Fatty Tuna is unlike any sushi bar OC has ever seen. It’s an entirely new subspecies. It offers traditional omakase meals centered on nigiri, but it doesn’t operate in the manner of Sushi Noguchi, Nana San or Hamamori, whose elder craftsmen would cut and sculpt masterpieces in front of your eyes. Instead, the two people who make Fatty Tuna’s sushi are hidden in the kitchen, where you can’t see their hands, their knives or the fish they’re cutting. You can only see their heads and shoulders, which are visible via the rectangular opening through which they occasionally slide plates of sushi as though they were Grand Slam® breakfasts.
In fact, the place can’t technically be called a sushi bar. There is no bar, no countertop display refrigerator full of fish, and no chance to offer your chef a toast of sake for a job well done. You are just as removed from the creation process here as you would be sitting in a corner booth of a revolving sushi joint. And though you could choose a counter seat, it’s not for the opportunity to interact with anyone, except maybe the manager, who’s too buried in order tickets to chat. If Fatty Tuna were to switch to serving burgers and fries someday, you wouldn’t blink an eye. The restaurant’s dining room resembles a blank slate with bare white walls, birch-wood tables, and wiry stools that look as if they couldn’t support anyone who weighs more than 100 pounds.
But this is not to say Fatty Tuna isn’t good. Actually, the restaurant is an OC trailblazer (if not a regional one, the Sugarfish chain in Los Angeles has done this for ages). It has carved out its own niche in the county’s sushi-restaurant hierarchy, and it did so with the conviction of knowing it has something new to offer. In this space, it has found an unoccupied and unmet market smack in the middle between the expensive itamae-run places at the top and those ultra-cheap all-you-can-eat joints that dole out wasabi by the ice cream scoop at the bottom.
Core to its operating principle is how much it charges for its omakase. As of this writing, the cheapest is a $20 set. The highest is $42 for a meal that has a dozen pieces of nigiri, two premium hand rolls, a sashimi appetizer and edamame. When you compare these prices to Ootoro Sushi across town—which charges $130 for its base-level omakase and $300 for its premium—Fatty Tuna becomes a downright bargain.
This kind of pricing hits the sweet spot for a certain set of sushi consumers who’d balk at the spotty quality of the fish at those all-you-can-eat joints but wouldn’t mind that what Fatty Tuna’s chef, Randy Fukushima, is creating isn’t nigiri in the traditional sense. The fish aren’t molded or even pressed onto the rice. Instead, Fukushima kind of just loosely lays them on top. As such, some pieces might fall apart when you turn them upside-down to dip them in soy sauce. But despite this and the slightly gummy rice, the fish is top-notch and the variety of sauces brushed onto them spot-on.
Fukushima’s most expensive omakase begins with the edamame, followed by a small plate of cold, cubed tuna dressed in ponzu. Next comes the parade of nigiri. You’re served two pieces each of albacore with chives, salmon with sesame seeds, and yellowtail topped with bits of diced green chile. Then comes a warm, crisp-edged unagi nigiri, served just seconds from the broiler. Afterward, the scallops arrive, which are sweet and meaty mouthfuls with the texture of just-set Jell-O. And somewhere in between, the chef’s special is presented, which, if you’re lucky, is the hand-torched salmon belly that melts into decadence.
By the time you move on to the hand rolls—which Fukushima kindly cuts in half if you’re sharing—you start doing the math. If you ordered it à la carte, that hand roll filled with an entire snow crab leg’s worth of meat would’ve cost $5.50. The toro hand roll sells for $6 apiece. All told, getting the omakase saves between $15 and $20, which is at least a 25 percent discount than if you were to buy each piece separately.
And that may be the best argument Fatty Tuna has going for it. The owners, Wonny Lee and Hugh Pham of the Kroft, seem to understand that while a quality sushi meal can never be cheap, it doesn’t have to leave you feeling as if you’ve been fleeced.
Fatty Tuna even offers a $14 special that has several options, including a so-called “jewelry box” bowl with assorted fish and veggies. Unfortunately, the special is only offered until 3 p.m. And it’s probably for this reason: Even though the restaurant has discovered an unfilled slot in the sushi spectrum serving the middle ground, it knows it’s a slippery slope from offering deals to slopping wasabi by the ice cream scoop.
Fatty Tuna, 22967 Michelson Dr., Ste. G, Irvine, (949) 825-6266; www.fattytunasushi.com. Open Sun.-Thurs., 11:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Meal for two, $40-$90, food only. Beer, wine and sake.
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.