What We Talk About When We Talk About Fish

by Zach Mann on August 21, 2009 · 4 comments

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I am sick of sushi.

So is my body, or so I can assume. My girlfriend Mele returned from a routine check-up at the doctor with the stern warning, “Stay off the mercury for awhile,” and neither of us was surprised. As part-time pescatarians in the summer, we’d been craving lighter, cooler dinners. Sushi is a favorite for both of us, so we’d overdone it with mercury-laden nigiri.

Obscenely overpriced omakase aside, sushi is generally not associated with excess, and unfried fish is rarely the glutton’s vice. Tell that to raw seafood fanatics and the booming all-you-can-eat sushi franchises of Southern California, where – as I learned on an all day happy hour Sunday at Midori in Studio City – omnivores and pescatarians alike tend to overdo it.

Daichan Kaiten Sushi - West Los Angeles Daichan Kaiten Sushi - West Los Angeles
Even in Japan, endless eating establishments are a common find, and I’m not just talking about the exploits of Kobayashi. Conveyor belt sushi, or kaiten-sushi, is a common kind of fast food and another way to overdo it on the raw fish scale. Los Angeles’s cultural transplant of this concept, Daichan Kaiten Sushi, takes the sin of gluttony to the next level. On a wall by the entrance, Polaroid snapshots of sushi champions pose next to leaning stacks of empty plates (the record when I lasted visited was 40).

Despite my excess sushi habits, consumptive glory is not why I keep returning to Daichan. The convenience of conveyor belt sushi relieves the pressures of dining out and allows you to eat at your own pace and at your own capacity. Daichan, affordable and easy, serves a delicious clam miso soup, has decent quality fish and boasts an easygoing head chef by the name of Bruce who, by the end of the meal, will probably surprise you with something that isn’t on the menu, whether you like it or not. On my last visit, Bruce comped me a sunomono salad with seaweed and thinly sliced octopus that was quite tasty.

Daichan Kaiten Sushi - West Los Angeles
Clam Miso Soup - Daichan Kaiten Sushi - West LA Monkfish Liver - Daichan Kaiten Sushi - West LA Empty Plates - Daichan Kaiten Sushi - West LA
In fact, Daichan’s best stuff has to be ordered off the menu. Items available on the conveyor belt are dictated by whatever kind of sushi is the most popular amongst customers. Since Daichan is located between two colleges, the selection is limited; watching it roll by is like seeing a live cover band that continues to take sub-par requests from the bubbly sorority blondes in the front row. There isn’t enough nigiri, and there are too many deep-fried rolls with too many ingredients.

Unfortunately, those rolls are all the rage in San Diego. For the better part of the summer, Mele and I found ourselves knee-deep in buzz words like “avocado,” “spicy tuna,” “spicy mayo” and “tempura shavings.” I can enjoy a rainbow-dragon-spider roll every once in awhile, but when I crave sushi, I want the simpler pleasures of nigiri or sashimi without San Diego’s novelty prices for rubbery, lean fish. That’s why my recent two week trip to Los Angeles was partially dedicated to my favorite sushi places. After eating at Daichan, I headed to Hide Sushi, one of my LA hamachi-friendly haunts.

Hide Sushi Japanese Restaurant - West Los Angeles
There are many Japantowns in the Los Angeles area, each with a different name and a different claim to ethnic authenticity, but my Little Tokyo has always been a certain stretch of Sawtelle Blvd in West LA. If you live on the west side like I did and you want good Japanese food, Sawtelle is probably your best bet, especially for ramen than isn’t Santoka, izakaya, curry and affordable sushi. Both Daichan Kaiten Sushi and Hide Sushi are a rock garden’s throw away.

For the average sashimi loving joe, finding a good sushi place is a constant headache. There is a thin line between trendy or upscale Japanese restaurants with obscene nigiri prices and dedicated sushi houses that cost a little more because the fish tastes a little better. Going out for the good stuff is not cheap, and if I’m going to chopstick over the cash, I’d like to not be entirely ripped off. Even Daichan Kaiten Sushi can get too pricey for the quality of the food if you stay there too long. That’s why, when I’m just looking for some good, raw fish, I like Hide Sushi. It’s a cash-only establishment with no reservations, high traffic and a sashimi dinner for thirteen dollars that includes twelve pieces, miso soup and rice. I’ve rarely seen a better dollar-to-delicious ratio.

Sashimi Dinner - Hide Sushi Japanese Restaurant - West LA
The sashimi is fatty and rich, like freshly caught, finned butter that is fished in the Pacific Ocean without any concern for environmental sustainability. Despite its firm texture, the fish is tender enough to be torn to pieces in your mouth using only your tongue. If I’m going to spend ten to fifteen dollars on sushi – which unfortunately for my wallet, is usually the case – I’d prefer this meal with six pieces salmon and six pieces yellowtail. From the standpoint of the sushi chef this might sound a little unadventurous, but salmon sashimi is my comfort food. It’s my Haagen-Dazs ice cream.

That’s where the gluttony comes in. If I’m feeling a little spendy, I might also order some uni or ankimo. Sea urchin roe and monkfish liver are creamier, richer flavors that push the limits of decency, covering the mouth with a film of fatty deliciousness and leaving me walking out of a sushi bar needing some mouthwash. After a summer of that, it’s no wonder Mele and I are sick of sushi. We’ll be back, though, after an extended hiatus. You’ll find us on Sawtelle Blvd next summer.

Daichan Kaiten Sushi
11301 Olympic Blvd Ste 203
Los Angeles, CA 90064
(310) 914-5028
Hide Sushi Japanese Restaurant
2040 Sawtelle Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90025
(310) 477-7242
foodhoe August 22, 2009 at 10:51 am

wow the mercury level thing sounds alarming… were you having symptoms that prompted a doctor’s visit? I haven’t been to a conveyor belt place in a long long time, since before the battered and fried rolls drizzled with sriracha mayonnaise craze started… that salmon and hamachi looks good

wasabi prime August 25, 2009 at 12:34 pm

Oh wow — I love the gluttony of food on a conveyor belt! The pictures look delicious. Agreed, it’s hard finding the right in-between note of quality cuts of fish (don’t wanna go bargain when it’s raw!), and not overblown, too-cool-for-school prices. It’s funny to think that this was basically peasant food at one point in time. I realize price of seafood has gone up quite a bit since Feudal Japan, but I think there’s still a way to have your fishcake and eat it too (without breaking the bank).

Zach August 25, 2009 at 2:47 pm

Foodhoe: one summer of sushi excess is not enough to throw the mercury level into the danger zone, and no, the doctor visit had nothing to do with mercury, nor did the mercury have any effect on the body… yet. However, yes, it is alarming to note the hidden dangers of delicious foods that aren’t deep fried and/or over salted or sugared.

Wasabi: And lobster was originally prison food, I am told. Oh, the histories of deliciousness. Damn you, price trends. Where is my Star Trek culinary technology?

Bob in AR February 27, 2012 at 7:52 am

fondly remember afternoons in Hide, when I was in college, when the gardeners would come in and watch sumo. Hide is probably more upscale and bigger now, when i was there it handled maybe 20 people at most. Pam still probably goes there. fond memories.

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