The Place: Ra Sushi, 2401 Park Avenue, Tustin, CA 92782;(714) 566-1700.
The Hours: Mon.-Sat., 3-7 p.m.
The Deal: $2 hot sake. $3 domestic beers. $4 well drinks, Corona, Sapporo, Stella Artois, and Tsingtao. $5 Kirin, Le Terre Chardonnay, Le Terre Merlot, Hakutsuru “Draft” Sake, Cosmopolitan, Saketini, Sake Sangria (Red or White), and Mango Margarita. $6 Coppola Pinot Grigio, Santa Rita 120 Sauvignon Blanc, Main Street Cabernet, Baby Umami Punch, Blushing Geisha, Dragon Bite, and Samurai Cowboy. $7 Kirin & Sake, Pamatini, Red Lotus, Shiso Naughty and Patron Margarita. $2-$7 deals on food, including $3 squid salad. $4 California roll, pork gyoza, Dengaku tofu, and garlic sugar snap peas. $5 shrimp tempura roll, selected tapas and grilled short ribs. $6 calamari tempura. $7 tuna tataki. See online menu for full details.
The Scene: The closer you get to the 7 p.m. Happy Hour last call, the more likely you'll never find a seat. Of all the restaurants to do Happy Hour at The District in Tustin, Ra has to be the most popular. On Fridays at the bar and the outdoor patio, it's a free-for-all, a bum-rush of wall-to-wall bodies, men and women of a certain age, but mostly in their twenties to early thirties, clutching bottles of $3 beers, munching on California rolls and fried calamari fingers out of an insanely large plate. I'm not certain of it, but if I had to guess, the restaurant does more business during Happy Hour than at any other time. Ra is Happy Hour.
The Sauce: Beer, cheap beer is what most come for. Otherwise it's one of the fruity drinks you've come to expect: Drinks sweetened with tart juices and an excess of cute. Which is not to say they're not good. Most have fanciful names that you know has to incorporate some Asian or Japanese word. The Umami Punch is drunk out of a fish bowl, a 60 ounce blend of Southern Comfort, sake and tropical juices. Samurai Cowboy has Red Stag Black Cherry Bourbon, Aperol, yuzu sour, lemon juice and ginger ale. And the Dragon Bite is a two-toned glass of Bacardi Dragonberry, fresh lemon juice, yuzu soda and strawberry puree, which becomes the dominant flavor as it settles on the lower half of the glass like a sunset. The drink, refreshing as anything with a strawberry base has to be, does tend to get watered down the longer you allow the ice to melt, but not before it imparts a kind and gentle buzz.
The Food: Here is where I was most surprised. Where I expected a half-assed attempt of a Japanese-themed menu with tempura and maki rolls (which is there if you desire it), there is some effort and thought with other items. The Happy Hour food menu here could perhaps be the most extensive Happy Hour menu's I've ever encountered. If there was one dish that changed my perspective, it's the sugar snap peas. Sweet, crunchy, snappy, is there a more perfect vegetable or thing to pick up with chopsticks than this? Probably not. I could almost say that the garlic-riddled stir fry sauce that accompanied it made the dish, but it didn't even have to be there. The California Roll was just a California Roll; but the Dengaku tofu is an upgrade on agedashi tofu: cubes of light-battered tofu soaking in a broth, sprinkled with crispy red granules of unknown origin, zig zags of miso paste and garnished with a deep-fried snow peas and slices of eggplant. A squid salad is a faithful dish of ika sansai, razor-thin slices of slightly pickled, slightly sweet squid and (mostly) nothing but the squid. You expected some lettuce and a few fried calamari rings? Yes. So did I. The only problematic dish I encounted was the grilled short ribs, which were too chewy and too flavorless despite the more than generous portion they offered.
The Verdict: Better than average food, good deals on drinks, and it's also offered on Saturdays. I am not ashamed to say that I underestimated Ra.
The Grade: B+