Saturday, February 14, 2009

Top 10 Sushi Restaurants in South OC [Updated]

In the interest of inciting controversy, here is the Top 10 Sushi Restaurants in South OC. We're talking strictly on the quality of the sushi. And indeed, this list is based on purely objective, scientific criteria, and the relative rankings are inviolate. ;-)

However, if there is a restaurant missing, there is indeed the possibility that I haven't eaten there, although the likelier possibility is that it didn't make the cut. Sorry. [Update: And of course, thanks Zach for reminding me of a place that indeed was missing, but that I had eaten at. :-) ]

Update April 1, 2009: Dropped Bluefin due to declining quality, moved Ayame up for inventive omakase.

Update March 26, 2010: Dropped Ayame due to change in head chef. Added Ohshima in Orange.
  1. Sushi Wasabi, Tustin. The king of them all down here. Yes, the restaurant is inexplicably closed for weeks at a time around major holidays in an unpredictable fashion. Yes, the restaurant is inexplicably closed at lunch well before the the posted closing time. But the quality of the fish is outstanding. The best we've had by a significant margin. The blue crab hand roll is sublime, with the crunch of the nori and creamy, but not too creamy filling next to the warm and lightly vinegary sushi rice. Right now is apparently ankimo (monkfish liver) season, which makes it especially tasty. You also don't want to miss the Kumamoto oysters, tiny oysters perched on columns of salt, served with ponzu sauce. These are the only oysters I'll eat. "Tuna from Japan ... Oysters from Seattle ... Uni from Santa Barbara" I can hear their voices in my dreams, sometimes. Then I know it's time to eat. My review, Elmo's.
  2. Ikko, Costa Mesa. Funky interior, with a signature of Hideki Matsui inset in the wall with its own lighting. The menu is as long as it is incomprehensible. Let the itamae serve you until you're full or broke, whichever comes first. Imaginative sushi, and in the times we've eaten there, never a wrong note, never a stray bit of gristle, never an off taste.
  3. Sushi Murasaki, Santa Ana. Dark horse contender. A neighborhood sushi joint, almost looks like the current ownership took it over from a failed sushi restaurant before, and barely remade anything of the interior. Where they do spend time and attention is on the quality of the fish. Kind of like a Matsuhisa-lite, with a focus on special sauces for each fish, and an affinity for the blowtorch. Don't even bother filling your soy sauce plate if you order the omakase. :-)
  4. Shibucho, Costa Mesa. Value king. Amazing prices for the quality in a tiny little postage stamp sized restaurant. Maybe it seats 20. Usually less, with little "Reserved" placards on the tables often taking up two of the (three?) tables. Family business, Shibutani-san, his son, and his wife serving large slabs of fresh fish. If you sit at a table and ask for omakase, it comes on a large plate all at once. Sit at the bar for that if you can. My review, Elmo's.
  5. [Dropped from 3 to 5 on April 1] Bluefin, Newport Coast. Takashi Abe demonstrating that you just can't make the dishes without him. Namesake "Abe" didn't survive his departure Bluefin is a smaller space, furnished in a modern style with a sushi bar that literally glows from within. If only they'd spent a little more on sound baffling. The raging egos of the customers cause name-dropping, n-figure dollar conversations to crash like waves on a pier, making this not the space for intimate conversation. However, the originality of his creations, and the beauty of the presentation are a sight to behold. Would be ranked higher if not for occasional inconsistency in quality of the fish, ranging from sublime to merely "good" on occasion. For the prices, fear of the occasional "good" drops Bluefin a notch. Unfortunately, inconsistency is starting to look like a pattern of diminishing returns. My review, Elmo's.
  6. [Added Feb 16] Maki-Zushi, Tustin. Indeed I forgot this restaurant, but had eaten there several times. Not recently though, and even now, I'm not ranking it as highly as the best of the fish served would otherwise indicate, and here's why: it's kind of Frankensteinian. I mean, there's the Live menu, which contains some of the best, and most far-flung sushi varieties you're likely to find anywhere, much less anywhere in OC. The razor clam and the fresh uni stand out especially in my mind. And then, there's what seems to be the menu for the rest of 'em, the plebes, including many of the bread and butter comfort food type sushi, like salmon, and tuna. These are occasionally dipping into kaiten-sushi quality, which is almost understandable, given the sushi chef's previous stint at Frying Fish, which is a long-lived restaurant in Little Tokyo. It's almost like Sakamoto-san was a bit fearful about losing any customers, and instead has a restaurant that caters to all of them, and yet not me, by extension. Because I usually want a sublime piece of salmon and yellowtail to go along with my exotic varieties. Elmo's review.
  7. [Added March 26, 2010] Ohshima, Orange. In the grand tradition of bland strip-mall exteriors leading to another world on the other side of the noren, this small sushi bar with a few tables is not much larger than Shibucho. Sit at the bar, and peruse the specials board and read about an amazing variety of fresh fish you will not often find elsewhere. Some of them you will, and some of them have interesting translations into English that will seem unfamiliar. However, the fish is wonderful, and the chef's take is a unique blend of the traditional and the modern.
  8. Angotei, Costa Mesa. In the little strip mall that fronts Mitsuwa Marketplace. Another of the neighborhood type joints that just does sushi right. I visit fairly rarely, and on occasion get the feeling that this is another of the places where you're better off having "paid your dues", so to speak. When the sushi chefs know you, your service is a bit faster, and the fish is a bit better. This is generally true, but more so in some places than others.
  9. Koi-san, Orange. Classic sushi, a bit ponzu-happy, but on the whole quite good. At #9, we're talking more "good" than great, but it's a decent restaurant at a reasonable price. Not too crowded either, which is a plus for me.
  10. Hamamori, Costa Mesa. Okay, James Hamamori puts his best foot forward for his eponymous South Coast location. His best foot forward is basically a cut above his Wasa locations. I'd guess perhaps this is what his Wasa locations were like in the very beginning, perhaps. The ishiyaki beef is fragrant and tasty, and there are a few Sushi Treasures which are unique to this location, including copious amounts of caviar. The restaurant itself is beautiful, tall windows and bright lights, clean white decor. Costs are sky high, but occasionally good deals present themselves during restaurant weeks. My Restaurant Week review.
  11. Wasa, Irvine. Maybe it's the sentimental favorite- I admit it's primarily nearby and convenient. The service is hit or miss, since they're perpetually understaffed, but during the week, the sushi can range from "good" to "pretty good". They also serve tempura ice cream, which gets them bonus points, and their shrimp tempura is also pretty good.
  12. [Dropped March 28, 2010. Moved from 8 to 7 on April 1, 2009] Ayame, Irvine. Our neighborhood place. It started off a bit rocky, being an outpost of Zipangu in the Lab at Costa Mesa, but has come into its own. Their $28 3-course omakase tends to come with a sashimi salad option, a full sized entree, and a dessert. Good value. Their $65 6-course omakase is a steal, usually costing much closer to $100 for the quality of the courses. They've expanded the kinds of fish they serve, and last time I ate there, I actually had a couple of fish I'd never heard of. Which rarely happens these days. Butterfly fish? Anyway, it tasted pretty good. Their amaebi (sweet shrimp) is often fresh, occasionally sitting in a little basket right by the sushi bar. Service at the tables is just as good as at the bar, and so it's convenient for eating with the kids. My review, Griffin's.

