Monday, July 15, 2013

Sushi Gen: The Best Sushi in Little Tokyo (a.k.a. The Non-$15 Sashimi Platter Blogpost)

Sushi Gen is a landmark institution in Los Angeles as it has been around since the '80s. I can imagine it was one of the first sushi restaurants here in the US. Even after all of this time, it still not only retains its glory but also manages to introduce people towards more traditional preparations of sushi. Yes, lots of people rave about their $15 Sashimi platter ($15 during lunch, $26 during dinner) and of course it's of amazing value regarding both quality and quantity. However, not only are the people who typically go for the platter missing out on the sushi bar experience as the platters are only available for table dining, they are also missing out on the variety offered a-la-carte and served immediately by order from the sushi bar. In addition to the variety and even though sashimi's also served at the bar, people are also missing out on what Sushi Gen truly shines and excels in: actual sushi, of course, with the vinegared rice!

The moment you see the restaurant from outside, you'll notice plenty of people waiting to get a table inside as they are most likely going for the sashimi platter. However, if you decide to opt for the a-la-carte only sushi bar in which you should do so if you want the best food and experience, wait time drastically shortens or even one would be seated immediately like we were. Once seated at the sushi bar, the sushi chef immediately greets you and instructs that you order verbally a couple of orders at a time. Immediately at this point, my recommendation is to ask for the sushi list that's typically given to tables who want to order sushi a-la-carte in order to know fully what they offer. Typically in Japan as it's the same ordering method as Sushi Gen unless if one is ordering omakase at a high-end institution in Ginza, one tells the sushi chef an order or two at a time and figures out what to order by simply looking at what's inside the sushi bar refrigerator for an item's availability. This too is expected for diners at the sushi bar. However, their bar is too long to see everything they have which is why I highly recommend requesting for the list.

As I typically like to stick to tradition when dining at the sushi bar, I had ordered my sushi progressively from lightest to heaviest in terms of flavor. I started out with Japanese Snapper (Tai). The sushi was seasoned with both yuzu juice for refreshing acidity and yuzu-kosho (fermented yuzu) to provide salt and a deep-flavor contrast with the fish. With both of these seasonings contributing to the Japanese Snapper's flavors, this was a great way to start the meal along with the freshness of the fish and the skin being left on the side in order to provide a textural contrast.

Wanting another fish of the lighter flavors yet something different from the Japanese Snapper, Engawa (Halibut Fin Meat) came next. As it's a bit chewier than Hirame (meat from the main body of the halibut) along with having its clean, light flavors, the Engawa was very delicious as it too was seasoned with yuzu juice and yuzu-kosho for the same reasons as the previous Tai.

Garnished instead with chopped shallots, green onion, ground ginger, and seasoned with ponzu (soy sauce seasoned with yuzu juice); the Spanish Mackerel (Aji) was served to us. The garnishes and the ponzu provide a refreshing contrast to the strong flavors of the mackerel along with the ponzu providing an umami flavor. In addition, one can tell that the seasonings and garnishes for the Aji are there to uplift its flavors instead of masking its "fishiness" in which there really wasn't much of by the fish itself. This was a surprise favorite for everyone in my dining party as Aji isn't typically ordered as frequent in the States which of course is unfortunate as it's a traditional sushi topping in Japan.

Next came Kohada (Gizzard Shad) which is, like Aji, one of the sushi toppings that isn't much ordered in the US yet it is standard in Japan. The flavors of the fish, like as of expected in makerel, were very strong, borderlined to being a bit "too fishy" even though it was still very delicious. It was fortunate that the lone topping of yuzu-kosho was there providing a different, strong flavor to complement the fish along with the vinagered rice providing refreshing acidity. It was these two components in which I felt saved it.

The progression now focused on fish with more deeper, meatier, and even perhaps buttery flavors. Yellowfin Tuna (Hamachi) came up. Even though I usually don't go for Hamachi, this was surprisingly very delicious as the fat content of the fish provided a nice buttery flavor without it being overwhelming. The freshness of the fish certainly helped as well. As the Hamachi wasn't seasoned at all like the previous sushi, the fish of this heavier class now requires the diner to dip the fish (not the rice) into the soy sauce. As wasabi is already added to the majority of sushi ordered, no additional wasabi's needed to be added or to be mixed into the soy sauce which is actually a sushi faux-pas. The slight dip of the fish in the soy sauce provided a strong, salty, umami flavor that went well together with the butteriness of the Hamachi.

Next came the most standard out of all the sushi, Lean Bluefin Tuna (Akami). Not only is the tuna of high quality and very fresh, it's meaty, savory flavors were very much appreciated.

