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Raw Power 

Regular-guy sushi in Little Tokyo

Wednesday, Dec 16 1998
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Photo by Anne FishbeinThere are, of course, many sushi experiences available in the greater Los Angeles area: sushi served by reggae singers and sushi served by tap dancers, sushi bars that specialize in firecracker rolls and sushi bars that refuse to prepare anything that wasn't available in Meiji-era Japan, sushi bars that double as singles bars, and sushi bars -- very good sushi bars -- whose chefs are as strictly demanding as any dominatrix you could ever hope to meet.

If your taste runs toward sushi plucked off little toy boats or sushi sent your way on conveyer belts, sushi you order by computer or drive-through sashimi burritos or sashimi carved off a living sea bass that stares at you as you eat . . . you are living in the right place. There are so many sushi bars in Los Angeles -- and so much demand for sushi -- that experienced chefs reportedly command salaries heretofore paid only to studio electricians and BMW mechanics.

But in the midst of apparent raw-fish plenitude, in a town with both the cheapest and the most expensive sushi restaurants in North America, what's hard to find are great regular-guy sushi bars, places populated neither by tentacle-waving partiers nor by effete crab-brain-eating purists, places that will sell you a California roll if you want one but also take pride in their cured mackerel.

Lately, I've been going a lot to Sushi Gen, one of the most crowded sushi bars in Little Tokyo, a dim, wood-lined place popular with City Hall dudes and local Asian businessmen, Japanese-speaking white guys and families who drive in from the suburbs to shop. Even though nobody is actually lighting up at the low tables that line the walls of the restaurant, Sushi Gen has the festive, hazy look of a smoke-filled saloon. There are cheap teriyaki plates and big bowls of chirashi sushi, salads with radish sprouts and complicated preparations of lobster, sashimi platters and weird boiled things. But it is, of course, at the sushi bar that Sushi Gen really shines.

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It is a pleasure to sit at the long bar in the middle of a Friday lunch rush, all flashing knives and sluices of cold water, to watch the chefs whittle sides of tuna down to 200 pieces of sashimi and a heap of what looks a little like cat meat, to strip 100 clams, cut 50 pieces of yellowtail, cause slivers of halibut to leap free from the massive fillet as if they have decided to free themselves of their own accord. And when the chef finally looks up at you after having broken down a bluefin, it almost seems like magic when he seems to anticipate your request, slashes his blade into the heart of the fillet and liberates a few blocky slabs just for you: perfect. (In the evenings, when the chefs have the time to concentrate mostly on their sushi-bar customers, there isn't quite the same illusion of precious, stolen moments.)

Sushi Gen has everything you could want from a sushi bar: the white-fleshed albacore tuna, lightly seared at the edges to tighten the sweet flesh; ultrafresh halibut drizzled with sea salt and a few drops of ponzu; cool, unctuous slices of pickled mackerel whose taste practically oozes over the sushi's wasabi bite; crunchy, briny sheets of herring roe; crisp, broiled sea eel.

The nutty, clean, slightly bitter uni is maybe the best sea urchin I've ever had that wasn't attached to its shell -- the stuff is usually too funky for me, but this uni still tastes of the sea. Ankimo, monkfish liver, while lacking a little of the gorgeous luxuriousness of the same preparation at Shibucho, is pure, almost spartan, under its sprinkling of shredded daikon and tart ponzu sauce. And the sushi of giant longneck clam, sliced so thinly that you can count the grains of rice underneath it, is fine.

In the end comes the customary omelet tamago, tender layers of egg knit together tightly as silk. Or possibly the inevitable salmon-skin hand roll, laver rolled around generous lashings of radish sprouts, seeds, rice, gobo root and the crunchy, oily bits of toasted skin itself, then bound at the bottom with a second piece of seaweed so that the juicy mixture won't drip out onto your lap.

Is this transcendent? No.

But it is a good place to eat lunch.

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