Sushi Master in Training

Photo by Jeanne RiceCall me a traditionalist: I like my coffee black, my hairstylist gay, and my fish deep-fried. Sure, I've been dabbling in lattes and mochaccinos lately, and I caught Georges wearing a pair of khaki Dockers last month, so I'm not really sure which way he swings. But this I know: if my fish doesn't come fried with a side of French fries, my dining companions can count on a miserable dinner experience.

This is probably the time for a brief micro-history: until very recently, I'd had sushi twice, and both times, the fish came back up as quickly as it went down. Proximate causes surely included my sizable intake of sake and Sapporo, but I've been sushi-shy ever since.

Which is why I surprised myself when I began returning to Wasabi & Sushi in Garden Grove. It's a classic Orange County mom-and-pop sushi house, and by that, I mean 1980s Art Deco meets unintentional Japanese kitsch. Pastel-colored walls are covered with samurai swords, framed pictures of sumo wrestlers and mirrors—plus track lighting. It all works, though: for the novice sushi eater, such signifiers impart a sense of bracing predictability in the face of the unpredictable.

Grace Chon, the mom in this mom-and-pop operation, has much to do with Wasabi & Sushi's steady success. She's patient with the first-timers and chummy with the regulars. I trust her immediately and admit I don't know what the hell I'm doing sitting in her best booth. She says she'll take care of me and sets me up with nonthreatening plates of chicken teriyaki and vegetable tempura along with an order of chirashi sushi.

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On the Alarcon Plan, the familiar strips of chicken and tempura are devoured first. Served on a huge mound of white rice, the grilled chicken strips are fajita-like in their perfection. Same goes for the veggie tempura, although it doesn't register a high Crunch Factor (this coming from a guy who's used to eating deep-fried vegetables mechanically injected with synthetic nacho cheese and served in a thin cardboard carton).

The sushi arrives about 10 minutes later in a porcelain jewelry box surrounded by California rolls. The presentation is flawless—Moses Chon (pop to Grace's mom) has worked with sushi for more than 20 years, so he knows what he's doing. Each kind of fish is expertly diced about the size of an ivory domino; it makes for a nice color palette.

I hit the hand-packed California rolls hard. A couple of quick dunks in the soy sauce and down the hatch. Although I know that the sushi purist scoffs at the California roll, these particular rolls are almost dessert-like. After putting off the inevitable long enough, I start making my way through the sashimi: red snapper, salmon, mackerel, tuna—all so subtle in taste yet unique enough to stand on their own. When dabbed with the fresh wasabi and soy sauce, each chunk pops in your mouth.

I get braver with each bite, almost to the point of showing off: I try the octopus and squid and quickly realize that I've gotten way ahead of myself.

Don't tell Grace, though. She's so impressed with my brave, headfirst sprint through the sushi sampler platter that she treats me to a little sea eel on the house. I know I'm supposed to enjoy eel, but my uncultured palate stops me at one timid bite (although my wife feels the need to upstage me by finishing what I can't with a little too much braggadocio, if you ask me).

Already full, I'm hinting around for the tab, but Grace takes it upon herself to order us one last dish, the Wasabi House Roll. It's like an oven-baked casserole built on a maki sushi foundation, covered with diced tuna and salmon, and smothered with Moses' secret sauce. Don't look for it on the menu; it's a house specialty whipped up only when an in-the-know regular orders it. I only wish I'd been a regular sooner. I'm so full at this point I'm practically going blind.

Wasabi & Sushi, located at 9542 Chapman Ave., Garden Grove, is open Mon.-Fri., 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., noon-10 p.m. (714) 539-3333. Beer, wine and sake. Dinner for two, $12-$30, food only. AmEx, Discover, MC and Visa accepted.

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Wasabi and Sushi

9542 Chapman Ave.
Garden Grove, CA 92841


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