I can't believe it took me this long to make it down there - I had heard so many good things and never went. Finally, in a moment of inspiration, I decided to head in the direction of downtown LA on a weekday holiday - thinking that no one goes downtown area/ Little Tokyo on a weekday when they don't have to work, right?
Apparently Sushi Gen is busy every.single.day.365.a.year. I got there at 1:30pm, they are supposed to close at 2pm and there was a line out the door and a mob 8-10 deep around the tiny hostess stand, with an agitated host repeating over and over what he knows no one wants to hear - two hour wait for a table, and that's with a reservation. Don't even think about it if you just walked in.(Don't go by the photo of the deserted entrance - this was hours later, after the lunch rush) One of the beautiful things about dining by yourself is that when you encounter a situation like this - you can just slide past the crowd and into a seat at the bar instantly. Which the host was more than happy to let me do - one less irate customer is one less person to get in his face every five minutes for the next two hours. I was duly warned though, "no lunch specials at the bar" - which explains the legions of Asians willing to wait for 2 hours for a table.
I would normally be among them, but I was starving and glistening panels of fish beckoned me from behind the glass. As soon as I was seated I received a slip of paper listing all the available fish - no prices, but you could basically use that menu to guide your requests to one of six sushi chefs along the wall to wall bar. Sometimes it's nice to save the best for last, but that day was not one of those days - I wanted my favorites, in my mouth, ASAP. So I started with Uni (sea urchin, always a favorite), which was plump and one of the freshest I've had in the city in recent memory (huge caveat of course, my experience is colored by price and as I stated, having never been to the lets-mortgage-the-house-I-don't-have-pricey-dinners where the fish would of course be in a whole different, transcendent, league). Toro is a great staple roll, but not one that normallly blows my mind - these ones at Sushi Gen did. They were a gorgeous, lush deep pink, beautifully fatty - a perfect amount of fat - and absolutely glides in your mouth. I had two sets of these.
I followed that with another favorite: Ama Ebi (sweet shrimp) - this sort of is a test for the quality of ingredients and skills of the chef - almost every sushi place will have this, but the quality of the shrimp will be immediately apparent and speak to the quality you can expect with the rest of your meal. Sweet shrimp is raw shrimp - too often, with places where it's not super fresh, the meat will be sort of flaccid. Sushi Gen's is nice and structured, not firm because the beauty of raw shrimp is that great, unique smooth texture midway between jelly and the bursting-at-the-seams quality that's reminiscent of lobster, of cooked shrimp meat, but is smooth and soft while giving a beautiful crunch.
With sweet shrimp, comes the shrimp heads - and I was offered a choice of having them put into miso soup, or served deep fried. I went deep fried - and they came beautifully fried to a crisp golden color, with the 'candy striped' legs in graceful arcs overhead. Friends who have seen me eat these shrimp heads always get creeped out by the sight of the decapitated creature - and wonder how I coud eat it when it's shell and 'hard' legs. I actually think these look gorgeous but did feel a little guilty with the beady eyes glaring at me - luckily the crunchy, fragrant fried bits (which tasted like shrimp chips, ha!) provided delicious distraction.
Then there was the Yellowtail Belly, a lovely cut of the mild fish which serves as nice palate cleanser in a way.
I was really excited to see quite a few items that I hadn't seen at other sushi spots before - one of these was Gizzard Shad. The name sounds so exotic! I somehow thought it would be some kind of organ (maybe I was thinking chicken gizzards) - but it's actually a North American fish with silvery skin. Really beautiful to look at, a little oily - not bad tasting but not one that I would crave.
Engawa was another one that caught my eye on the menu - turns out it's fatty meat from the dorsal fin of halibut. According to the Sushi-pedia, the word engawa usually refers to the exterior hallway on the side of a traditional Japanese home, which I guess is what the dorsal fin reminded people of on this fish. It's got sort of a unique looking structure, with flesh and fat interlacing to form open ridges and valleys in the flesh. It's muscular yet deliciously fatty at the same time - chewy yet lush - and incredibly fresh: I LOVED it!!! Actually ended up getting 3 orders of this and wish I could have eaten more. Will be looking for this at every sushi place I go to from now on - knowing I may just have to go back to Sushi Gen, and soon.
Another item not often seen on sushi menus: Abalone, which I expected to be that brown, thick seafood-steak like presentation you normally see in Chinese banquets - but perhaps thinly sliced. These were light in color - almost like the inside of octopus tentacles - and were crunchy around the edges as well. It wasn't as flavorful as I expected either. Glad I got to try these but probably wouldn't order again.
It just so happened that I had been seated directly in front of several rolls of fresh monkfish liver, wrapped in tinfoil - but which looked so smooth and perfect I had to try one. I've had the infamous one at Toranoko, and thought it was a bit too firm, without a lot of flavor, and didn't love it. But the chef who was assigned to me recommended that the Ankimo would taste better in an appetizer versus as a sushi course. And I found that Chef does know best - Sushi Gen's ankimo appetizer was gorgeous - with an almost origami-like structure made of red onion atop roe atop the silkiest, softest, most tofu-like rounder of monkish liver, all sitting in a light soy sauce strewn with green onion for flavor. Delicious. Mark that moment as the one I really fell in love with monkfish liver.
Then, back to one more item I've never had before, that I can remember at least: Half Beak. I let my imagination run wild again, and had a half-macabre vision of some tiny beak of a sea bird (what that has to do with sushi or fish, no idea).
|Image source: Sustainablesushi.net|
But it was simply an odd name for a fish that is long, narrow, also known as needlefish - that has silver skin which is hand stripped from the pieces beore serving. It's rich with omega-3s, which while good for you (supposedly cleans out bad cholesterol from your body) makes it a very oily fish in texture/taste. The chef served up the pieces with ginger to break up the grease. I didn't love this one as I like my fish / sushi clean, but thought it was interesting to serve it up with Chinese style chopped ginger root.
I also of course couldn't leave without getting Mackerel - and these pieces were perfect - just the right size and thickness, and degree of tartness. Loved the skin as well.
I don't typically do dessert at sushi places as it's usually something generic like green tea ice cream or slices of orange. In this case I wouldn't have had any stomach capacity left anyway.
All in all, my total bill with 13 'courses' of sushi and a drink, came to just a little over $100. Much more than I would normally spend on lunch - but for the quality of sushi, and the number of rolls i had, that price is well worth it. The focus is unostentatiously about the food here, there are no frills, no catchy taglines and gimmicks built on being anti-gimmick - and it's really just letting the beautiful, fresh and flavorful ingredients shine. (Just like Zara is with clothes, it's just great quality for the price - its not the ultimate word in luxury, but it was never meant to be.) It's no wonder they are constantly packed.
Nothing will compare to fish from Tsukiji market, the largest fish market in the world, in Tokyo - but in my mind this is probably as close as I can get, where I live, without blowing my non-existent-life-savings on one meal. I am grateful for places like Sushi Gen, for people like me whose palates do not match their wallets - this gives you an option for great sushi at an affordable price.
If anyone needs me for anything, I'll just be over here plotting my next visit and insidious slide into Sushi Gen...
On a 7 point scale:
Flavor - 6 bites
Presentation - 6 bites
Originality - 5.5 bites
Ambience - 5.5 stars
Service - 6 stars
Overall experience - 6 bites
Price - $$ (2 bite marks)
Probability of return visit - 100%
422 E Second St., Los Angeles, CA 90012
Parking: Park in strip mall lot attached to restaurant or meters on 3rd