Saturday, June 21, 2008

Sushi Wasabi - Good Traditional Sushi in Orange County

The generically named Sushi Wasabi occupies a tiny corner of an older strip mall in Tustin. I remember passing by the restaurant a few years ago, thinking that it must be another generic sushi joint that focused on trendy, mainstream-friendly fare. But after glancing at the handwritten sign on their door that day, "We serve ONLY 'Sushi'... TRUST ME!!" I realized this was actually a hardcore, traditional Sushi restaurant, possibly in the vein of a Nozawa or Sasabune (pre-move). Russkar and Kevin's reviews of the restaurant further piqued my interest as well as strong Chowhound praise, so I finally ventured off to try Sushi Wasabi last week.

I arrived promptly at 12 Noon, and was greeted by Katsu-san, the owner and Sushi Chef, and his wife, Tomomi-san. I was seated at the bar and proceeded to let Katsu-san know that I was in for the Omakase course. Throughout the course of my meal, in my conversations with Katsu-san in Japanese, he struck me as a genuine, down-to-earth Itamae (Sushi Chef), diligently working away, serving everyone in the entire restaurant by himself! (He had no assistants at the Sushi Bar, and had two helpers in the back kitchen, prepping cooked foods, washing dishes, etc.)

It should be noted that Katsu-san uses mostly pre-cut fish (this is a concern for some). I believe it's to help him cut down on serving time (it got really busy with a full Sushi Bar, and 3 full tables behind me), and with no assistants helping him up front, without pre-cut fish, he wouldn't have been able to accommodate all his customers.

Katsu-san placed a tray in front of me with some ginger and freshly-grated Wasabi, from the root (always a good sign of a quality Sushi restaurant :).

The first course was Bincho Maguro (Albacore) Sashimi from Canada. It was probably a little too much Ponzu sauce for my tastes, but regardless, the Albacore was very tender with no tendon or gristle.

The next item was Mebachi Maguro (Big Eye Tuna) from Hawaii. The Mebachi was a wonderful, deep ruby-red color, very soft and good in general. Not the best Maguro I've had, but very good.

Next came the Tai (Red Snapper) from New Zealand, in Ponzu sauce. The cut was actually very good, but there was a piece of tendon/gristle in the second piece of Tai, maybe something he missed earlier when pre-cutting the fish?

The next dish was the Kani Maki (Blue Crab Handroll) featuring Texas Blue Crab. This was a little surprising for me, having been used to having the Crab Roll (or other non-nigiri variations) being presented towards the end of the meal rather than at the beginning. Regardless, the Blue Crab Handroll was very good, just a little too salty, but otherwise very fresh.

The Baked Scallops came next. This was prepared by his helper in the back kitchen. It looked delicious, with a nice browning along the shell and on the scallops themselves. Unfortunately they were overcooked, with the Scallops being really chewy.

Katsu-san's Hamachi (Yellowtail) from Kyushu, Japan came next. Hamachi is my original favorite Sushi, so I was excited to see how this was. Visually, the Hamachi had a gorgeous even color, and taking a bite... Wonderful! So delectable and sumptuous. Unfortunately there was a piece of tendon/gristle in the first piece (but not in the second), but otherwise it was very good.

The next course was also prepared from the kitchen by his helper: Kumamoto Oysters from Seattle. The Oysters were fresh, but the Ponzu sauce completely overpowered the Kumamotos. What was strange was that this Ponzu sauce tasted different from the sauce Katsu-san was using up front. I don't know what mixture his helper was using in back, but it was *extremely* sour and acidic (the most powerful version of Ponzu I've ever had in my life - no hyperbole).

The next course was back with Katsu-san, serving Chopped Toro from Boston. Like Kevin's experience, I was surprised that he presented Chopped Toro instead of the classic Ohtoro or even Chutoro. It was amazingly tender and buttery, but I would've loved to have tried Toro proper.

As a side note, I don't believe this was a case of "non-preferential treatment": The Sushi Bar had 3 different couples that were regulars and joked with Katsu-san throughout the meal, with 1 couple being so close to Katsu-san that he presented them with a nice gift he had bought just for them, back in Japan (Katsu-san and his wife had just returned from their vacation in Japan two days before). Everyone at the Sushi Bar was served the Chopped Toro.

Continuing on, Katsu-san saw that I was serious about the Sushi and brought out the Uni Box :) (more than half of the people at the Sushi Bar weren't given the Uni, probably due to preference and his gaging of the clientele). The Uni (Sea Urchin) was from Santa Barbara, California. Taking a bite, and I could taste the sweetness that comes with only fresh Uni, but at the same time, it was a little bit too old, with a strong tinge of brininess / ocean aftertaste. I'd give this about an ~88% Fresh rating (the vast majority of Uni at average Sushi Bars fall into the 50-60% range, where it's really briny, pungent and gross), so it was still very good, but not great.

