One food group I’ve sorely neglected as a New York resident is sushi. I came into the sushi game extremely late in life; even so, after having great and affordable sushi in California, it’s tough to man up and shell out for comparable sushi here in the city. Most options seem mediocre for the price or too expensive to be worth my while, especially considering the opportunity cost involved.
There’s also the fact that I simply haven’t developed enough of a palette for sushi to really write about it. Sinus problems and a lack of general experience make it difficult for me to pinpoint what’s great about the sushi I like, though I have no problem identifying sushi I find lousy or bland. This is the condition I tried to test when I got a chance to eat at the best sushi restaurant I’ve ever visited: Sushi Koyo in my home town of Diamond Bar.
Though it’s relatively landlocked, Koyo shines thanks to the dedication of sushi chef Hiro, a traditionalist who seems to have found the perfect sources for his fish and invests a substantial amount of gravity in sculpting that fish into a meal. Operating on a strict “no rolls” policy, Hiro serves a simple assortment of non-sushi specials during lunch and nothing but nigiri during dinner. Those who sit at the bar must order omakase, which at Sushi Koyo is also a minimal affair. Like the Roystons and Shopsins of the world, Hiro has a notorious past: tales and complaints alike abound, most centered on his gruff, blue-collar humor and bouts with drunkenness on the job – facts borne out by his publicly displayed obsession with professional wrestling and the fact that he once jokingly accused my brown friend of being Al-Qaeda.
These days – either because he’s earned some humility, some fatigue or the right to boredom when five Asian kids show up and are too awkward to start a new conversation with him – Hiro seems more at peace. That’s a bit of a tragedy, but he still does an incredible job with his sushi. He also offers it at an extremely reasonable cost; ten servings of top grade sushi with Sapporo came out to just $55 per person at the end of my holiday meal here. A fifty dollar meal is first-degree murder in my daily life, but from what I know about comparable sushi in the sashimi hot spots of Los Angeles, this price tag is an absolute steal.
An omakase supper at Sushi Koyo usually begins with tuna and hamachi, the former of which is effortlessly clean, soft and tasty. The latter I find fairly boring, but perhaps that’s my palette failing to pick up on the subtleties of the fish. In any case, both make for a nice, clean start to the meal, which wastes no time in hurtling diners into flavor country.
Butterfish, apparently a gastrointestinal hazard to some, is Koyo’s most vaunted specialty for good reason. Hiro’s cut is inscrutably luscious and savory, landing somewhere on the flavor spectrum between butter, whiting and chicken. Dressed from beneath with wasabi and atop with scallions and some kind of spiced roe, then served with the simple command, “no soy sauce,” this is a piece of sushi that sells the genre.
Knowing full well the potential for salmon to be a complete disappointment, I’m always wowed by Hiro’s “all natural” serving of salmon nigiri, topped with sweet, translucent seaweed and sesame seeds. I have never had salmon this tender and flavorful, and the flavor/texture combination of the toppings plus a slight warmth to the sushi rice underneath contribute to nothing less than a perfect bite.
My favorite fish at Koyo, though, might be the Spanish mackerel. I’ve heard that Spanish mackerel can be far too fishy for beginners, but Hiro’s cut is meaty and complex… not to mention completely bad ass. It’s the most powerful bullet of flavor in the lineup – no soy sauce required.
Sweet shrimp and albacore rank somewhere in the unknowns for me – I find the shrimp, though colored by a really nice, subtle sweetness, to be too limpid and squishy to wholly enjoy. Hiro’s albacore is as nice as his regular tuna, but I still couldn’t say more without trying more albacore sushi elsewhere.
Towards the end of the meal, Hiro brings out his richest options. Again, I’m in no way qualified to speak comparatively about his uni, but his portion of sea urchin gonad sitting atop a simple roll of sushi rice is sweet and creamy, at times stretchy and chewy. The richness of it all is somewhat intense but apportioned with restraint, resulting in a really pleasing introduction to uni for newcomers like myself. Hiro’s finish, the blue crab hand roll, embedded hearty, shredded blue crab in a flavorful mayonnaise-based blend to soothe the palate and convey a satisfying sense of closure to the meal. The blue crab roll is always a crowd pleaser – even with my gag-inducing aversion to mayonaise, I was able to finish the roll and close my tab with a smile.
I left Koyo with a renewed sense of confidence in my learning curve when it comes to sushi. An important part of being a good eater is knowing the potential of any given food, and Sushi Koyo proves that this lesson doesn’t have to come from the cascades of big city restaurants. Thanks to Hiro-San’s straight-faced, food-first focus on fish, I feel a little bit safer about my move to a bigger pond.
868 N. Diamond Bar Blvd
Diamond Bar, CA 91765