The best sushi hand roll I ever had was made by Katsu Aoyagi, the sushi master behind Tustin's venerable Sushi Wasabi. I haven't been back since he retired last summer and sold his shop to a younger chef, but I still remember that blue crab temaki–the item for which he was best known. It wasn't much to look at: just a tiny swatch of black seaweed wrapped around rice and crabmeat. But whenever he handed it to me, I knew I reached the summit of his omakase. The crab was from Texas, he'd remark, and there were gobs of it–enough to fill a cup–dressed in mayo and wrapped with rice inside crispy nori. And when Aoyagi made one, he assembled it quickly, knowing the crispness of the nori drops precipitously the moment it makes contact with the other two ingredients. Seconds after he'd make it, the whole thing went into my mouth. And oh, how wonderful it was! The crinkle of the crispy seaweed, the unbelievably succulent crab, the warm vinegared rice–it was a sushi masterpiece worth its weight in gold.
Now comes Temakira, a restaurant that takes its name from temaki, which, yes, means "hand roll."
It's moved into the former location of Avanti Cafe, the Costa Mesa vegan restaurant that graced our pages over the years and won several awards. Temakira, however, shouldn't be mistaken for a traditional sushi bar the likes of Sushi Wasabi nor is it a sit-down restaurant such as Avanti. You order at the cashier, sign with your finger on a tablet computer that swivels, and then wait for your hand rolls to be assembled by a worker hidden behind a partition. Half of the customers I saw there one night ordered takeout.
If Temakira fits into a category, it's the modern kind of sushi purveyor that eschews stuffiness and tradition for accessibility and convenience. Its closest kin is Fountain Valley's Samurai Burrito, but it's classier than that–it's less Instagram, more Pinterest. If Samurai Burrito's customers seem as if they just got out of high school, Temakira's clients look as though they're working on their graduate degrees.
At Temakira, you can get a beer poured from a tap and sake, too–something you can't at Samurai Burrito. And there's the main difference: the product itself. Where Samurai Burrito takes sushi ingredients and constructs gigantic cylinders that are neither burritos nor futomakis, Temakira's hand rolls hew close to what temakis traditionally are: cornucopias filled with all manner of fish and veggies.
The most popular temaki, the cashier told me, is the Calientail, probably because it's the first thing listed on the menu board and the one with a pun. In it, chefs stuff rice, avocado, tobiko, cucumber and cubes of yellowtail slicked red in an "extra spicy sauce" that most likely owes its hotness to Huy Fong's Sriracha. The Viva hand roll has a shrimp tempura, a gob of spicy tuna melting as if soft-serve ice cream, some sauce and a sliver of cucumber. The Tekka uses tuna slathered in a wasabi cream. The Zesty Miso comes with salmon cubes dressed in a miso lemon sauce, a wad of daikon sprouts and a finishing sprinkle of tempura crumbs.
Whatever you get, you need about three rolls to get full, and since each sells for $4.75, you're liable to spend about as much for a meal here as you would at a mid-range sushi bar. Also be aware that the rice used at Temakira doesn't seem to be the traditional vinegared rice that gave Aoyagi's crab hand roll its soul. Temakira's rolls taste as if they're made from plain, unseasoned rice. And it didn't seem to matter whether I ate the rolls on the spot or took them home: The crispness of the nori was long gone.
The best hand roll Temakira makes is the off-menu salmon katsu, featuring a panko-breaded piece of fish slathered in enough tangy katsu sauce to lift it from the dull neutrality of the rice. I liked the fish-less Garden roll almost as much. Since it's vegan and stuffed with a long list of veggies, it's also the only roll for which asking for brown rice seemed appropriate.
Temakira does a remarkably good appetizer called "seafood beignets," featuring pieces of shrimp, scallop and squid embedded in a sort of deep-fried fritter that belongs in a fancier restaurant.
If you're looking to fill up after realizing the hand roll you ordered doesn't quite cut it, the poke salad can round off your meal with enough cubed fish and greens, plus a very nice ginger-y dressing. Also try the homemade gyoza. Yes, they're a dollar apiece if you do the math. You can afford it; that is, so long as you're not already in debt from graduate school.
temakira, 259 E. 17th St., Costa Mesa, (949) 650-0305; temakira.com. Open Mon.-Wed., 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Thurs.-Sat., 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m.; Sun., 12:30-5:30 p.m. Meal for two, $30-$40, food only. Beer and wine.