Next up was probably the most surprising dish for the day: Spicy Tuna Roll. This is something I'd normally expect for Fusion Sushi, but at a traditional Sushi restaurant?! (This was also another item he served to everyone at the Sushi Bar, including his regulars.) Regardless, it was *the* best Spicy Tuna Roll I've ever had, with a really nice quality Tuna, and a touch of Sesame Oil, along with a fragrant Spicy Chili Oil (not the generic "Rooster brand" Siracha that's used so often for this popular dish).

Katsu-san then brought forth Aji (Spanish Mackerel) from Kyushu, Japan, in Ponzu sauce. The Aji was wonderfully tender, very fresh almost as good as Mori's. Unfortunately a few things brought this down a notch: (1) The Aji *broke apart* for each of the pieces I ate; they literally split in half, and upon close inspection, I could see that these were almost like chunks of Aji and not whole, pure slices. (2) The Rice fell apart with each piece I picked up, this was probably due to; (3) Too much Ponzu sauce. Overall, a very good quality Aji, but a few factors brought it down.

Next up was the Mirugai (Geoduck) from Seattle. Presented with a piece of Shiso Leaf, the Mirugai was excellent. Very crisp and fresh, this was the best Mirugai I've had in Orange County so far. It was a good cut of the Mirugai as well, with not a single piece of it being overly chewy or cumbersome. I enjoyed this Mirugai more than Sushi Zo's.

Next was Bincho Maguro Toro (Albacore Tuna Belly) from Canada, in Ponzu sauce. The Bincho Maguro Toro was very buttery and wonderful, but marred by tendon/gristle. There were multiple "strands" of the tendon in both pieces, but if you can overlook that, it was nice to sample Bincho Maguro Toro (I've never had it before).

Continuing on, Katsu-san brought out Sake (Salmon) from the Atlantic Ocean. He served it with a sprinkle of Sesame Seeds and the small piece of White Kelp, and it was good. Nothing earth-moving, but fresh and good.

Continuing on, Unagi (Freshwater Eel) came next, from Kyushu, Japan. It was cooked just right, with just the right amount of sweetness (without overpowering the Unagi). Very good.

The final course of the day was Tako (Octopus) from Kyushu, Japan, in Ponzu sauce. While it was soft, it was too chewy and extremely rubbery. (On a side note, Katsu-san says he doesn't make Tamagoyaki (Egg) Sushi, which I would've loved to try.)

Service was simple and basic, and a bit slow at times (for refilling tea, and other basic needs), but it's understandable since Tomomi-san was the only person running the front of the house. Sushi Wasabi also has a selection of 4 different types of Sake, with Kubota Manjyu being the star (it's really all you need :). The total came out to be $120 per person (including tax and tip) (note: I only ordered one small bottle of Sayuri, not the Kubota), and at that price range, it's more than Sasabune, and in the neighborhood of Sushi Zo.

Sushi Wasabi in Tustin is a great find for residents of Orange County looking for very good, traditional Sushi. The Itamae-Customer relationship is there, with a nice intimate Sushi Bar, and Katsu-san and his wife Tomomi-san are wonderful people, genuine and down-to-earth. While not as good as L.A.'s best Sushi restaurants, it is one of the best Sushi restaurants in Orange County, and a good replacement if one doesn't want to drive up to L.A. for Sushi. Katsu-san's preference / style for using Ponzu sauce on many of his Sushi, and his rougher knife skills unfortunately deter from an otherwise stellar Sushi restaurant. Recommended.

Rating: 8.0 (out of 10.0)

Sushi Wasabi
14460 Newport Ave., Suite #E
Tustin, CA 92780
Tel: (714) 505-3496

Hours: [Lunch] Tues - Fri, 12:00 p.m. - 1:30 p.m.
[Dinner] Tues - Sat, 5:30 p.m. - 8:30 p.m. (last seating)
Closed Sunday & Monday.


EILEEN said...

You are my favorite Japanese cuisine expert!
I love reading your post because I learn something new and interesting about Japanese food every time. I wish I can try all the restaurants you've been to. Boyfriend also loves sushi (and your blog ^^). I told him to read your blog and pick a restaurant to celebrate his birthday next month. He picked Sasabune after reading your post. I'm so looking forward to their omakase. I will share my experience there with you. Can't wait! I'm getting hungry already. haha....

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Eileen,

Aw thanks. (^_^;

I just try to write about interesting restaurants I run across.

I hope you and your BF enjoy Sasabune next month... and weren't you saving up for Urasawa still?! (^_~) Hope you have fun!

gelato2005 said...


