Upon eating his first Kumamoto oyster, a friend of mine proclaimed, "This tastes like a mouthful of ocean." I nodded in agreement as I slurped my own. Freshly shucked and naked, save for a drizzle of ponzu and green onions, each slippery morsel was alive mere seconds before it was served to us, cold and quivering on the half-shell. Eating it was an invigorating experience; one that I look forward to repeating whenever I visit Kaisen, a revolving sushi bar near South Coast Plaza.
Now, I know what you're thinking: Why should I bother with sushi off a miniature baggage carousel, anyway? In a word, value. At Kaisen in particular, the color-coded plates start at 99 cents and top out at $3.50. Here, you can have a gut-filling raw-fish feast for less than $10 per person.
When you are ready to pick out your meal, you will likely spy a mound of cubed tuna, laced with Sriracha and topped with fried onions. Grab it before it rides off again on the mini-Shinkansen: Similar to Hawaiian poke, but 10 times as spicy, this lip-throbbing ordeal is worth the extra glass of water you'll have to chug to put out the fire. Skip the chunks of octopus tentacle that get the same treatment: too chewy.
Instead, be on the lookout for the seared salmon and the seared ahi. Both pieces—soaked in ponzu and draped over an unseen ball of rice—titillate your palate with a crusting of cracked pepper. But when you see the baked salmon steaks, let them pass. Chances are they'll be cold and greasy. Same goes for the plate of fried fish parts mixed with slivered onions and carrots. A better choice is the fish cake lubed in a tangy pineapple sweet-and-sour sauce. And for a palate cleanser, go for the seaweed salad.
But don't just limit yourself to what's pre-prepared for the conveyor belt. Pick up an order sheet, scribble your table number on top, and do as I did: Order the live oysters. Two will come to a plate, but you'll want more than that. While you're at it, order some uni. If you don't already know, uni (sea urchin) looks like slobbery pumpkin-pie filling and tastes of a sea-kissed egg custard. And don't forget the amaebi: sweet shrimp served raw. When it comes to eel, opt for the freshwater unagi—basted with a syrupy glaze and broiled to perfection—over its stiffer marine anago.
If you want to splurge, jot down an order of toro, the most expensive slice of fish at the restaurant. Cut from the fattiest part of the tuna belly, it is so densely marbled it looks frosted. Unctuously rich, like a prime section of rib-eye, it should melt effortlessly under the heat of your mouth.
Just slightly less costly is the abalone, but not if you're measuring by weight. While the meat is crunchier than cartilage, it was smaller than two postage stamps.
Kaisen also offers a small menu of cooked items. The fried aji—breaded triangles of fish—would shame any London fish-and-chips shop. A shared basket of the fried squid—in all its lightly battered, tentacled glory—will disappear before you know it, so get two. And the deep-fried soft-shell crabs are just as addictive: Crisp and greaseless, they are fatter and sprightlier than I've seen elsewhere.
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The best item of all is not offered on the conveyor belt, nor seen on the sushi order form, nor printed on the menu. But if you ask your kimonoed waitress for "hamachi kama," she will confirm with an ecstatic "Hai!" Arriving a few minutes later will be the boomerang-shaped collarbone of a yellowtail—a scrap part left over after the rest of the fish is butchered for sushi. Fried golden and served hot, it will be the biggest thing you'll encounter all night—and the most decadent.
All you need is a squeeze of lemon before you begin. Your tool: a chopstick. Your quest: to excavate all the goodness from all the bone's nooks and crannies. In your spelunking adventure, you'll discover that within the hidden chambers and clinging to the crevasses are three distinctly different textures and tastes of cheek meat. The flesh closest to the gills is dark and features a flavor that mimics foie gras. Then, buried deep under another bone, there's a snowy-white pulp so soft it eats like pudding. A third region offers stringy strands as tender and sweet as crab meat.
Since there will be a limited supply, just pray no one else reads this review before you decide to order it. Otherwise, you will have to settle with just the sushi-go-round, which isn't a bad thing at all.
KAISEN KAITEN SUSHI BAR, 3855 S. BRISTOL ST., SANTA ANA, (714) 444-2161. OPEN MON.-THURS., 11:30 A.M.-10 P.M.; FRI.-SAT., 11:30 A.M.-10:30 P.M.; SUN., 11:30 A.M.-9 P.M. DINNER FOR TWO, $20-$60, EXCLUDING DRINKS. BEER, WINE, SAKE.