Kura Sushi - Costa Mesa
More than a decade ago, I sat at a sushi bar for the first time. It was an intimidating experience. The creeping feeling of dread started with that order sheet. On it was a long list of species only a Japanese marine biologist could decipher. But more discouraging than not knowing what words like hamachi and kanpachi meant, was the fact that the English translations printed next to it were just as beguiling. The only difference I could fathom between "yellowtail" and "amberjack" -- the English words for hamachi and kanpachi -- was the price.
As a young, ignorant newbie, ordering sushi from a roster of unknowns, sight unseen, is only slightly less risky than buying stuff on eBay: sometimes, depending on the vendor, the price paid is not equal to the perceived value or quality.
Kura Sushi, by contrast, is the WalMart of sushi bars -- the type of place I wish I knew about during those formative years of sushi exploration. At places like this, you can give everything the once-over, and eliminate the element of surprise because everything is just as it is. What you see is what you get: sushi mass-produced as a food, rather than as an artform. And it's all affordable enough to be anti-competitive.
This two-year-old, revolving sushi bar in Costa Mesa is one of many sushi joints in a town overpopulated by sushi joints, but it is unique because it is accessible where others are austere. Kura is popular with teens and families alike, most of whom, I gather, has never attempted to get a reservation at Sushi Shibucho just a few blocks down. But what Kura lacks in tradition and reverence, it makes up with a fun, casual, and very visual environment.
The room is in constant motion as a well-stocked conveyor belt snakes around a brightly lit space, transporting sushi on covered saucers. To find out how much a plate of sushi costs, you need only to look at the placemat, which outlines the price assigned to each color;
Pink = $1.25
Blue = $1.75
Wood Pattern = $2.25
Fish Pattern = $2.75
Green = $3.25
Despite the bargain-basement prices, the sushi is dependable, predictable, and decent. Most of the rolls are variations of the California Roll, with a chopped imitation crab center. Topped with whitefish, salmon, avocado, and tuna, it becomes the Rainbow Roll. Another variation has it smothered with bay scallops and spicy mayo.
There's also nigiri, presented most colorfully in a threesome of maguro (tuna), hamachi (yellowtail) and sake (salmon), which share the same plate. It's a calculated eye-catcher of dazzling red, demure pink, and sultry orange. Everything about it screams "Pick me!"
Same goes for another favorite of mine: the Cajun Salmon. It's two gorgeously torched pieces of fish on rice, crowned with ribbons of red onion and diced scallions.
Kura does particularly well with appetizers such as edamame. A serving is packed in so densely that lifting the lid always triggers an avalanche of the boiled and salted soybeans. Their seaweed salad is also worthy of mention. Spiked with sesame oil, it is as crisp as it is refreshing.
Also not to be missed when it's piping hot, are the takoyaki balls. These soft spheres of cooked batter hide a chewy morsel of octopus at its nucleus. Drizzled with a syrupy, tangy sauce and a liberal squirt of Japanese mayo, they are just about the most irresistible objects to whiz by on the train.
Another non-sushi item I crave is the gyoza, dumplings filled with minced pork. When it's freshly fried, there's nothing that crunches quite like the way its crimped edges crackle.
Since those early years, I have graduated to omakase and developed an addiction to uni, but it's nice to know that Kura Sushi is there when I need sushi and have only a few bucks in my pocket.
212 E 17th St
Costa Mesa, CA 92627