Just want to say that I really appreciate your thorough restaurant reviews. I find them very helpful in planning for an upcoming trip to LA.

One quick question-
Your ratings for Sushi Wasabi, Sushi Sasabune, and Sushi Zo are 8.0, 8.1, and 7.9 respectively. If distance and price are not an issue, are you suggesting that Sushi Sasabune is the best of the 3 restaurants for sushi omakase overall?


Exile Kiss said...

Hi Gelato2005,

Thank you for the kind words. I hope you enjoy your visit to LA. :)

Is it only a choice between those 3, or any Sushi restaurant in So Cal? Because if I had a choice, I'd bypass those 3 (which have their strengths and weaknesses) and go for Mori Sushi:

And if I may ask, what's your Sushi experience like? Do you regularly try Omakase at various high-end Sushi restaurants in your hometown / around various cities you travel to? If you're really discerning about this, I'd still say Mori for sure. :)

gelato2005 said...

To answer your question, I have traveled to Japan 3 times and have had kaiseki meals and sushi omakase there. I also have sushi omakase regularly in Texas (although not as good as in Japan).

I've read almost ALL your posts on Japanese restaurants in the LA area (again, great reviews) :) If I were not a student on a budget, I would have picked Mori Sushi or Urasawa without hesitation. Since I have to stick to a budget around $100 per meal in LA (and there are also many other types of food to try), I thought Sushi Zo, Sushi Wasabi, and Sasabune would be the 3 to consider for omakase in that price category. If the minor price difference was not an issue between the 3, which would you recommend?

Domo arigato!

Exile Kiss said...

Hi gelato2005,

Very nice! So you've enjoyed quite a few excellent Omakase and Kaiseki experiences already. :)

Given that and your budget restrictions, I'd say you might consider:

1. Kiriko (on Sawtelle): If you call ahead for reservations, you can let the staff know your upper limit, and they can construct an Omakase experience around that budget. I've been slow on getting around to write about them.

2. Sushi Zo: Zo did make some great Sushi at one point, but the last 2 visits have soured me on the whole experience. The Sushi Chef doesn't have to be your friend, but when they act so curt and gruff that they seem borderline angry and antagonistic; it's just no fun dining there. That being said, if you don't mind at all and have super-thick skin, then you might consider Zo next.

gelato2005 said...

Since you recommended Kiriko (and your opinion is so highly respected by many chowhounds in LA), I will have to strongly consider going there during my stay in LA. Good thing that I will be visiting for several weeks. :)

As for Sushi Zo, I can understand how "antagonistic and borderline angry" service will have a significant impact on the dining experience....but I miss good sushi so much I may just have to overlook the attitude.

BTW, I will also be visiting Ichimi Ann for soba while in LA. I hope it will be similar to the freshly made soba I had in Japan.

Thanks again for your help. I will share my dining experiences with you once I get to try these recommendations...which will be soon.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi gelato2005,

No really, you're giving me too much credit. :) I'm not much of a blip on the big Chowhound radar.

But I hope you enjoy your stay in LA and all the places you're going to try. :) If it's not on your list, for some great Kyoto-style Oden and delicious Yakitori, you should try Torihei. And down-to-earth, humble Izakaya fare (and just as delicious) at Izakaya Bincho. :) Take care~

DL said...

Hello Exile!

1.A quick note on the above conversation with gealto2005, Gelato be mindful that Sushi Wasabi is in South Orange County and quite a drive from Los Angeles(assuming this is where you are staying). Though it sounds like you may now be doing Kiriko which is a good call (and relatively affordable).

2. Exile, have you ever been to Sushi Hiko in West LA? I've never seen you mention it but it's one of my personal favorites for affordable Omakase. Would love to hear your thoughts.

3. Lastly, I finally made it over to Sushi Wasabi a couple of weeks back. What a treat - especially for OC. I also tried Ohshima in OC recently which elads me to my point. I find it interesting that some restaurants serve ONE piece of fish (per serving) with their Omakase offerings while others serve TWO (pieces per serving). Why is this and what should the norm (if one exists) be? Personally, while not as common, I kind of like ONE piece per serving because it allows me to try more varieties of fish, whereas I get full easily from two pieces and miss out on trying more. Would it be acceptable to ask for one piece only or would that be frowned upon?

Thanks, as always - keep up the good work.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi DL,

Thanks for the great insight and thoughts. :)

Sushi Hiko? It's on my ever-expanding list of places to visit, so hopefully soon. With your enthusiastic recommendation, it just got raised a few notches. :)

As for 1 vs. 2 pieces, it's a chef's choice as far as I can tell. Like you, I enjoy 1 piece to enjoy variety more. :)

If something is that amazing, at the end of the meal (if I have room (^_~)) I'll ask for 1 more. :)

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