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May 18, 2006 02:59 PM

Why Tama sushi, not Ike, not Urasawa, not Matsuhisa, is best

  • d

I use this board enough that I feel like I should share this, knowing full well that some will disagree. But hear me out. Most important, I'm such a regular, I'll always be able to get sushi bar reservations.

It all boils down to this: the best sushi equals access to the best fish. Period. Absolutely everything else is secondary. And there is very, very little top notch fish to go around, especially given the explosion of sushi bars over the last few years.

The LA fish market is controlled by a cartel of Koreans downtown. These guys are in no way stupid. They know that giving the best fish to new restaurants, if they don't do well, could mean they don't get paid back. Everything is done on credit, and if a place closes, they're out. So first off, they need to be sure you'll stick around to pay the bills. Now, places with huge bankrolls and establihed track records -- like Urasawa, Matsuhisa, Ike, Roku, et al -- pass the first test.

But second, and equally important, is the Asian "respect" factor. The longer you've been doing business with the Korean fish guys, the more a relationship develops. Not that different from supply and demand in other industries. The favored customers get the highest quality supplies, while those who aren't friends might get a little damaged merchandise thrown in.

Here's where Tama comes in. Katsu Michite, the pushing-70 owner of Tama, has been in the L.A. sushi business longer than anyone else, since the late 60's. There are apparently equally old Korean fish mongers running the show that he's known all this time. Not only has he always paid his bills through his various establishments, but there is a very serious respect factor going. Hell, ask your local sushi chef if he knows Katsu. They all do. He's kind of the local old master.

The easiest way to sum it up is what one of the assistant chefs told me: the old Korean fish mongers eat at Tama, virtually exclusively. There is some kind of quid pro quo that works in Katsu's favor.

Now, it's true, you've got to befriend the man to get the good stuff. Probably took me a dozen visits to become "favored." And it's also true that, thanks to a combination of $ and respect, there are other sushi restaurants that have equally stellar fish. But not at the insanely low prices that Tama has.

My wife and I usually split a $50 omakase, which is 10 pieces of whatever's good, a tuna cut roll, 4 or 5 bite-size random appetizers, a bowl of soup (changes every time). We add an order or two of extra sushi, whatever's good, and we're both full. Total, including a large can of Asahi (the large cans are the only ones actually imported from Japan; all other "Japanese" beers are actually made in Canada) is around $75. Total, including tip, is $90. It simply cannot be beat. And is never anything less than perfect. Once you're "in," and I'm sure this is true everywhere, you don't get served anything because they have to get rid of it (reread Kitchen Confidential to remember what I mean re: common ways to pawn off soon-to-go-bad fish).

OK, let's recap: I didn't say whatever your local favorite is isn't as good. It's that very, very few have as high quality. And those few that do, well they're all much more expensive. Which is why I say Tama simply cannot be beat. Period. Them's my two cents.

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  1. Great post.

    But, as you yourself state, it's an unwritten rule that -- fairly or not -- customers only start getting the really great fish once they've ingratiated themselves with the sushi chef. This takes multiple visits, an enormous amount of money, etc. Because of this, it seems that people tend to latch onto a sushi restaurant they really enjoy, and keep coming back to it. They value the relationships they've developed, enjoy their insider status, and usually become fanatical in their devotion to that one particular establishment over all others.

    Hence the difficulty of ever establishing a consensus of a clear best in the city.

    1 Reply
    1. re: NM

      Absolutely agreed.

    2. i'm not going to get into the debate about the best sushi establishments, i would just note that while high quality fish is very important, there is much more that goes into preparing great sushi. among other things -- rice (not as simple to prepare well as one would think), wasabi and soy sauce. also, as a now deceased chef once told me -- you can have 2 sushi chefs behind the same counter, both using the same fish, rice, wasabi, etc., but one produces much better sushi than the other. how you slice the fish, the size of the sushi and proportionality between rice and fish are all very important.

      7 Replies
      1. re: arkestra

        thank you for pointing this out...

        1. re: victor ward

          While I maintain the best fish is most important, there's no question you're correct -- all factors come into play. But Katsu's the ginsu friggin' master. Cut sushi for 40+ years and I imagine you tend to get pretty good at the exact angles and how to prepare the rice.

          And once again, I'm not saying he's better than someone you like. There's more than a few masters out there. I just doubt you can find higher quality for lower cost.

          1. re: deadorinjail

            Where the heck IS Tama sushi?

            1. re: Adsvino

              Tama Sushi
              (818) 760-4585
              (818) 760-4363
              11920 Ventura Blvd
              Studio City, CA 91604

              1. re: deadorinjail

                See I don't quite agree with the assessment. But a little bit of explanation is necessary.

