I get a lot of email questions about where I like to go to for Japanese food in the OC.
Okay, well, more like 3 emails, but that’s a lot for me. I get super excited when I receive a comment on a blog post, how can I contain myself when I get an actual email (that has nothing to do with work)!? But enough about me and my lonely email life, here’s three places Don and I frequent: a traditional sushi place, a sushi roll place, and a cooked fish place.
For traditional sushi, there are lots of places to venture in Costa Mesa, and everybody’s got their own favorite. Costa Mesa is the OC’s equivalent to the LA South Bay – a war zone of Japanese restaurants, especially near the Mitsuwa Japanese Market/South Coast Plaza. I can think of 4 off the top of my head as I type this sentence! But out of all the little mom n’ pop sushi joints in the area, our favorite is Ango-tei, a very small 20-seater in a strip mall by the aforementioned Japanese market.
Ango-tei is mostly known for their shrimp boats, an amaebi (raw shrimp) gunkan topped with a raw quail egg. I don’t know what it tastes like because I hate quail eggs, but this is what Twiggy swears by. Strangely enough, it’s very popular with Vietnamese people.
But aside from the shrimp boat, Ango-tei’s sushi is pretty, well, standard. Nothing crazy, just the usual neta that you get a honkering for every once in a while – fresh mirugai (surf clam), sweet aji (horse mackerel) with ginger, octopus with coarse grain sea salt, hirame sides (engawa) with tart ponzu… They have all of my favorite here. Plus, the itamae-san is quite the conversationalist, and that’s what’s important (at least for us) – good company adds an essence of yum by the ten-fold!
The good thing about a friendly itamae-san is that he’s willing to give his two cents’ on the day’s fish. Like, if I tell him that I like fluke, he’ll tell me that he has some engawa set aside if I’d like some (of course!). Or when we’re being indecisive about which toro to have (Big Eye or Blue Fin? Because I’m anti-blue fin, but Don thinks this year would be its last so he HAS to eat it), Kimi, our last itamae, will tell us that the Big Eye actually tastes better today. You know, stuff like that.
Being able to serve fresh, delicious sushi means that you’re able to serve fresh, delicious cooked fish dishes. Their kitchen items are all good, but their Hamachi Kama (cheek) is melt-in-your-mouth goooooood, and all it really needs is a drop of soy sauce. And this one’s off the menu, but Kimi’s Salmon Special – flash-fried salmon belly with ponzu, raw onions, and bonito flakes – are to die for.
Sometimes the Californian in me wants a foodie-forbidden roll. I know, I’m horrible. People at my work tell me that I’m not Japanese because I enjoy rolls so much (but they’re right – I’m Californian).
And to have good rolls, you just can’t go to any sushi restaurant… You have to go to the kind that has a separate menu, specifically for their rolls, and our favorite is WAFU of Japan. Coincidentally, WAFU is in Costa Mesa too, by the Newport Beach border.
WAFU is one of the better fusion sushi options in the OC, and is a long-standing local favorite. Lunch times are impossible because it’s packed with people who work at the nearby offices – if you’re not here within the first 10 minutes of opening (11:00), well, FYL.
One thing you will learn about WAFU is that they love to use avocado. Most of the rolls have some avocado in it, as well as the appetizers. The Tuna Guacamole is a good example: spicy tuna tartare with mashed avocado, served with deep fried wonton skins. Eating here, you will ingest enough omega-3 amino acids to last you a month.
Wafu also likes to test the boundaries of sushi artistry – some rolls don’t even have rice (like the Dragon Ball, above), some use soy paper in lieu of nori seaweed.
Normally, I detest soy paper. It turns incredibly mushy and chewy as it sits with sushi rice, and it’s terribly flavorless. But when it’s used in WAFU’s Samurai Burrito (a spicy tuna roll with lettuce, wrapped in soy paper and drenched in sweet miso), not so much.
Don’t favorite is the Hawaiian Roll (spicy tuna roll covered with albacore and avocado, then splashed with a ponzu-based sauce). It’s surprisingly light, despite its high fat content. He’ll eat about, oh, two of these, a platter of albacore tataki, and some hamachi kama for dinner. Talk about preparing yourself for a heart attack.
It’s a great place to take sushi-haters and noobs because the food here is catered to the eclectic crowd. Plus, they have house-made strawberry wine, and who says no to that?
Sometimes, just sometimes though, we get a honkering for Japanese food, but not sushi. Or yakitori. Or ramen. Which leaves us to the limited number of izakayas in the area. We never go to Hondaya because it’s packed (and far), and sometimes we’re even too lazy to go out to Costa Mesa for dinner. Times like these, we go to our neighborhood eatery, Uoko. It’s another tiny sushi bar, and it’s VERY very old. Well, at least the chairs are, they’re practically falling apart. If WAFU is your flashy clubbing dress, Uoko is your favorite pair of sweats – it’s old, and out-of-fashion, but very, very comforting.
And their cooked fish items are soooooo good.
I always get the grilled mackerel dinner. I LOVE mackerel, but I can’t cook it at home because it stinks (and smokes), and I don’t want to risk having my neighbors file a smell complaint. They have other delicious noms too, like whole fried halibut, deep fried oysters, some donburis, udon, curry… Like I said, it’s a neighborhood eatery. I think we’re the only clients that never order sushi there.
Plus, they have ice cold beer on tap (Kirin!). That’s like, super important. Especially when you’re too tired to cook, and you want to spend a quiet Friday evening at your neighborhood eatery with the love of your life.