What do chefs enjoy eating on their day off?
The ordinary sign at the corner strip mall store was nothing fancy. Just large green letters on a white background, “SUSHI.”
“Is that it?” Toshi asked me in doubt.
“I think so,” I replied.
We both looked at each other as if to say, Should we go in, or should we not?
“This must be it. That’s the correct address,” I said. I remembered what Ko told me—it doesn’t look like a sushi restaurant from the outside. He was absolutely right; it did not.
“Let’s go in,” I said.
I parked my car in front of the store, and both Toshi and I got out. He still looked skeptical, which made me nervous. But, at that moment, I trusted that it was going to be good. But, I never expected it to be such a memorable dining experience.
“Go-san is great. I miss going there. Oh, I want to go there so badly," Ko said, one evening we were working at Sushi Yoshida Hollywood.
Ko was talking about a small sushi restaurant, Go’s Mart, that no one ever heard of. There were a lot of new sushi restaurants popping up in Hollywood and Beverly Hills those days, such as Sushi Sushi, White Lotus, Katsuya, and Katana, but not Go’s Mart.
"It’s a tiny place with only four seats at the Sushi Bar and a couple of tables. It’s my favorite place in L.A. I think might be the best Sushi Bar in town and a well-kept secret," Ko said.
"How come it's a secret place?"
"Not very many people know about it, even the Sushi Chefs. Go-san doesn't advertise. Only those who love sushi go there," he explained.
He was talking a lot faster than usual. “Slow down,” I interrupted him, laughing.
"It’s not really a sushi restaurant. It’s a fish market with tables. That’s how Go-san started. There’s nothing fancy about the place. If you see it from the outside, you wouldn’t even know that it’s a sushi restaurant."
"Is it a place we can just walk in? No reservation or anything? Should we call ahead and make a reservation?" I asked.
"I think you should definitely make a reservation. Oh, I'm jealous you are going. I’m so busy with other work and the music band, I cannot go," Ko said, as he banged the wall with his fist. "Go-san is a very nice person, gentle, and friendly. You'll like him, Kaz-san."
During my break, I called Go’s Mart to make a reservation for Toshi and I. We had Sundays and Mondays off, and Go’s Mart was closed on Mondays. We both knew that Sunday wasn’t exactly the most ideal day to visit a Sushi Bar because all the fish suppliers are closed on Sunday. But, we had no other choice.
“Sunday is the only day we can go,” I told Toshi over the phone. Ever since I left Rock‘n Hollywood Sushi, we remained friends.
“Okay, that’s fine,” Toshi said.
“So, where is this place? Did you say, Canoga Park?” Toshi said, with a sarcastic tone.
“Yup, Canoga Park. It’s all the way out there,” I said, with the same sarcastic tone. “I know, but it’s a good place. One of the Sushi Chefs at Yoshida said it’s his favorite place, so I know it’ll be great,” I said, confidently.
“All right. If Go-san turns out to be great on a Sunday, that’s good because he will be even better on weekdays,” Toshi said.
Later, I checked the location of Go’s Mart in my Thomas Guide, a map of the greater Los Angeles area. The Thomas Guide was owned by virtually every single resident of the city, and everyone kept a copy in their car. This was a time before Google Maps and smartphones. Los Angelenos knew where they lived using a combination of a page, letter, and number, like “Page 237, A-3.” Go’s Mart was on page 457, a back section of the map I never opened before.
We drove an hour from Hollywood to Canoga Park. It had been ten years since I moved to L.A., and I was living in Santa Monica at the time. In all those years, I’d never been to Canoga Park.
Canoga Park is located in a suburb of Los Angeles in the San Fernando Valley. An area with lots of strip malls, single-story suburban houses, and two-bedroom condo complexes with swimming pools and a courtyard. No trendy clubs and bars. No Hollywood stars. No movie studios. No stylish houses. No slender, tall, beautiful men and women are walking around— no highly Zagat-rated restaurants. One thing Canoga Park was infamously known for was for being the adult entertainment capital of the world, aka Porn Valley.
Go’s Mart was situated in the corner of a shopping mall with a big plastic sign.
Upon arrival, Toshi asked in the car, “How could we ever have known this place existed if you or Ko did not tell us?”
“I know. So, this is the best sushi place in L.A., better than Urasawa in Beverly Hills, according to Ko, so what’s wrong with exploring?” I mumbled.
When we arrived at Go’s Mart, the parking lot was empty, and there wasn’t a line to get in. It was quiet, very quiet. I was hesitant, but I tried to remember what Ko said, this place is just a hole-in-a-wall. As we walked inside the store, we noticed a small refrigerator with some fish and a sushi counter with only four bar stools. There were also two tables with two chairs each. It was like walking into a Mom and Pop ice cream parlor in a small town.
Behind the Sushi Bar stood a tall, skinny Japanese man with short hair and a stiff, rigid-looking face. We figured it must be Go-san. Ko already told me that Go-san didn’t look friendly, at least at first sight.
“Hello…? We made a reservation for two people, under Kaz,” I said to the man.
“Oh, yes…,” the man paused for a moment. “Are you Kaz-san? We have a reservation for…two?”
“Yes, that is correct,” I said.