So there you have it. Let me know if I've missed anything- I'd love more than anything to push a few entries down the list. Hopefully I've listed a few that you haven't tried (Murasaki?), that you may enjoy.

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Comments on "Top 10 Sushi Restaurants in South OC [Updated]"

Blogger elmomonster said ... (February 15, 2009 at 9:02 PM) : 

Dem's fightin' words Julian. And I think I'm going to ask you to step outside! Heh Heh! ;-)

Just kidding.

I like the gauntlet you put down though.

You got most of my favorites...but Shibucho tops my list. Wasabi, second.

Blogger Zach said ... (February 16, 2009 at 8:15 AM) : 

No Maki Zushi?? /gasp

Blogger Julian Hsu said ... (February 16, 2009 at 10:26 AM) : 

You're right Zach, Maki Zushi definitely makes a list of the top 10. I'm reluctant to break it into the top 5, for the reasons I've stated, but it was definitely an oversight. Thanks!


Anonymous Anonymous said ... (February 16, 2009 at 5:15 PM) : 

excellent review, been to all ,some several times. russkar

Blogger Julian Hsu said ... (February 17, 2009 at 12:15 PM) : 

Hi Elmo,

It's gotten way too civil in the food blogging world. It's time for some throwdown. :-)

russkar, always valued your opinion, thanks for the comment. Any hidden gems you can recommend?

Anonymous Anonymous said ... (February 17, 2009 at 8:07 PM) : 

You need to return to Maki-Zushi. The last time I was there a few weeks ago, it was absolutely dreadful!

Blogger josephnl said ... (February 17, 2009 at 10:53 PM) : 

For some reason my previous post re Maki-Zushi was erroneously listed as from Anonymous. Just want to correct this error.

Blogger Julian Hsu said ... (February 18, 2009 at 8:52 PM) : 

Thanks for your comment josephnl,

I also read a couple of your posts on chowhound on Maki Zushi. Given that you specifically cite the spicy tuna and salmon (which I also noted in my mini-review as being less than sublime), I'm going to believe you ate at the Mr. Hyde version of Maki Zushi- probably ordering mostly off the premium/live menu.

If you were to go back, and say, order a premium platter or eat the omakase, at least you'd be eating at the same restaurant (metaphysically speaking) as the ravers.

