There are so many wonderful, cheap restaurants in Tokyo with such a wide range of styles, it seems strange that in the O.C., the Japanese food scene is synonymous with sushi and sushi is synonymous with expensive.
Although San Shi Go has a sushi bar, it also features an extensive menu of other types of Japanese food at extremely reasonable prices.
Last week, Terry dined on black cod at the Wine Cask in Santa Barbara for a hefty $35, while an equally delicious and somewhat larger portion at San Shi Go was a mere $13.95.
The restaurant, which is located on the top floor of the Village Fair, has uber-minimalist décor. The entire place is painted white and the only attempt at ornamentation is a large dolphin on the wall and a surfboard hanging from the ceiling. In the summertime, the wrap-around windows must provide a spectacular ocean view that is décor enough.
We began with two fried dishes: tempura calamari and soft shell crab. Both were superior. The calamari was very tender and the tempura batter was as light and crisp as any we have tasted.
People like to dip and for that purpose the tempura was served with ponzu and teriyaki sauces. They were nothing special and the calamari didn’t really need them, but the house special sauce (a sort of spicy aioli), which came with the soft shell crab, was so good that we dipped everything in it.
Though these are previously frozen crab, they have a wonderful crunchy crust which was so good we didn’t miss that explosion of crab flavor which you get about one month of the year from fresh ones; and of course, there was that sauce.
Since someone in the kitchen is a black belt fry-master, we recommend that you try some of the age (fried) dishes: chicken, tofu, shrimp, calamari, scallops and tempura.
There is a full sushi menu and sushi bar. We ordered the hamachi (yellow tail), which we consider to be the bellwether of a good sushi bar. Our waitress said that she was serving us an upgraded special from the belly of the fish, usually the fattest and most flavorful part. Unfortunately, we found it to be rather ordinary.
Much better was the back flip roll, a combination of chopped spicy tuna in the center of the roll and Cajun tuna wrapped around the rice, an interesting mingling of flavors. There are three different chef special rolls, as well as the usual suspects. You can also have a sushi or sashimi combination as an entrée.
Appetizers are heavy on seafood as are the salads. We heard that their whitefish salad was something special so we passed on the salmon skin, Cajun tuna, calamari and seafood offerings.
What arrived was a perfectly nice mixed green salad with three razor thin slices of whitefish that were virtually tasteless. We were puzzled. We preferred the little side salad flavored with daikon and ginger dressing that comes with any dinner. A light and tasty miso soup also comes with the entrées.
Black cod has to be one of the best fish in the world. Sad to say it only seems to be available on restaurant menus and not very often on those. Its distinct yet delicate flavor and velvety texture are irresistible. One can choose either a mushroom teriyaki preparation or one in a buttery miso sauce.
We chose the latter and recommend it highly. The fish was perfectly cooked, moist and delectable and was served with a generous portion of toothsome julienne, sautéed mixed vegetables.
Other seafood offerings include various tempura combinations, sautéed halibut, miso salmon and a crab combination of soft shelled and steamed king crab.
Very Japanese are the udon noodle soups. These are broths with thick, chewy wheat noodles and your choice of beef, chicken, seafood or tempura as toppings.
Donburi are rice bowls with egg sauce and various toppings such as breaded fried chicken and onion, tempura or eel.
Teriyaki appears as seasoning and sauce for chicken, New York steak, vegetables, salmon or spicy shrimp. You may be surprised to know that curry is very popular in Japan, where it is usually a very thick brown sauce with a little bit of protein and a lot of rice, often found as a street food. Here it is more American in style with plenty of beef or chicken.
Desserts are rarely exciting or house-made in any Asian restaurants. San Shi Go is no exception, with tempura ice cream, mochi and a fruit plate. However, there is something on the menu called pannacotta, which is house-made.
Usually this Italian dessert is a cooked heavy cream thickened with gelatin rather than eggs and served with fresh berries. The chef here has done something quite innovative and delicious. He has lightened the dish so it’s almost like creamy jello and topped it with a jasmine tea granita. The unique combination of flavors and textures was a delightful surprise to these jaded gossiping gourmets.
If you prefer a relaxing and slow-paced meal, don’t order everything at once. Order a few things at a time, otherwise dishes come out in a random order as they are prepared and too much arrives at the same time.
In the course of the meal, we found ourselves chatting more and more with our sweet waitress/artist Alicia, Alisa or as she pronounces it, Aisha. She wrote her name for us in Hiragana, Katakana and even in Kanji (Chinese characters), which we are unfortunately unable to pass on to you.
We then had a fun discussion about her hometown, Tokyo, and she told us where to find authentic Japanese ingredients in Orange County, which we can pass on. Her first choice is called Marukai on Harbor and Baker. It is a membership store charging a dollar a month. The other store, Mitsuna, on Bristol and Paularino, is somewhat more commercial.
What makes San Shi Go special is not their sushi as much as their cooked food, which happens to be both tasty and incredibly well-priced.
ELLE HARROW AND TERRY MARKOWITZ owned a la Carte for 20 years and can be reached at email@example.com.