Photo by Heather XWhen you think of local Japanese culture, you might think of Costa Mesa's high-energy ramen shops and supermarkets, the spare serenity of the Noguchi Sculpture Garden across from South Coast Plaza, Anaheim's Zen Buddhist temples, or Asian teens in Catholic school plaid skirts in the passenger seat of a dropped and combat-ready rice rocket.
But a drive through Tustin's main corridors—Red Hill Avenue, Newport Boulevard and El Camino Real—finds bustling Japanese pubs, bakeries, video and produce stores, massage parlors, and travel agencies. Tommy's Sushi is here, along with Honda Ya, Koki's Teppan and other OC Japanese faves. A short distance from this sushi-ramen nexus, next to an Armed Forces recruiting station and a Salvadoran/Mexican dive, is the city's best Japanese restaurant, Kappo Suzumaru.
Small though it is, Kappo Suzumaru is really two restaurants—a fast-paced sushi bar and a leisurely main dining room separated by paper lanterns and banners stitched with slogans in katakana and kanji script.
One sushi bar is remarkably like another—at least outwardly—and at Suzumaru's sushi bar you can expect the ritual hot towel to clean your hands before eating, a pre-meal appetizer (from edamame and chilled, tissue-thin, spicy cucumber slices to a weird but flavorful salad with peanut butter sauce), and stern-faced chefs arigato!-ing and hai!-ing while chopping and rolling fish and rice with the care and flair of neurosurgeons.
Bear with the show. The sushi at Suzumaru is fresher, larger and tastier than most. There are the safe bets—crunchy this, California that—but also some advanced, amazing things: scallops baked to an irresistible creaminess, natto (fermented soybeans; think of it as a rich Brie) rolls so pungent they'd likely gag a novice, and chewy sea urchin. Behind the chefs is a secret menu entirely in Japanese. If you don't read Japanese, ask the chefs to serve up a special, and they just might chop out the best—and maybe only—giant clam of your life.
You can ask for a sushi menu in Suzumaru's dining room, but the waiters will wince. At your table, you'll find two menus—entrées and appetizers. The regular menu features such favorites as teriyaki anything, tempura as sweet as cotton candy and bento boxes crammed with about a dozen separate goodies. I like the massive, crumbly pork cutlet floating like an island in a lake of spicy curry.
The appetizer menu advertises the exotica—sautéed squid guts (seriously—and they're as chewy as licorice), delicious steamed purple yams and my favorite soup discovery this year, ochazuke: rice plum soup. It's just a bowl of rice awash in a pork broth, topped by three plums. Bite into each plum, drop it back into the soup, and you'll transform the dish from something hearty into something viciously tart—something that will comfort and enthrall you the rest of the day.
However great it is, few non-Japanese go for the rice plum soup. The first time I ordered ochazuke, our waiter—completely fluent in English—squinted and said nothing.
"How do you say it in English?" he finally asked.
"Rice plum soup," I said.
He was quiet for a bit, and then said, "Wow. I've never had to say it in English."
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"Is it good?" I replied.
Here, language wasn't an issue.
"Oh, yeah!" he said with a laugh. "Oh, yeah!"
KAPPO SUZUMARU, 17292 MCFADDEN AVE., STE. B, TUSTIN, (714) 665-1300. OPEN MON.-FRI., 11:30 A.M.-2 P.M., 5-10 P.M.; SAT., NOON-2:30 P.M., 5-10 P.M.; SUN., 5-9:30 P.M. DINNER FOR TWO, $10-$50, EXCLUDING DRINKS. BEER, WINE, SAKE. ALL MAJOR CREDIT CARDS ACCEPTED.