I was working at Yoshida Sushi in Hollywood and my coworker, Koo told me about this sushi bar. Koo was younger than I was and had more sushi experience. The sushi chef was his part-time gig and way to earn some money, working only two nights a week. His really passion was music. Ko was a guitarist and had his own band. Koo started his sushi training in Japan, working in Tokyo as an apprentice, so he knew more about the traditional sushi techniques than I did.
Koo is the one who told me about Go’s Mart, while all the sushi chefs at the bar were talking about a newly opened restaurant in Hollywood. Quite often, we gossiped about other restaurants and other sushi chefs to find out what others were doing, keeping up with the trends, special menus, type of fish other chefs were ordering and so on. After all, it was the time before Facebook, Twitter, and all the other social medias: the year was 2002.
“Go-san is great. It’s a tiny place – only four seats at the sushi bar and a couple of tables. It’s my favorite place in the whole of LA. I think it’s the best Sushi bar in town and the best-kept secret. Not very many people know about it, even the sushi chefs. Only those who love sushi go there. In fact, it’s not really a sushi restaurant. It’s a fish market with tables. That’s how Go-san started. Nothing fancy. If you see it from the outside, you will not think it’s a sushi restaurant. Everything Go-san makes is fantastic. Oh, I want to go there again. Go-san is very nice, too. He is gentle and friendly. You should make a reservation. He will treat you good.”
I immediately called Go’s Mart and made a reservation. I decided to go there on Sunday with my friend Kai, who was also a sushi chef. We knew Sunday was not exactly the best day to go sushi restaurant because all the fish suppliers were closed on Sundays.
Knowing this, we decided to go to Go’s Mart anyway, because, for one, we believed in Koo and secondary, if Go-san could serve us great sushi even on Sunday evening, it meant that his sushi would be even better on regular nights.
I looked at the address of Go’s Mart: 22330 Sherman Way, Canoga Park, CA 91303.
I needed to check on my Thomas Guide – a map of greater Los Angeles area owned by virtually every single resident of the city. Everyone kept at least one copy in their car. (of course, there were no Google map and smartphones back then.)
We drove about an hour from Hollywood to Canoga Park. I was living in Santa Monica at that time and unless I had some business to do, (which I did not), Canoga Park was not a place for me to go: there was nothing there (for me).
As a matter of fact, as long as I could remember, I’ve never been to Canoga Park since I moved to LA ten years ago.
Canoga Park is a suburb of Los Angeles with lots of corner shopping malls and suburban houses, which is exactly where Go’s Mart sits – the end of a corner shopping mall with a big plastic sign.
Nothing stylish. Nothing extraordinary. If we did not know about it, we would never put our foot inside.
How could we have known?
The best sushi place in Canoga Park?
Not in Beverly Hills like Urasawa?
We parked right in front of Go’s Mart and walked in through the front door. The inside of the store had a small refrigerator with some fish and the sushi counter with bar stools: only four of them. And there were two tables with two chairs each.
It was like walking into a mom and pop ice cream parlor in a small town, somewhere in Iowa, perhaps.
Then, behind the sushi bar was tall skinny Japanese man with short hair and stiff, rigid looking face.
We figured it was Go-san. As Koo mentioned to me, Go-san did not like friendly, at least, at first sight.
“Umm, we made a reservation, for two people, under Kaz, ” I said to the man.
“Oh, yes, are you Kaz-san? We were expecting you. Here, please have a seat.”
We sat at the bar. Even though we knew the place was nothing fancy, we were bit anxious because we never been to a place like this before, and have great sushi. I think we were anxious because we knew it was going to be a great surprise.
“OK,” Go-san said.
“Anything you cannot eat, don’t like?”
“We eat everything,” I said.
“I understand. Thank you,” Go-san said.
“I work with Koo, the sushi chef. He told us about you, and that’s why we came here today.”
“Koo?” Go-san thought it for a second.
“He has very long hair, plays guitar,” I added.