                I think at times the sushi at Tama is good, and when his restaurant was actually called Katsu and when he manned the more personal 6-seat sushi bar, which he only served omakase, it would have probably been the closet thing in town to ginza sushi ko (urasawa had not replaced ginza at the time and tama was stilled called restaurant katsu).

                But the last couple times that i tried the cheaper omakase after the changeover to tama, the quality was just not necessarily there, it wasn't the freshest of fish either (for that now I still prefer Nozawa, but this will open up a whole other can of worms). And I don't want to put Katsu down, he is one of the nicest if not the nicest, friendliest sushi chef in town. But he does not always seem to get the prime stuff (more often than not at a similar price point, nozawa does).

                "And then if you're talking about Nishimura and Mori those are both considerably more expensive than both Nozawa and Tama.

                And the jury is still out on what i consider the best sushi place in town since i have not been back to a lot of these joints as in the past but for what it's worth here are some of my favorites (and i still have not been to urasawa, which is way out of my price range at leas for now):

                Sushi Nozawa in studio City.
                kiriko on sawtelle.
                nishimura on melrose.
                azami on melrose.
                shibucho on beverly.

                1. re: kevin

                  Katsu gets the same fish as Nozawa. I asked him if Nozawa got better fish the last time I was there. He smiled and pointed at the yellowtail in front of him and said, "See this? I got it this morning. Nozawa took the other half."

        2. I consider myself lucky.

          I'm not a regular at any one sushi place, but I've been to some of the better ones around town (R23, Sasabune, Gen, etc.).

          This last Valentine's Day, I called to make a reservation at the bar at Tama and used my Japanese middle name. We got two seats smack in the middle of the bar right in front of Katsu. It was my GF and my first time there and the regular to our side was surprised w/ our choice seating.

          My ace in the hole is that my attractive Japanese speaking, Japanese girlfriend speaks fluently and is good at buttering up sushi chefs. We did the $50 omakase (each!) and it was really really fantastic, but too much. I loved it and I love the idea of splitting the $50 omakase.

          As much as I enjoyed sasabune, I have to say this was one of the best all around sushi experiences I've had, including in Japan. And the fact that it was on V-Day, which could have been a nightmare, made it that much better.

          Great post - and good information.

          1. Sorry Hiroyuki Urasawa does NOT get his fish from LA. So please leave Urasawa out of this subpar group of restaurants.

            6 Replies
            1. re: Pablo

              That's what I was thinking. Urasawa get's almost all his suff from Japan, so I've read. I doubt that LA's fish mongers get better stuff than Japan's fish mongers.

              1. re: Pablo

                I'm pretty sure that it's not an either/or proposition.

                There are fish that you can't get in Japanese waters that are popular there just as there are fish you can't get in American waters that are popular here.

                My mom's cousing owns a huge commercial fishing boat that supplies seafood for Japan and the US and most of the time he's in the Pacific but nowhere near either country.

                The fish they catch is shipped to Japan and the US. The source is the same - and while I'm not sure of any selection process done at the point of catch - I doubt the quality is all that different.

                I really don't think the location of the catch makes all that big a difference.

                1. re: koji

                  Koji, I believe you are absolutely right. I have been to Japan, and to be honest with you I expected really amazing fish. What I found out is that alot of the fish is just brought to Japan just as LA, and personally some of the tuna out here simply outclasses those found in Japanese markets. The attitude that since the restaurant uses fish from "Japan" equals quality is incomprehensible.

                  1. re: Schweinhexen

                    We've deleted a number of off topic and a few quite nasty replies from this thread. While specific discussion of specific restaurants is on topic for the LA board, general discussion of fishing practices, or whether the USA or Japan gets or hosts better fish is not. If you wish to continue this tangent on the quality of fish, please do so over on the General Topics board.


                2. re: Pablo

                  No he gets fish from Japan but also gets some things at the L.A. market. For instance, his sea urchin is always from Santa Barbara as it takes too long to get the Japanese version to here and the Santa Barbara uni is also excellent in its own way.

                  1. re: choctastic

                    All Grade A, the best uni, sea urchins from Santa Barbara are shipped to Japan. It is nearly impossible to get them here. I must say you do get better uni in Japan even though it is from Santa Barbara.

                3. Nice post. I like your logic and how you played it into your thesis.

                  It once again plays out (twice, one time for the sushi chef and his suppliers, and once for the customer and the chef) it's not always what you know, but often who you know, that wins out.

                  I also like Katsu's cooked food at Tama, which makes it doubly attractive to me. Well presented and thought out on the entire plate, not just an entree.