid I must rescind a Rawfishionado endorsement.

Due to some recent experiences and newly acquired knowledge, I can no longer heartily recommend Sushi Saurus in Long Beach as a reasonably priced, authentic Japanese sushi place.

Here's what happened ...

A few weeks ago, Rawfishionado Brooke (who lived in Tokyo and has a very sophisticated palate), e-mailed me some alarming news:

"BTW - I went and had the unagi-don at Sushi Saurus last Wednesday. It sucked and so did the miso soup. :(
"The unagi sauce was tooooo sweet and the miso soup tasted like dishwater water...same color too..."

OK, unagi bowl does not a sushi place make, but the quality of her meal sounded simply appalling.

When we visited Sushi Saurus in April to see how the new owner was running the place, Brooke and I were bowled over, so to speak, by the unagi bowl, and knew we'd be craving the meal in a bowl on a regular basis.

Apparently that was a one-time phenomenon; I believe that earlier unagi bowl was prepared for us by the owner-chef himself, after we requested it.

After Brooke's recent bad experience, I had to check it out for myself.
I decided to order unagi bowl takeout - better to try it in the privacy of my home, I thought.

In a nutshell, the experience revealed a lot about the new owner's attention to quality and lack of understanding of nuanced flavors:

1. The eel sauce wasn't too sweet as on Brooke's version, but it was really weird-looking AND weird-tasting: it was watery, looked like water colored with a bit of soy sauce, and had a chemical taste. NOT the right consistency or taste for unagi.

Fortunately for me, the unagi sauce was packaged separately for takeout, allowing me to put how much I want on it. So I pretty much ate the unagi almost unadorned, and it was decent.

2. My miso soup wasn't as bad as Brooke's dishwater soup - there was some salty flavor to it - but after a couple of sips, I threw it out. It was clearly some powdered insta-miso, with those little foamy fake tofu cubes in it - so unsatisfying.

3. And here's the biggest insult: the whole meal was WAY overpriced for what I got. I essentially paid $14 for a few pieces of unagi, the only worthwhile part of the whole meal.
Even the pickled vegetables and octopus salad were not good - either a chemical taste or bland.

Finally, I also didn't realize that the new owner-chef is Korean. I didn't notice this on that first visit in April, probably because it was so busy and a Japanese sushi chef was serving us.
But on the night I ordered the unagi bowl to go, the place was nearly empty and the chef-owner was behind the sushi bar and conversing in KOREAN to his female waitresses.

This might explain the weird unagi sauce, AND the fact that when I called in my order and said I wanted "unagi don," the waitress didn't seem to understand me.

"Unagi roll?" she asked.
"No, unagi DON ... an unagi bowl," I said.
(Pause) "Ohhh, OK."

So I can not justify endorsing a place that isn't authentically Japanese - and overpriced and mediocre on top of it.
It's an average, OK place if you're not seeking any out-of-this-world, memorable food.


Saturday, July 11, 2009

Fishlips Sushi: Raw-fish Coach?

There's been a lot written, blogged and Tweeted lately about modern-day food trucks that offer unusual, tasty and gourmet food beyond the traditional "roach coach," and broadcast their locations via very modern mobile media (Twitter, mostly).

I still haven't had a chance to try the famous local pioneer of this trend: Kogi's Korean tacos.

And then there's this one, that I MUST try, being Rawfishionado and all: Fishlips Sushi.

Some foodies are giving Fishlips good reviews.

I'm willing to go up to L.A. to try Fishlips, but the company is based in Torrance, so I wonder if I can catch them in Long Beach. They seem to truck around mostly in West and central L.A. - wherever they get called, apparently, usually at a specific business or in a business area.

And I wonder if I can get them down to Irvine, where I work...

Kogi's has been smart enough to come down to the O.C., where there are large Korean and Mexican populations. And with such a large Asian-American population in general here, Fishlips would be right at home, too.

If you haven't heard about this trend, read more here about the various businesses jumping on the band wagon, so to speak:

* "Kogi Korean BBQ: a taco truck brought to you by Twitter" - The Los Angeles Times

* "Sprinkles on Wheels: Cupcake van coming to O.C." - Fast Food Maven blog on

* "The cupcake van may be coming your way" - Los Angeles Times

*"Food Truck Nation" - The Wall Street Journal