How many of you have been on a first date to a sushi restaurant? Or even better yet, how many times have you been to a sushi restaurant in the last two weeks? I’d say that the majority of you answered yes to the first question and that at least half of you have eaten sushi in the last two weeks. Why? Because sushi is delicious, fairly uniform (in theory) across various restaurants, and in Los Angeles, we have an abundance of sushi options around every corner. I have news for you: if you’ve never been to Sushi Gen in Little Tokyo, then you have no clue what you’re talking about. Their sushi is on a whole different level.
I, just like you, love sushi. Really, I truly love it. So much so that it has gotten to the point where I know which places I prefer for different menu items. That is all fine and good in terms of what is near my house or convenient; however, it all goes out the window when we’re talking about Sushi Gen. Sushi Gen is a smallish place located off Alameda in Little Tokyo.
As the location suggests, there are dozens of Japanese and sushi restaurants all around. But Sushi Gen is the only one with a line outside every single day.
No, it’s not an uber-hipster place or a celeb-sighting target. It’s not frilly, and there are no two-for-one specials or free sake bombs with every eighth California roll order. This restaurant demands a higher level of respect. It’s respect for the quality of the product, for the expertise of the sushi chef, and for the time-honored craft that sushi chefs spend decades aiming to perfect.
And the proof is in the food.
I sit at the sushi bar after delicately turning my phone off and stuffing in the bottom of my bag. No phones or cameras are allowed (I politely begged the general manger to let me discreetly snap a few shots, and he graciously agreed.) Additionally, if you sit at the counter, you must order a minimum of four dishes. I certainly acquiesced, knowing I would simply do omakase-style. Omakase translates to “I’ll leave it to you,” meaning you ask the chef to prepare a series of courses based on his own preferences and style. When I know I’m in a good sushi restaurant, I’ll order omakase nine times out of 10. You get a really genuine experience, and not to mention, I’m no sushi master. So why not put my meal in the hands of the expert?
As such, I received five dishes. Starting lighter and progressing to more full-flavored, richer fish (common in omakase or any well-orchestrated meal), I watched like a hawk as the chef created each piece of sushi. It was like a dance: he used his machine-like fingers to precisely and rhythmically press the rice into small logs, and then he took out his razor sharp knife, which was like an extension of his own arm, to slice the fish into perfect exactly equal portions.
The first course was two pieces of yellowtail. A board sits directly in front of you. When the chef is ready, he reaches over and places the pieces on the board.
“No soy. Just like this,” he orders. I very agreeably nod my head and thank him. Absolutely delicious, the yellowtail has a buttery taste and texture with a brightness, attributed to the yuzu scallion garnish delicately placed on top of each piece. You see: if I were to dunk the sushi in a bowl of soy sauce laced with copious amounts of wasabi, the intricacies of the delicate fish flavor would be obliterated, which is why he warned me not to use soy. Yes, master.
Next up was snapper. It’s a bright white fish served with the skin on top, like a geometric pattern of black and white, beautifully assembled with a little scallion on top. The chef stands and watches as I eat each piece, waiting for me to finish each course (talk about patience: these chefs are remarkably polite, disciplined, and professional to the nth degree.) It was a little nerve-wracking at first until you look around and realize that you’re not unique because it’s the case with every diner sitting at the counter.
The next course comes, and it’s mackerel. It was a surprise to me how much I liked it. Oftentimes, mackerel can have a mildly fishy taste because it’s an oilier fish. It was unctuous, delicious, and more seasoned. Then came the bright orange-colored uni (also known as sea urchin), which was very good. This is coming from someone who is traditionally not a fan of uni, and I must say that it’s the freshest tasting I’ve ever had. Last was the toro (fatty tuna)—my favorite. Fatty tuna is something you need to put on your bucket list. It’s any easy one to cross off, and it’s something that everyone should taste before they die. It looks almost like veal, very marbled, pale light pink in color. It’s unbelievable to think that something this rich and unctuous can come from a fish. The flesh melts in your mouth; it’s so tender and full-flavored. The toro is a perfect ending to a perfect meal.
I recommend sitting at the counter for multiple reasons. It’s mostly because you get to watch the chef work and to see what he’s creating for each course. But it’s also a great option if you’re solo or with one other person. Whenever there is a long wait for a table (and there always is), you can get in and sit down right away. You’re in and out quick, but you have thoroughly enjoying your meal. Win-win.
Sushi Gen is not cheap per se. Remember that there are no $2 Tuesdays or any of that malarkey, but you get what you pay for. Expect about $40 per person if you’re doing five sushi courses. I know it sounds high, but if you know sushi and love sushi, then you know it’s worth it.
422 East 2nd St.
Los Angeles, CA 90012