As Raw As She Wants to Be
I don't know what the word for lagniappe is in Japanese. In fact, I don't know what it is in English. But walk into Fullerton's Chomp day or night, sit at the sushi bar, and your chef will hand you a small plate of something free, a little gift of cucumber and sweet crab, maybe some squid, whatever the chef wants to put on your plate. It's always nice to get something free. A lagniappe makes you feel just a little bit loved.
There's always something extra at Chomp: a martini glass of smushed tuna and roe when you order octopus sashimi, chopped up extra bits of squid for my son. A lagniappe to wet your whistle: how many kinds of seaweed are in it, tossed with shrimp, maybe, and roe?
Chomp is one of those happy, loud rockin' sushi places I thought I'd left behind with Long Beach in my 20s. But one disappointing dinner at the tiny hole-in-the-wall I'd sworn by, and I was ready to give Chomp, the neighborhood's 40-pound gorilla, a try.
Even at my most broke, I've been going back at least once a week since. Luckily, a good sushi chef can jigger your bill like a dealer in Vegas can lay out your aces, i.e., wherever he wants them.
There are the rolls, of course: trendy but lovely things stuffed with lobster and spicy sauce. There are baked items like snapper, served on a banana leaf, fashioned as a piece of faux-sushi, where sweet crab takes the place of rice, perfect avocado melts in the middle, and it's all bathed in sweet cream with a soupcon of roe. And there are dozens of people, any time of the day or night, spread around the large room and blissed out of their minds.
Lisa Chung is the head sushi chef at Chomp. Her long hair is under a baseball cap. She always has a half-smile on her face. Her hands are slender and pretty and probably stink. And it takes a few visits before I realize: Lisa Chung, 40 and originally from Seoul, South Korea, is a woman. I mean, I'd realized she was a woman; it had just taken me several trips for my brain to process that she was the first woman sushi chef I'd ever seen.
Of course, she's not the only one: Chung herself knows of at least two others in Southern California. "There's a woman sushi chef in Laguna Beach—she's the owner of the restaurant—and I heard there's another one in Beverly Hills," she tells me.
Why so few?
"They say it's because women's hands are too warm to handle the fish properly," Chung says in her light accent. "It's a hard job: long hours, you stand all day . . . but really, the men want to protect their jobs."
Yeah, that's what I figured.
A couple guys left after she was made head sushi chef last June, she says: one guy didn't make problems, but he didn't feel comfortable with a woman as a boss. The owner, Dan Lauriano, suggested he not let the door hit him in the ass on his way out, although he probably said it nicer.
I ask whether people should be wary of tuna. She responds by setting an entire tuna sampler before me and then saying tuna is safe, unless you're pregnant or under 6. I ask Chung a lot of things, but she's pretty quiet. I ask her for her tips on sushi bar etiquette, and she tells me the order in which one should eat one's sushi is one of only two rules she has: in the wrong order, you won't be able to taste the flavors. What is the right order? You want to eat fish with less oil first and work your way methodically into oily fish. The fact that the oil a fish contains darkens its skin makes this easy. So, begin with albacore and work your way to halibut, maybe salmon, and end with blood-red, fatty tuna.
And miso comes last!
Her other rule is that at the bar, one can use fingers or chopsticks, but at a table, it's chopsticks only. You're on your own for the rest of it. At least the chefs at Chomp don't seem overly sensitive. Still, don't hand them your empty plate.
I ask Chung what's a particularly good fish for summer. (Sushi is a summer food; in winter, one doesn't want sushi, one yearns for stew.) "Sushi is very cold food," Chung says, "so it's good with lots of beer a lot." And you're always good with albacore.
"Americans love albacore," she says. Halibut? Good for your skin and huge in Korea. "It's an expensive fish, so it's very luxurious," Chung says. "You pick it from a tank, and they chop it up in front of you. The same with red snapper: sometimes its head is still flopping."
Americans don't do that as much, but Chomp does offer a bowl of live critters; you're welcome to help yourself, though I've never seen anyone take them up on it. "In Korea and Japan," Chung says, "we didn't have rolls, just sushi and sashimi and maybe like a spider roll. But now it's booming! Some chefs from America are going to Korea to make the rolls. You see a lot of 'California Roll Sushi' restaurants."
Lisa Chung probably won't be among the chefs making the journey back to the country she left 15 years ago. "Americans are very interesting and very accepting. For Asians, a woman sushi chef is not really acceptable. They would never say anything"—of course—"but they get a look."
Chomp is located at 181 E. Commonwealth Ave., Fullerton, (714) 738-3511; www.chompsushi.com.
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