Unexpected Gem


The star of our dinner was our sushi plate, with sake, maguro, uni, hirame and hon hamachi. (NAO GUNJI/Rafu Shimpo)

The star of our dinner was our sushi plate, with sake, maguro, uni, hirame and hon hamachi. (NAO GUNJI/Rafu Shimpo)




Between my wife and I, we have been to a lot of sushi restaurants in Los Angeles. We’ve seen and eaten it all, from cheap places where the sushi is very Americanized and frankly, not even decent, to the medium-priced sushi bars whose fish rates between an “eh…” and “pretty good” to the top quality places that cost half a paycheck to afford.

We are pretty good food reviewers when working in tandem. I’m American, she’s Japanese, so we bring different palettes to the table. I enjoy all the unique and flavorful fusion rolls that have become very popular here in the States, while she enjoys the freshness and subtle flavors of top quality fish.

We’ve looked high and low for sashimi that meets her standards of Japanese quality. The only place we found cost us nearly $300.

In short, it takes a lot to impress her.

Of course, for me, it’s all worth it, because when she’s happy with a meal–I mean, downright happy–she rocks back and forth with a slight grin on her face.

After finishing our meal at Oba Sushi Izakaya in Pasadena, my wife got her sway on.

Oba Sushi Izakaya co-owners Alvie Betancourt, standing, and Kunche, with sushi chef Alfonso Estrada. (JORDAN IKEDA/Rafu Shimpo)

Oba Sushi Izakaya co-owners Alvie Betancourt, standing, and Kunche, with sushi chef Alfonso Estrada. (JORDAN IKEDA/Rafu Shimpo)

Nothing about the restaurant, which will be celebrating its one-year anniversary as the calendar rolls into May (the story was originally published in April), screams “best sushi in the world.” Oba is a little corner restaurant next to a gas station in a strip mall on Glenarm Street. Inside, there is nothing eye-popping or vibrant, more of a minimalist décor with earthy color tones and very few wall ornaments.

But what Oba may lack in ambience, it more than makes up for in what’s really important about a great restaurant.

“Oba is about quality food,” said co-owner Alvie Betancourt. “I think this is the most unpretentious place that you will find serving quality food, and we run the gamut from families to young couples and everyone feels welcome. There is no high brow disposition here.”

Manager and co-owner Kunche named the restaurant after the spiky green leaf because she loves how it tastes. With twelve years of experience under her apron, Kunche came up with a menu that serves traditional sushi and contemporary Japanese tapas. Izakaya, which means small plates, is similar to Spanish tapas. Patrons can order a variety of dishes and spread the wealth around the table.

My wife and I ate like royalty.

We began our meal with some seaweed salad ($3.50). Chilled and zesty, the vivid green marinated mixed seaweed over lettuce was a great way to begin our journey and was good enough that we were both tempted to get another helping.

Reminding ourselves that there was much more to eat, we resisted that temptation and instead tried Oba’s shishito ($5), which are Japanese peppers (like jalepeños) topped with bonito flakes. Unfortunately, the first pepper I popped in my mouth sparked a wildfire that quickly spread over every bud on my tongue. Eating the shishito should come with a warning “try at your own risk” because every once in a while, you’ll end up with one that is atomic-hot.

The salmon garlic croquettes ($5), rounded deep fried panko-encrusted salmon mixed with potato, were soft and warm on the inside with a slight crunch. They came with a sweet sauce. The garlic in the dish makes itself known, but is not overwhelming.

While unique, the croquettes were admittedly a little bland. This was perhaps a side-effect of my atomic pepper, but I couldn’t help wishing for a little more flavor. Flavor, however, comes in bunches with many of Oba’s specialty rolls. With names like Mango Tango, Richie Rich and Chimpanzee, each roll we tried was both beautifully presented and equally tasty.

The Richie Rich Roll ($14.50), aptly the most expensive item on the menu, is made of spicy tuna, jalapeño, sweet sauce, garlic, tuna, yellowtail, avocado, lemon rind, chili and ponzu. Once it enters the mouth, it starts with a citrus gusto before the chili and jalapeno crash the party with a zesty surprise.

Being that the restaurant was named Oba, we certainly had to try the Oba Roll ($10.50). The Oba roll has lettuce, yamagobo and jalapeño on the inside, oba leaves and house marinated beef on the outside, and a sweet and sour house sauce drizzled over everything. The initial taste is like a Thai spring roll with beef, and just as those flavors are registering from tongue to brain, the oba leaf washes over everything leaving a gingery, lemony, minty aftertaste.

Delectably yummy. And while all of those dishes I certainly enjoyed, the true star of the show was the sashimi. Fresh, without smell and extremely beautiful. The sake (salmon) and maguro (tuna) slid across the tongue like butter. Texturally, the uni (sea urchin) was like biting into a cloud. And as for my two favorites, the hirame (halibut) and hon hamachi (premium yellowtail), I would have to travel to the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo to find their equal. Just my humble opinion.

The best part, all of this goodness for under $70.

If ever there was a more appropriate name for a restaurant. Oba sushi might look ordinary on the outside, but the refreshing taste will linger with you.

Oba Sushi is located at 181 E. Glenarm St. in Pasadena. Lunch is Monday to Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Dinner is Monday through Sunday, 5:30 to 10 p.m. Free parking in front and rear. For a complete menu, visit www.obasushi.com or call (626) 799-8543.


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