Now, I present to you what are the most amazing, lip-drooling items at Sushi Gen: Chu-Toro (Medium Fatty Tuna on the left) and the grandest of all, O-Toro (Very Fatty Tuna on the right). First, lets start off with Chu-toro. It was quite evenly marbled which is what makes Chu-Toro what it is: an amazing blend of the fatty and the meaty, leaner flavors combined together in order to make its own unique character. Next, words can only mention so much of the grandeur lavishness of O-Toro. The distinct fatty segments of the tuna belly is what overrides the senses and makes those sensitive to fat extremely squeamish just by looking at it. This of course was extremely luscious in both flavor and texture. Only a small dip of soy sauce is required in order to fully bring out the breathtaking flavors of both Chu-Toro and O-Toro. As the chef was willing to give a piece each of Chu-Toro and O-Toro as it's two pieces per order, I was fortunate enough to taste both of them. But then again, who am I kidding? I'm going for the all out lusciousness of O-Toro only when I come back next time!

The next best thing came next: Sea Urchin (Uni) from Santa Barbara served as a gunkan-maki (battleship roll).  Unlike Ikko in Orange County where they serve some of the best Uni, this isn't preseasoned in which at times I prefer it just as is with only a small dip in the soy sauce for seasoning so that I can taste and appreciate the full, distinct yet very clean flavors of fresh Uni. The texture of the uni was firm, not at all watery which also contributed to its extreme deliciousness.

To complete the almighty sushi trinity with O-Toro and Uni being the other two components, raw Sweet Shrimp (Amaebi) was then presented freshly before us with their heads being simmered into miso soup to be served later on. Not only was it not at all slimy as one might perceive it to be, the meat was very firm in texture and of course was very sweet in flavor as it should live up to its name.

One of my personal favorites, Ikura (Seasoned Salmon Roe) came next served as a gunkan-maki like the Uni. The eggs were very fresh as determined from its non-wrinkly, springy, firm texture. I swear, some people get weirded out from the sight of roe as they make a mental connotation of fish eggs with something icky. However, they shouldn't do so as people see caviar from sturgeon as luxurious yet not so much with Ikura as it's from Salmon. Be that as it may, the Ikura had a very deep savory flavor which only required a small dip of soy sauce in order to bring out fully its flavors as the roe was of course high in salt content yet not overwhelmingly salty.

Our miso soup with the head from the Amaebi simmered in came. It definitely was a delicious way to wash down all the sushi consumed. The head was loaded with meat which made it great to nibble on while slurping down the soup. However, one more sushi remained before the meal was concluded.

Finally, the last pieces of sushi that was serve was Conger/Seawater Eel (Anago). My cousin who dined with me was curious about it in the beginning as he wanted to know the differece between it and its freshwater counterpart, Unagi. Anago is definitely more meaty, savory and fish-like in flavor versus the much sweeter Unagi which is why I prefer Anago over Unagi. My cousin too felt the same way the moment he started to savor it. The Anago served at Sushi Gen has the right amount of sweetness from the sauce and its meat was very savory and firm. The combination of the two opposite characters create a harmonious flavor. If you're ever in a bind to decide which of the two eels you should order, I would definitely recommend choosing Anago over Unagi.

After finishing the rest of the miso soup, out meal was concluded. All of the sushi were extremely fresh and tasted amazing. Because of how consistent Sushi Gen is able to maintain its high standards of quality and preparation for decades while offering more traditional sushi toppings, that is what makes Sushi Gen the best sushi restaurant in Little Tokyo, if not Los Angeles. If you have only one night to eat sushi in LA, this is the restaurant to go to. Forget the $15 sashimi platter, go for the full experience and to expand your horizons by dining at the sushi bar.

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  1. This looks great! I haven't had the opportunity to dine at the bar yet but next time, I'll definitely give it a try.

    1. Hi there!, The sushi bar definitely provides a much better dining experience. Even though one can order these items at the table, I feel that with the chef in front of you, one can get a better insight of the unique sushi toppings Sushi Gen has to offer. The ones that I highly recommend that makes the restaurant stand out against the other sushi places are: Japanese Snapper (Madai/Tai), Halibut (Hirame), Engawa (Halibut Fin), Horse Mackerel (Listed as Spanish Mackerel/ Aji), Gizzard Shad (Kohada), and of course both kinds of fatty tuna - Medium and very fatty (Chutoro and O-Toro, respectively) (Especially order the O-Toro). Thanks for your comment and I hope you get a chance to try it one day!

  2. Yum, this looks so good! Definitely want to give the a la carte a go. Thanks for the tips!

    1. You're welcome :) I'd imagine you have already seen it but there are LA episodes from Bourdain's two shows, "The Layover" and "Parts Unknown", if you'd like to get into other LA restaurants. Definitely wished Bourdain would have covered The Corner Place as they've been always packed for decades ever since I was little. Also, and are amazing blogs based in the LA area. Have fun in the States and take care!