Written by Zian Yang
In Costa Mesa, there’s a quaint little Japanese restaurant sitting on the corner. It’s called Ikko, and unlike other hospitable Japanese restaurants you can find in SoCal, the chalk board hanging outside warns customers that they “do not serve American rolls.” It may seem unfriendly to unfamiliar guests, but the regulars know it just means that they only serve authentic Japanese rolls here and not the kind you see when you walk by the refrigerator cases in the grocery store, or the ones you eat with ramen combos in some Americanized Japanese restaurants.
Just after the Meiji Restoration in 1868, a revolution happened in Japan that opened the nation to the western world. Many people left Japan for the U.S. because of the economic development. During the early 1900s, many Japanese people moved to Los Angeles after experiencing anti-Asian sentiment in San Francisco. The oldest Japanese fishing community was established in LA., along with the culture of Japanese food.
Walking inside Ikko, I noticed a wooden fence placed next to a glass door that separated the restaurant from the growling mufflers and pedestrian chatter from the street. A wooden wine loft behind the restaurant’s sushi bar creates an air of chic romanticism that reminds customers of traditional Japanese architecture. With only six tables and less than ten seats in front of the bar, the setting was intimate. A young Asian couple occupied a table in a hushed corner, speaking in low voices while enjoying the world around them.
In the background, a melodious Nat King Cole song eased guests into a comfortable mood. The smooth hum of the saxophone reminded me of reading books by myself at night. The beige curtains hanging from the ceiling made each table feel private, yet airy.
From the ingredients to the crafting process, each dish had its highlights. The experienced chef, dressed in a traditional Japanese sushi chef robe, precisely cut a whole piece of salmon into neat slices to make sashimi. After he used his bare hands to mold the shape of vinegar rice into a small mound, he carefully placed the sashimi on top. Laying in a semi-spherical translucent container, the orange-and-red-colored sashimi laid open upon ice. With wasabi and green perilla leaf placed on the side, the dish offered a thoughtfully-designed, artistic appearance.
The sashimi included three types of raw fish: filefish, young yellowtail and cherry salmon. The bouncy texture of filefish made it a little hard to tear apart, but the subtly sweet flavor hiding in the middle made the slice of fat taste juicy and not greasy. During winter, the yellowtail is very valuable because of its unique soft and oily texture. The light red color with the parallel pattern shows how fresh the fish is. With a slightly more vibrant color than regular salmon, the cherry salmon sashimi was extremely tender and fresh. Shipped from Japan, it showed off its superior, delicate texture with a tender and tart taste that melted in your mouth when paired with the perfect portion of lemon vinegar.
The piece of salmon roe sushi called Gunkan Maki (warship roll), is the most classic type of sushi in the world. The main feature of the roll was the ikura (salmon egg) that rested on top of rice pressed into the shape of an oval held together by nori (seaweed). The owner and chef of the restaurant, Ikko-san, does a good job of baking the nori to the appropriate degree, making the roll so crisp that you can split it in half in just one bite. In contrast to the crispness, the gigantic salmon roe bursts in your mouth like a supernova, emitting a strong and unique oceanic taste that one might never expect from a red globule-shaped caviar.
Last but not least, the dessert, rose tempura, is an original dish that you can only find in Ikko. Although one does not typically have dessert after meals in the Japanese culture, you do not want to miss out on the rose tempura: a rose petal covered in golden breadcrumb batter, laid on top of pink ice cream. The oily-crisp texture mixed with the honey-like perfume of rose-flavored ice cream felt like your taste buds are dancing to a tune of joy and happiness.
While Ikko’s dessert and sushi dishes had me craving for more, the overly-salty taste of their fried fish fillet masked its essential flavors. In addition, the $100 tab per person is what you’d usually expect from a restaurant in Japan.
Overall, Ikko is a restaurant worth visiting. The stylish decoration and unforgettable dishes are perfect when paired with California’s warm winters. The remarkably hospitable Japanese waitress and the superb delicacy of the food constantly reminds the customers of the core values of Japanese culture. To the Japanese immigrants in the Los Angeles area, it can bring a sense of home while bringing the true exotic taste of Japan with top-of-the-line quality.