Two Former Kitayama Sushi Chefs Open Kakurega in Costa Mesa

Photo by Edwin Goei

If you know about Kakurega, you’ve no doubt also heard its owners are a pair of former chefs from Newport Beach’s venerable Kitayama. It was primarily for this reason that I featured the Costa Mesa eatery in our food blog’s weekly roundup of new restaurant openings last November. And it’s also why I decided to formally review the place. Though there are a lot of sushi bars in Costa Mesa, few come with origin stories that trace back to one of the toniest establishments in Orange County.

It’s not as if Kakurega’s owners advertised it; they seem much too humble to do so. Instead, the Kitayama connection was revealed to me by comments left on its Facebook page by loyal customers who eagerly awaited the new venture. If I’ve learned anything from eating at countless sushi bars over the past three decades, it’s that the chefs are akin to lead singers in a band. They collect fans who would follow them to their next gig no matter what group they happen to be in. More than any other profession in the restaurant industry, the one-to-one interaction between sushi chefs and their clients fosters a loyalty that can sometimes border on hero worship. But at its core, it’s a relationship based on trust and rapport cultivated over time and toasts of sake and beer.

And it’s that kind of rapport that I witnessed between chefs Junichi Nishizawa and Shogo Suzuki and a particular customer one Saturday night at Kakurega. I could tell the three knew one another because when the man regaled the chefs with a story, he mentioned other names. The tale ended with the three of them laughing at the man’s punch line. If there weren’t a sushi counter separating them, they could’ve been three dudes out for a drink. It’s obvious the man came here specifically for them—and also more than likely he’d never stepped into the place when it was called Sushi Island.

Photo by Edwin Goei

I’d never been to Sushi Island, either, but from the looks of the pictures I saw online, it used to be tiki-themed, covered wall-to-wall with bamboo and Hawaiian luau kitsch. When Nishizawa and Suzuki bought it, they stripped the room down to its base coat. There’s nothing now but the bar, rudimentary chairs and a giant blackboard with specials scribbled in big, white letters.

In addition to these specials, the chefs offer a small menu of appetizers, soups, salads and mains alongside the usual list of nigiri and rolls. Right now, if you don’t count the sushi, there are three main entrées. This includes a New York steak seared brown on the outside and with a center that remained as cold and red as tartare; the steak came with a few roasted fingerling potatoes and a bowl of ponzu sauce for dipping. Yet, aside from the reasonable price of $15, eating it made me realize Kakurega’s strength is not with the land-based meats, but with its seafood.

The roast pork belly, one of the blackboard specials, confirmed this. Though properly roasted and topped with gobs of thinly sliced green onion and sesame oil, the plainness of the pork made me yearn for the bowl of ramen from which it seemed disembodied.

Every piece of seafood I’ve eaten here, on the other hand, dazzled me. No matter whether it’s completely cooked, briefly seared by blowtorch or raw, all the ocean critters I tasted that night seemed to become the very best versions of themselves in Nishizawa and Suzuki’s hands. The grilled cheek the chefs bake (and price affordably at $6.50) changes from night to night; consider yourself lucky if it’s hamachi, which I’ve had at countless sushi bars, but never like this where it’s nearly 99 percent meat.

The kitchen also produces soft-as-marshmallows octopus legs pan-fried in soy, garlic and butter. As with all things made with butter, the sauce was so addictive and decadent I ended up dribbling it on other dishes so as not to waste a drop. But the chefs excel with even the seafood appetizers that are served more or less naked. The best of these might be the six sashimi pieces of bluefin tuna maguro that are draped over mini-stacks of sliced cucumber, then topped with a dollop of a bracing relish made from wasabi stems.

And of course, the nigiri sushi was exemplary. The just-broiled unagi was perfect, the seared salmon sent shivers up my spine, and the sublime red snapper—which was crowned with a tuft of pickled shishito peppers—made me look forward to the day I come back for omakase and start cultivating that all-important itamae-client relationship. Maybe I’ll even have a story to share with them—perhaps this one.

Photo by Edwin Goei

Kakurega, 2574 Newport Blvd., Costa Mesa, (949) 873-5959. Open Tues.-Sun., 5:30-10 p.m. Entrées, $15-$29; sushi, $4-$13. Beer, sake and wine.

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.

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