This isn't to say that a restaurant should get away with such a strange dichotomy without note. In fact, I'd say he's hurting business by not picking an identity, and jettisoning the menu items that don't fit- your well-publicized ire proves the adage that an impressed customer tells 10 people, but a pissed off one tells 100.

My wife and I were intrigued (and have had similar discussions about Maki and its place on this list), so we ate there today. We're in agreement now that it belongs, and that it hadn't gone through a precipitous decline since last we were there.

That's just how he "rolls", apparently. :P

Anonymous Anonymous said ... (February 21, 2009 at 12:58 PM) : 

Your choices are fine, but the only city listed that's properly South County is Irvine. Even Newport Coast isn't—it's Newport Beach, which isn't South County. And Orange?!

Blogger Julian Hsu said ... (February 22, 2009 at 4:48 PM) : 

Hi Gustavo,

I can't say I can find a good definition of what "South OC" means. Wikipedia suggests drawing the line on the 55 Fwy, which would mean that Newport, Tustin, and Irvine are South OC, while Costa Mesa, Santa Ana, and Orange are not.

Maybe I should've said "Top 10 Sushi Restaurants Within Reasonable Driving Distance of Me", but that didn't have quite the same ring to it.

Then again, maybe it's not just me. After all, I live in a place called "West Irvine", which as far as I can tell, is on the North-east side of the city. :P

Blogger Chubbypanda said ... (February 23, 2009 at 5:22 PM) : 

In my opinion, Irvine is South-Central OC. Wut wut? =b

- CP

Blogger Jules said ... (February 24, 2009 at 12:04 PM) : 

Great post! I am constantly on the look out for great sushi restaurants. My blog also consists of restaurant reviews but I target the ones that offer the best prices and deals in the OC & LA area. Feel free to check it out:

Blogger Mr. Bacheller said ... (February 25, 2009 at 11:55 AM) : 

I love Nagisa in corona del mar, the owner will hang out and talk with you and joke around. although I got carried away last weekend and spend 110 dollars for two people.

Blogger Julian Hsu said ... (February 25, 2009 at 1:30 PM) : 

CP, I won't even pretend to understand what you just did there. :P After all, my kids are going to find this stuff one day!

OC College Foodie, looks like you're off on the right foot. You and Griffin should get along nicely (although he hasn't given us any coupons in a while).

Brent- haven't tried Nagisa. I read a Yelp review about cream cheese on the sushi which scared me though.. Hmm...

Blogger Mr. Bacheller said ... (February 25, 2009 at 2:32 PM) : 

cream cheese sushi hmm, never saw that while i was there haha, i did try about 10 different sushi and tempora, and my favorite the tuna salad!! soo good. the place is very small and if busy the food is slow but i feel its well worth the wait. a lot of regulars go there.

Blogger Chubbypanda said ... (February 25, 2009 at 7:21 PM) : 

Hey Julian,

I'm with Elmo. You've got a lot of my faves up there too, but I'm not so sure about the order. Awesome roundup!

- CP

Blogger Julian Hsu said ... (February 26, 2009 at 11:49 AM) : 

Brent, alright, I'll slot that in for the next time I'm a bit further south. :-)

CP, I thought I was clear. The rankings are based on the results of a scientific formula, and they are absolute. :P

And if you don't like it, we can step outside (over that reddish elmopuddle near the doorway).

Just kiddin'. Feel free to share your rankings! My criteria admittedly include "has tasty salmon sushi for daughter", although I weighted that factor below most of the others. :-)

Anonymous Anonymous said ... (May 4, 2009 at 11:05 PM) : 

What about Sushi Plantation in Mission Viejo? They certainly deserve to be in the Top Ten. Also Shogun in Mission Viejo is very consistant and shoulad be in the bottom of the Top Ten.

Anonymous czelectric said ... (March 11, 2010 at 11:45 PM) : 

i love angotei

Anonymous viagra online said ... (July 9, 2010 at 6:36 AM) : 

There is one called Naki Koi, that definitely have to be in the 10 top list. If you have not been there, try to go, because the sushi and all japonese food is great. It's my favorite restaurant, however, I've visited the majority of the restaurants you mentioned, and I agree with almost all the list.

Anonymous britney spears perfume said ... (July 30, 2010 at 3:13 AM) : 

Hi You need to return to Maki-Zushi. The last time I was there a few weeks ago

Anonymous Anonymous said ... (February 26, 2011 at 1:48 AM) : 

try san shi go in newport beach and kasen in fountain valley. they are more authentic than some of the restaurants you've listed

Anonymous Anonymous said ... (April 19, 2011 at 12:05 PM) : 

Have you guys heard of Shiki in Villa park? Best and definitely the most fresh sushi I've ever had. They have unique rolls like the Lollipop roll and Caterpillar which are all amazing. This definitely needs to make the list!

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