The sign above Go’s Mart spells out “SUSHI” in a thick green font, but the name of the Canoga Park restaurant holds true in origin: Husband and wife Tsuyoshi and Chiemi Kawano started their business as a Japanese market in 1997.
Jammed between a smoke shop and a dance studio in a one-story strip mall, the space has always been cramped. In the beginning the couple sold a tightly edited selection of groceries: dried noodles, chips and other packaged snacks, premade sushi rolls, a few sturdy vegetables, bottled matcha, a rainbow of Hi-Chew candy stacked by the register.
Go Mart’s side hustle — VHS rentals of Japanese films — thrived late into the 2000s, well after the Kawanos installed an eight-seat bar next to the store’s seafood case at the beginning of the decade. Word spread about Tsuyoshi’s omakase and his liberated creativities with gold-leaf garnishes and bursts of acid and heat.
These days the space is all sushiya. How to describe the shade of paint on the walls? It is electric tangerine, a blast of orange so engulfing it feels as if you’re eating nigiri in a Roald Dahl story. Scattered tables fill the room, though a seat at the bar (as expected in a sushi restaurant) creates the most satisfying immediacy between chef and diner.
“Go” is Tsuyoshi’s nickname; his regulars call him “Go-san.” He begins the meal by asking if there’s anything you don’t want or that you particularly like. Over his shoulder you can see the list of the day’s fish options written in markers of different colors on a mounted whiteboard. The two dozen names vacillate poetically between English and phonetic Japanese: butterfish, John Dory, sardine, sawara, kamasu, sayori, seki aji, live scallop, snow crab …
A cook will deliver the first dish — often ohitashi, cool rolled spinach sprinkled with sesame seeds and ringed with a garland of bonito flakes. Then the seafood arrives in urgent, cadenced courses. Go kicks off with a sequence of nigiri combination plates. One of his signature moves involves four white fish (perhaps kanpachi, firm matoudai, silvery-skinned idoubai and kelp-marinated halibut) dressed identically with citrus zest and sometimes shiso for side-by-side comparisons of flavor and texture.
Another quartet presents Go’s more baroque stylings: an unadorned lobe of Santa Barbara uni; a lush hunk of hairy crab zapped with yuzu kosho; sweet shrimp torched and gilded, literally; and live scallop offset with a half-teaspoon of caviar. Such ornate leitmotifs will repeat through the meal, balanced with occasional restraint: shirako (cod milt) nigiri bound in toasted nori, say, or a conical hand roll brimming with frilly crab meat.
It’s important, particularly for those of us who might be driving an hour or more to Canoga Park, to understand this about Go’s Mart: It is no temple of purism. Garlic chips, twiggy-looking slivers of kelp and other embellishments might make me grin or sigh or occasionally scratch my head, though I’ve learned to relax and roll with the master’s predilections.
Most of the time, anyway. Go tends to use truffle oil liberally. At best, its stink blends with lemon and alliums and herbs, playing the role of a bottom-note funk in heady perfume. Sometimes, as with beautifully poached abalone sashimi presented in its opalescent shell (and more gold leaf), it tastes like what it is: truffle oil on gorgeous seafood. When the chef asks about my preferences, I’ve taken to gently requesting a restrained hand with this ingredient. He lets out a half-laugh, nods and obliges.
Otherwise, Go lets his food speak. The descriptions of what he sets in front of you are no-nonsense, save for his longstanding joke of referring to uni as “Japanese peanut butter.” He sings along to Culture Club’s “Karma Chameleon” and Wham’s “Careless Whisper” when they play softly overhead. The restaurant previously served sake and beer but doesn’t any longer; Chiemi Kawano refills hot tea and clears plates with quiet efficiency.
The omakase takes little more than an hour, by which time diners sink into the state of being that sushi obsessives chase: the sense of calm anticipation, sustained by bite after rewarding bite, as each piece of nigiri nearly satisfies our hunger but never quite pushes it over the edge.
Until suddenly we’re full and we say, “Just one more, please.” There will be a bowl of fruit drizzled with creamy dressing before you leave Go’s Mart, but I focus on the real climax: ankimo bound to rice by a band of seaweed. It’s been brushed with sweet plum sauce and dotted with scallions and sesame seeds. A goji berry finishes the creation like a cherry atop a sundae. Nowhere else in Southern California will you have sushi that embodies the notion of dessert the way this does, and it is wonderful.
Location: 22330 Sherman Way, Canoga Park, (818) 704-1459
Prices: There is no printed menu; the sushi bar is omakase. Prices usually run between $100 to $200 per person. Ask chef Tsuyoshi Kawano as the meal begins.
Details: Credit cards accepted. No alcohol. Lot parking. Wheelchair accessible.
Recommended dishes: “white fish plate” (selection changes daily), shirako nigiri, abalone sashimi, crab hand roll