Years have gone by, but I still can't forget my first taste of uni: It was creamy, ripe, a mineral tang paired with something like soft, smelly cheese but imbued with the saline and fishy soul of the sea.
I was horrified.
In retrospect, the uni in question, which was consumed at a sushi bar in North Carolina, probably was not of the highest quality. It took years, and a very special piece of uni in a New York City sushi bar, to recover.
There are many people, even some food writers, who never succumb to uni's pleasures. There's something too strangely intimate about the texture and flavor of a sea urchin's orange fleshy innards — literally the creature's gonads. It's like having sexual relations with the ocean.
Of course, those very qualities are what make lovers of uni so enamored. As a cult food item, uni is currently unrivaled: Waxed about by adventurous eaters and presented as a delicacy on tasting menus, it would normally be right on the cusp of oversaturation, but it's such an acquired taste that it's unlikely to become truly commonplace. While pork belly and Sriracha are being swallowed enthusiastically by the gaping maw of mainstream American gastronomy, you probably won't find sea urchin topping your Hardee's burger anytime soon.
Still, uni offerings are so numerous in Los Angeles these days that a savvy entrepreneur could make a pretty penny conducting an uni tour of the city. From the uni-cream udon at Marugame Monzo to the uni-flecked guacamole at Petty Cash Taqueria to the yuzu-tinged uni and burrata plate at Son of Gun, you could eat yourself silly on sea urchin without ever setting foot in a sushi restaurant.
Any such tour probably would find its natural, gluttonous ending point at Maruhide Uni Club. The restaurant has become a beacon for the uni-infatuated bargain hunter: Whether you're looking to spend $13 or $130, its sole purpose is to fill you with as much uni as possible.
Located in a Torrance strip mall, Maruhide Uni Club is the retail outlet for the Long Beach wholesale company Maruhide, which sells sea urchin and sea cucumber to the Japanese and domestic markets. Every day, Maruhide's ship collects sea urchin and sea cucumbers from north of Santa Barbara and transports them to the company's Long Beach processing plant. From there, some go to Japan, some go to wholesale markets in the United States, and some go to Maruhide Uni Club.
And who was in a better place to notice uni's growing cult status than a wholesaler of the spiny beasts? Maruhide's retail store in Torrance opened in 2012, and soon began serving lunch. Last June, dinner was added. Neither menu offers even a single dish without uni.
The urchin is the restaurant's main (and only) romance. Faux-fancy and brightly lit, the place looks like the dining room of a retirement home or a Midwestern Marriott, albeit one filled with young Japanese couples and families satiating their uni lust.
Maruhide's menu is fairly straightforward. You're there for a bowl of rice topped with uni — mounds and mounds of the stuff.
All kinds of accompaniments might also be in this chirashi bowl. You can get an uni bowl with scallops, or one with salmon and yellowtail. You can get a Nigiyaka bowl, the most complex of the lot; in it, your huge assemblage of uni will be surrounded by raw tuna and salmon, salmon roe, a sweet cold uni tamago, sea cucumber, boiled uni, and squid marinated in uni. Or you can go purist and get a straight-up sea urchin bowl. Uni on top of uni with some extra uni thrown in.
Since uni is surely why you're here, the straightforward uni bowl might be the way to go.
Maruhide would feel like more of a treat if the other fish in these bowls were more exceptional, but apart from the uni, this is not pristine, meticulously sourced seafood. It's about the quality of your average neighborhood sushi bar ... in Detroit.
OK, perhaps that's a bit harsh, but I did encounter hamachi with flesh that pulled apart kind of sadly, scallops that weren't as white and pert as they should be, and salmon that was a wee bit tasteless. I've certainly had worse chirashi, but the other fish is not on its own worth a trip to Torrance.
But for the ultimate uni lover, it's a necessary pilgrimage. Any way you might want to try uni, Maruhide has already thought of. Grilled, vinegared or steamed, it's on the dinner menu.
Do any of these preparations improve upon the untouched, raw version? Not really. The one uni manipulation I had at Maruhide that seemed worth the effort was the squid marinated in uni — tender slivers of squid in a creamy stew of uni touched with yuzu.
There's also an uni cream pasta — a pile of pasta in a mild uni cream sauce with uni on top. Meanwhile, uni cream croquettes are kind of like extra-fat, fried mozzarella sticks, only with a dense, Béchamel-type interior rather than gooey cheese. Yes, the cream inside has a mild uni taste, and there's a more uni-intense pink sauce on the plate. There is also uni soup that comes with any of the chirashi bowls — it's like a very mild miso soup with wisps of slightly tasteless uni floating at the bottom.
Adding to that Marriott vibe, the more Italian-influenced plates come with industrial sliced baguette.
For the seriously dedicated enthusiast, there's an uni tasting menu. It must be booked a week in advance, your table must have a minimum of four people, and the price begins at $90 per person. It provides nine or 10 courses of ... what's it called again? Oh yeah, uni.
All of this overindulgence is fun as a novelty. But even in places where the overall quality of fish is better than at Maruhide (for instance, Sushi Gen serves an "uni dinner," which includes a whole tray of uni along with a side of pristine sashimi), an entire meal of uni strikes me as a one-off experience. You can have too much of a good thing, and a rare treat might lose its shine in the face of wallowing gluttony.
Indeed, after eating at Maruhide Uni Club a handful of times, I'm not sure I really want to see any more uni for quite a while. That's not something I ever thought I'd feel, at least not since those early, terrifying forays.
For me, uni is at its best when it comes as one lustrous, creamy bite over barely warm, vinegar-kissed rice, the crowning glory of a sushi meal. But for those who want to satiate urchin lust in a far more indulgent fashion, Maruhide Uni Club has you covered.
MARUHIDE UNI CLUB | Two stars | 2130 W. Redondo Beach Blvd., Torrance | (310) 323-2864 | maruhide.us | Tues.-Sat., 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. & 5:30-10 p.m. | Beer, wine, sake and shochu | Lot parking