When you sit at the Tabi-Ji sushi bar, prepare to be fed. This offshoot of Shiki–one of the oldest (if not the oldest and continuously running Japanese restaurants in OC)–is barely months old, but it already has regulars who know that they will get their money's worth in food when they come. The space used to be an Italian restaurant up until a few months ago. Now it's a catch-all Japanese cuisine emporium. One area with two teppanyaki islands is dedicated to the rap-a-tap-tap showmanship of two teppan chefs. In between this and the regular tables is a sushi bar manned by four venerable-looking gents who look like their combined experience adds up to at least a century.
Our chef was younger man, but he happened to be the most jovial and cherubic of the bunch. When he wasn't laughing or toasting his customers with a big beer in hand, he cut his fish with a cheeky smile spread across his face. I whispered to my date that he looked like the human embodiment of one of those perpetually pawing cat statues. We liked him immediately, and not just because he gave us complimentary starters of seasoned fish salad atop of wonton cracker and fruit for dessert (they give that out to everyone). No, we liked him because he looked like he was genuinely glad to be there…and so, too, were we.
He makes big, generous, honking sushi. When most salmon skin rolls are anemic, his is overloaded, nigh pregnant, with more meat than skin–fat cylinders that we could hardly fit in our mouths. His uni is luscious and as sweet and creamy as custard. A special of conch sushi chewed with a deliberate crunch. Then there was the Mango Roll, spicy tuna hugged with fistfuls of rice, then covered in salmon and formed into wheels gilded in sliced mango. Had we known this was enough for a meal in and of itself, we wouldn't have ordered the hamachi kama (baked yellowtail collar). But it's a good thing we did. We got the last one of the night and it was as good as always–the one food that rewards those who are dexterous with chopsticks. And there's no such thing as a bad time to have hamachi kama, especially if it's the last one.
665 N Tustin St., Orange, CA 92867, (714) 633-6000