I've developed a few simple rules over the years for gauging the desirability of a sushi place. The main one, with apologies to the late Johnnie Cochran, is: "If the ginger's dyed pink, the sushi might stink." It's not an absolute, but the classier places tend to leave their pickled ginger in its natural yellowish tone. Another rule: "Imitation crab meat? That ain't so neat." Granted, anyone who orders a California roll—which you can get just as easily at the mall or 7-Eleven these days—deserves nothing but the worst. But I wouldn't wish imitation crab meat on the dumbest of eaters.
Takaraya tripped both of those major warning sensors, but then confused them by offering a small appetizer of marinated cucumbers and Korean pickle. Only the good places offer that kind of thing! (I'm still working on a rhyming rule for that one.) Then the miso soup and edamame followed, unsolicited, but the jury was still out because it's hard to mess those up.
As it turns out, there are some mediocre dishes at Takaraya—but only if you order the boring stuff. I made sure to do that, specifically bringing along a couple of friends to eat what I'm too elitist to finish. David ordered the teriyaki chicken, which came in a large portion and seemed to please him greatly (though I found it no different from a thousand other chicken teriyakis), while Julie started with calamari tempura, which was tougher than most and certainly no better than you'd get anywhere else.
But once we ordered actual sushi, the quality went up exponentially. A request for an oyster shooter unfortunately couldn't be filled due to a lack of oysters that day, so I tried an unishooter instead. I'm not sure I'll do it again—the delicate flavor of sea urchin is too easily overwhelmed by sake and ponzu sauce. But I was glad to try something I'd never had before.
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Next was toro sashimi. This fattiest of tunas is a make-or-break deal that should always be the best item at a sushi place that doesn't serve live lobster. At Takaraya, it isn't just the best thing on the menu, but also the best toro I've had on any menu this year. A pale shade of pink, frozen in the middle so as to dissolve into oily goodness the moment it hits your mouth, the tuna also came with a side of chopped wasabi root. This wasabi is a far superior breed to the dyed-green horseradish that generally masquerades as the real thing. The fattier the fish, the easier the wasabi (real or otherwise) melts into the surface, allowing the heat to spread and the sweetness of the spice to come through.
The amaebi (raw shrimp-tail sushi served alongside their fried heads) were great, but I was disappointed since a friend told me they killed the long critters before your very eyes—alas, no such luck tonight. The sea urchin also excelled. An appetizer platter of eight pieces of raw fish (seven were advertised, but eight arrived on the plate) cost an astonishingly low $7.95; farther up the menu, one can order a 25-piece sashimi combo for $26.95, and it was all good stuff, too—no cooked shrimp, for example. Takaraya has one of the widest arrays of available sushi and sashimi I've seen in a while—in addition to everything mentioned so far, the menu includes ankimo (monkfish liver), aji, ono, mirugai (giant clam), even beef tataki, a lightly seared piece of red meat on rice that was highly chewy but thick with flavor.
David and Julie tend to be non-drinkers, but I ordered a $12 bottle of unfiltered sake to share, and when I asked Julie if she wanted a refill, she enthusiastically barked out a "YES!" We finished things off with a green-tea ice-cream tempura and mochi, which come in a variety of flavors; we chose coffee and got a cold, caffeinated flavor more intense than any Breyers or Ben & Jerry's. Dessert is almost beside the point at a sushi joint, but what the hell—all that fish oil's so good for you that you gotta have something unhealthy to cap it off.
TAKARAYA, 1736 N. TUSTIN ST., ORANGE, (714) 974-7723. OPEN FOR LUNCH MON.-SAT., 11:30 A.M.-2:30 P.M.; DINNER DAILY, 4:30-9: 30 P.M. DINNER FOR TWO, $20-$60, EXCLUDING DRINKS. BEER, SAKE.