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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