U-Zen Sushi may not be particularly high on L.A.'s wholesale fish totem pole, which means the sushi and sashimi at this 17-year old hangout are not as vibrant as those at some of the city's glossier outlets. But the chefs at U-Zen have toiled in near obscurity for almost two decades, earning the favor of the locals and stubbornly begging off the cross-platform fusion food that infiltrated L.A. fish houses during the millennial sushi boom. Even U-Zen's oddball pedestal-shaped, red and white facade hasn't been fussed with, save for the peeling signage that was replaced a few years ago. Prior to that, you might have mistaken the place for a nail salon.
The sushi captains behind the blonde wood bar are wise to U-Zen's reputation as a neighborhood haunt--they will gladly coach the unfamiliar and indulge the experienced. You can order omakase here without forfeiting a car payment. Preferred species include the gamy Spanish mackerel saba identified by its tiger-print skin and served with a dab of grated ginger, shredded scallion and ponzu, fluke, bonito, and ama ebi--firm, exquisitely vital sweet shrimp dispatched to order and served with their intact, flash-fried heads peering at you as you eat. From the hot kitchen emerges elegant bento and savory pleasures like tofu steak doused with miso and wilted enoki mushrooms, and something that U-Zen manages to produce with a consistency that outdoes its higher-end compettion, yellowtail tuna collar--an abstract mass of flesh and bone culled from behind the gills of the fish, shot under the broiler, basted in lemon and delivered to your table shimmering with oily heat. Pluck every roasted nub from the skeleton, garnish with soy and daikon and submit to reverie.
U-Zen Sushi offers some of the Westside's most reliable, no frills fish for the price. The staff will act politely surprised if you volunteer to sit at the shared table in the center of the room, but they'll remember you when you leave. You are, after all, reinforcing the communal spirit that has made U-Zen a landmark hidden in plain sight.
U-Zen Sushi: 11951 Santa Monica Boulevard, Los Angeles; (310) 477-1390.