Some Like It Raw
After four years of seeing his Chomp Rockin' Sushi and Teppan Grills draw massive crowds to downtown Fullerton, Dan Lauriano wondered: Could he repeat his success in placid Mission Viejo? Chomp's stellar sushi menu, prepared by Juan Manuel "Ken" Cruz, earned Cruz 2004's Best Sushi Chef in Southern California honors from the Japanese Restaurant Association of Southern California. And executive chef Alvaro Gonzales' Hawaiian brunch, a delicious mishmash of island grub, guaranteed Sunday midmorning crowds the way Mass used to do.
Lauriano says he thought about it and then settled on the best possible solution: bring the boys along. Cruz and Gonzales now wow South County gourmands.
Cruz is still planning specialty rolls for the Mission Viejo restaurant he calls Riptide; meantime, he's using his Chomp menu—a most welcome stopgap. Consider the Tornado roll—spicy tuna, crab and avocado wrapped in soy paper and fried in latke-like shredded potato—Jewshi, if you will. Or the Screamin' O', a regrettable Meg Ryan reference that transforms into a fiery five-part harmony of tuna, eel, avocado, crab and cream cheese on your palate. Ditto for the Explosion roll: eel, cream cheese, crab and avocado as delicious and fried as the Screamin' O', but tangy and sweet. The regular Riptide sushi rolls—cut rolls range from $4 to $12 and sushi/sashimi goes for $1.50 to $15—are tasty as well. But not ordering a Cruz specialty is like asking Vladimir Guerrero to play soccer with you.
You can feast on rolls all night at Riptide, but that's only half of its appeal. Riptide's layout features six teppan grill areas—three in front and three in the back—where you can knife through meat as warm and tantalizing as the kiss of a schoolyard crush. The grills surround what Lauriano swears is the largest sushi bar in Southern California, with seating for 65. Dominating the décor are an aquamarine, Riptide-themed motorcycle constructed by Orange County Choppers; enormous inverted-pyramid waterfalls encased in glass; and a mermaid painting behind the bar composed of half-inch slats, over which rippling water flows. It makes for mellow viewing while you sit at the bar plowing through the house Gekkeikan sake, waiting for a spot at the sushi bar.
Such a large sushi bar makes for a perfect Gonzales buffet. At Riptide, Gonzales has introduced the Caribbean brunch—an unparalleled display of cutting stations, soups, meats, breads, cheeses, voodoo pineapples and more. Chef Cruz stopped me from counting all the sushi rolls on display, telling me they had 30 types of maki, 15 nigiri options and seven selections of sashimi. More delicacies than you can shake a snow crab leg at, plus bottomless champagne, all for $25? Sunday is a day of rest no more.
Aside from brunches, Riptide and Chomp share nearly identical menus with the exception of the former's new oak-fire grill, which cooks up steaks ranging from the $38 Kobe to a $25 New York, from Marsala porterhouse to Stilton-studded filet mignon, plus pork and lamb chops, both baby-back and prime rib (the cheapest grill item at $16), along with a mouthwatering chicken breast stuffed with lobster and shrimp just to make grown men cry. But regardless of what you order, nothing washes down steak or sushi like a hail of sake bombs, the third—perhaps most crucial—element carried over from Chomp. Several times throughout the nights we've visited, waitresses have surrounded unsuspecting tables and performed some occult ritual involving glasses and liquids before shouting, "Sake!" to which the table responded, "Bomb!" This exchange happens thrice, then much drinking and screaming ensues. The last souls to finish get a "punishment": they must fish a live sand crab out of a martini glass and enjoy sushi that is beyond fresh. The loser always enjoys it, but there is one group that isn't happy Lauriano brought this tradition over from Chomp: the crabs.
RIPTIDE ROCKIN' SUSHI, 27741 CROWN VALLEY PKWY., STE. 323, MISSION VIEJO, (949) 282-0182; WWW.ROCKINRESTAURANTS.COM. OPEN MON.-SAT., 11:30 A.M.-11 P.M.; SUN., 10 A.M.-11 P.M. DINNER FOR TWO, $25-$80, EXCLUDING DRINKS. BEER, WINE, SAKE!
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