Oh, yes, the sushi chef. Koo. I remember now. He’s been here a couple of times. You work with him, huh? 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 knew that, right?”
“Yes, when Koo told me about you, we couldn’t wait. We’ll come on Tuesday the next time. Today was the only day we could come. We are both off today. We wanted to come here as soon as possible,” I said to Go-san.
“I see. It’s not a problem,” Go-san smiled.
I think that was the first time I saw Go-san smile since we walked into his restaurant/fish market. I felt relieved to see him smile. I suppose I was nervous because Go-san had an intense look when we walked in.
We ordered a bottle of Sapporo and started drinking.
“Here is an appetizer – Nasu Dengaku – baked Japanese eggplant with some sweet miso. It should go well with your beer.”
The eggplant was sweet and moist, just off the oven. It was matching perfectly with the sweet miso paste.
“This is delicious,” I said. “What kind of Eggplant is this?”
It was round like a small ball.
“It’s Kamo Nasu or Kyoto Eggplant,” Go-san explained.
A good sushi chef can make a good sashimi or nigiri. One of the signs of a great sushi chef is a cooked dish he/she makes.
Tamago, egg custard is one of them.
In the movie, “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” then apprentice Daisuke Nakazawa said that he practiced making Tamago for ten years until Jiro said “OK.”
We immediately knew, judging from the taste of the eggplant, Go-san’s sushi would be superb.
Using his Yanagi-ba sashimi knife, Go-san made two slices of white fish from the fish refrigerator case. He picked up one piece of the fish in his right hand, and then grabbed a small amount of sushi rice with his left hand.
He moved slowly and squeezed the fish and rice together, gently and firmly, which was totally different from our style of making sushi. Kai and I worked at a bigger Rock ‘n” Roll Sushi Restaurant, so we were used to making sushi fast.
“Here is Hirame.”
We noticed it looked slightly different from the Hirame we make. We were used to serving it with Momiji•Oroshi – Grated Daikon Radish with hot red peppers, and ponzu sauce.
“What’s this red topping?”
“It’s Goji Berry.”
“Yes, try it. It goes well with white fish.”
I never thought of using goji berry for nigiri. Sure, Go-san was right. It was brilliant.
“Here is Toro.”
Again, Go-san’s Toro looked different from the ones we used to see.
“This Toro is fantastic. Where is this from?”
“It’s from Spain. These are farm raised.”
“I did not know they could farm raise bluefin tuna?”
“Well, it’s kind of farm raised. They catch the adult bluefin and surround them in an 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’s half farm raised, not 100% farm raised yet.”
(Note: In 2015, Kinki University in Japan announced that they have succeeded in farm raising bluefin tuna until then, it was considered impossible to farm raise bluefin.)
“Everything is fantastic,” I said.
We had some Kohada, Saba, and Uni. It was nothing like we’ve tasted before.
In fact, it was by far the best sushi I’ve ever eaten.
One of the most striking differences about Go-san’s sushi was a wide variety of toppings he used: Goji Berry, Gold Leaf, and Yuzu Peel. His finishing touches, as small as they may seem, were what distinguished his sushi from others and made our dining experience more than just fish on top of vinegar rice.
It was mesmerizing to watch Go-san making his nigiri – very calm, yet energetic as if he was putting all the energy into one tiny piece of nigiri.
He made sure he took enough time, which was the opposite of what we were used to. All the sushi chefs I worked with considered being “fast handed” as one of the skills of being a great sushi chef.
Apparently, Go-san had his own philosophy of being a sushi chef.
One squeeze at a time, Go-san looked as if he was making a perfect Origami Paper Crane.
He was, very meticulous in a good calming way.
After the very satisfying sushi dinner, we could not wonder why an exceptional Sushi chef like Go-san would have a restaurant in a remote place like Canoga Park. We thought he could have much bigger, a nicer restaurant in LA and it he would certainly do well, not to say he is doing badly in Canoga Park or anything.
I guess everyone has his own place in the universe.