Along came sushi. Photo by Tenaya Hills
Along came sushi. Photo by Tenaya Hills

No Katakana Necessary

I want my ethnic restaurants as ethnic as possible—Grandma in the kitchen, the owner's kid working on math homework between carrying trays and serving drinks, the only English the Arabic numbers on your bill. I want huaraches on the walls, lucky porcelain cats on the register, bhangra music echoing in my ears. If I wanted assimilation, I'd be eating at Taco Bell. I want exotic.

When I first visited Ami Sushi, I scoffed. It was just too American, I told the Weeklings who insisted I visit. The flat-screen television beamed ESPN, not a wacky Japanese game show. Motown clap-clapped on the soundtrack, not chintzy J-pop. The waiters and chefs were Japanese and wore little kimonos and checkered bandannas—but I'm pretty sure there was a Mexican in the kitchen. And, instead of Japanese katakana script, the menu featured big, bright pictures of ridiculously named entrées—the Las Vegas roll, Sunset Action roll and Crazy roll.


And then the sushi rolls arrived.

Six months later, I still visit Ami Sushi every other week. I'm a culinary bigot, but I learn.

Turns out that Ami Sushi is the perfect Japanese restaurant: efficient during lunch, stately enough for a date, staffed with serious chefs who can wow you with off-the-menu stunners (ask for the wrap that looks like a burrito) or a simple crunchy roll. There's a nice array of salads—a crunchy salmon skin salad, a spicy tuna salad juicy with tuna (minced and sashimi-style), a panoply of veggies. The fish-averse can gorge on heaping bowls of steaming udon, the thick noodles accompanied by fish cake, veggies, and your choice of beef, chicken or fluffy tempura. The teriyaki platters are just average, but the pork cutlets are as finely marbled as anything I've chopsticked into my mouth.

But the place is rightly famous for its sushi. Spend the next year visiting once a week, each visit picking one of the 40 available cut rolls; I've moved systematically through about 20 so far. There's nothing traditional about the cut rolls—every one a glorious miscegenation, most using the definitely inauthentic California roll as a base for innovation. The Sunset Action is a California roll topped with albacore, the fatty fish melding nicely with the light crabmeat. The Crazy roll I once maligned tastes like marine candy: a deep-fried California roll painted with a sweet teriyaki sauce. Ami Sushi also enhances the standard California roll to create the Tustin roll (tuna sashimi wrapped not with rice but with fried rice paper) and a spicy tuna crunch roll heavy with shrimp tempura and spicy tuna; both are about the circumference of a coffee mug.

The best Ami Sushi roll, however, is the BSC. Again the chefs begin with the basic California roll but pile on baked scallop, masago (smelt roe) and green onions. The mayonnaise-topped scallops atop the rolls are themselves plentiful enough to constitute dinner, and you'll be tempted to whittle them down before attempting to eat the rolls. Don't: eating the BSC roll in its entirety allows for its full experience—the sweetness of the scallops, the saltiness of the masago, the bitterness of the green onions, the cooling effect of the California roll.

Is this truly Japanese? No, but you don't nitpick when your mouth is full and your spirit satisfied.

AMI SUSHI, 1804 N. TUSTIN AVE., STE. C, SANTA ANA, (714) 567-0018. OPEN MON.-SAT., 11 A.M.-10 P.M.; SUN., 11 A.M.-9 P.M. DINNER FOR TWO, $10-$40, EXCLUDING DRINKS. BEER, WINE, SAKE!


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