“Good. We were expecting you. Here, please have a seat,” he was looking down at the cutting board, moving his hands.
“Thank you,” I responded with a bow.
We sat at the bar, observing the restaurant. Toshi and I were both a little anxious because we’d never been to a place like this before.
“Irasshai,” Go-san said, handing us two cups of ocha, green tea. “What can I do for you?”
“Omakase, please,” I told Go-san.
“Okay,” Go-san nodded.
“Anything you cannot eat or don’t like?”
“We eat everything,” I replied.
“I understand. Thank you,” Go-san said.
“I work with Ko, a Sushi Chef at Yoshida Sushi. He told us about you. That’s why we came here today.”
“Ko?” Go-san looked puzzled.
“Yeah, he has very long hair, plays guitar,” I added.
“Oh, yes, Ko. I remember now. He’s been here a couple of times. You work with him, huh?” Go-san said. “Well, today’s Sunday, so we are a bit short of fish, you know. If you came on Tuesday, it would have been better, but, oh well, I’m sure you already knew that, right?”
“Yes, when Ko told me about you, we couldn’t wait. We’ll come on Tuesday the next time. At the moment, we both have Sundays and Mondays off. We wanted to come here as soon as we heard about you,” I told Go-san.
“I understand now why you come here on Sunday. Hope you like my sushi and come back on Tuesday the next time,” Go-san smiled.
I felt relieved as soon as I saw him smile. It was the first smile since we walked. I ordered a bottle of Sapporo to drink while we waited for the first course.
Five minutes later, Go-san handed us two plates, “Here is an appetizer, Nasu Dengaku, baked Japanese Eggplant with some Sweet Miso. It should go well with your beer.”
“Thank you,” Toshi and I replied.
The eggplant was sweet and moist, just out of the oven, and it matched perfectly with the Sweet Miso Paste.
“This is delicious. What kind of eggplant is this?” I asked, observing the small round shapes.
“It’s Kamo Nasu, Kyoto Eggplant,” Go-san explained.
“Where did you get Japanese eggplant from?” I was surprised.
“My wife grows it in our backyard.”
Go-san’s eggplant was sweet and creamy. It melted in my mouth. When I looked over at Toshi, his eyes were half-closed, and he looked delighted. We then knew that the next course was going to be just as good, if not better than the eggplant. Ko was right. This was going to be the best sushi.
I watched Go-san while we waited for the next course. Using his Yanagiba, he picked up a white fish fillet from the refrigerator case and made two slices. He picked one piece up in his right hand and then grabbed a small amount of shari Sushi Rice with his left. He moved slowly, squeezing the fish and rice together, gentle and firm. Go-san’s style was completely different from my nigiri-making style. Toshi and I worked in a fast-paced environment. The faster we made sushi, the better it was.
“Here is Hirame.” Go-san placed each piece on our plate. We noticed it looked different from the Hirame we usually made. I served it with Momiji-Oroshi (Grated Daikon Radish with Hot Red Peppers and Ponzu sauce).
“What’s this red topping?” Toshi asked.
“It’s Goji berry,” Go-san replied.
“Goji Berry?” I asked, beaming and looking at the red topping one more time.
“Yes, try it. It goes well with Whitefish,” Go-san smiled.
I never thought of using Goji berry for nigiri. Whitefish has a very subtle sweet flavor and umami. Goji berry has a slightly stronger sweetness than Whitefish. It wasn’t overwhelming but just enough to give depth to the whole flavor. It was brilliant.
“Here is Toro.” Go-san’s Toro looked different from the ones we were used to seeing too.
“This Toro is fantastic. Nice medium Chu-Toro. It’s not overwhelmingly fatty, but good and pleasantly fatty,” Toshi said.
“Where is this from?” I asked.
“It’s from Spain. These are farm-raised,” Go-san replied.
“I did not know they could farm raise Bluefin Tuna?” Toshi’s voice was filled with excitement.
“Well, it’s half farm-raised. They catch the adult Bluefin and put them inside of a large fishing net in the ocean. Then, they feed the Tuna and let them grow until they are nice and fatty. So, it is part farm-raised.”
“Everything is fantastic,” I said.
“Thank you,” smiled Go-san.
We had some Kohada, Saba, and Uni. Each thing we tasted was new, and like we’d never eaten them before. In fact, it was the best sushi I ever ate.
One of the most striking differences about Go-san’s sushi was the wide variety of toppings he used. He used Goji Berry, Gold Leaf, and Yuzu Peel. His finishing touches, though small, distinguished his sushi from others and made our dining experience extraordinary.
It was mesmerizing to watch Go-san making his nigiri, calm but energetic like he was putting all of his energy into each piece.
He took his time, which was completely opposite of what we were used to. It was considered a skill to be “fast-handed,” at least according to every Sushi Chef I ever worked with.
Go-san had his own philosophy. He used, “one squeeze at a time,” and looked like he was making a perfect Origami Paper Crane. He was very meticulous in an excellent, calming way.
Toshi and I both loved our dinner. The taste was incredible, but the whole dining experience was superb. I learned a lot from Go-san that night. He was inspiring. I wanted to be like Go-san, making one sushi at a time, while also making my customers happy. Someday I will, I told myself. Someday.