11831 Wilshire Blvd. (between Westgate and Granville)
Los Angeles, CA 90025
For the entire week preceding January 4, 2006, with the exception of the few hours I was cheering for the Badgers then the Buckeyes, I was a diehard Texas Longhorn. I donned burnt orange and white, threw up my ‘horns without any given impetus, and exclaimed "Hook ‘em ‘Horns!" out my window out of sheer fanatical whim.
The strange thing is, I’m not a true Texas fan. I’m not a UT alum, not a Longhorn, didn’t even have a divided heart because a boyfriend or a brother played football there. About the closest I get is the fact that I spent about 10 years of my early childhood in Texas. The Republic of Texas is a big place though, y’all, and I wasn’t in Austin.
You see (UC), it’s not that I am a Texas fan. I am a USC anti-fan.
There may be some folks out there who would pooh pooh me for not supporting the home team, for wishing ill-will on our own Pac-10 in the Rose Bowl, in the Championship Bowl, for Pete Carroll’s sake! But in my little deliciously twisted fantasy football world, the only retribution for USC beating my teams, my Golden Bears (UC Berkeley) and my Bruins (UCLA) this past season, would be to see USC go down in flames in Pasadena. Down. In. Flames. Big, bright, burnt orange flames.
Okay, before I try to squeeze into my old high school cheerleading uniform, get into formation and start spelling out “d-e-f-e-n-s-e” in some weird stroll down my high school cheerleading memory lane, I’ll just say that in order to prepare for the big game, I planned to eat Texas Toast for breakfast, TexMex chili with Longhorn cheddar for lunch, but in the end only ended up on the evening of the big game eating that ever so Texan cuisine – sushi.
We had watched the previous bowl games first, in the leisurely comfort of our living rooms (three games on the same day? we need full control of the remote), then second in the relative quiet of a small, local bar with a good happy hour menu for Iron Chef Paterno vs. Bowden. But for the game, we decided that we had to be in it to win it. Let me tell you, when the wager is I-win-Lawry’s (not that I like the national chain of prime-rib restaurants, but simply because that’s where the two teams in the Rose Bowl eat every year before the game), or you-win-ramen, you definitely want to be in a public place so that you can humiliate your friends.
We ended up at Hana Sushi to watch the Rose Bowl.
Hana Sushi has been in that same spot on Wilshire Boulevard squashed between the non-stop frat party at Q’s and perpetual south-of-the-border Spring Break at Cabo Cantina for I don’t know how long. It’s been there at least as long as I’ve been lurking around the western parts of LA, so that’s at least 10 years, and 10 years ago, Hana Sushi already looked like it had some pretty good mileage on it. I ate there a few times when I first moved to the area, because how does one ignore a ginormous sign hovering over the place that screams out “SUSHI!” in a very strong Asian accent? The outside was a little rundown and the inside was, well, worse – dark, crusty, cracked vinyl booth decor from the 1980s, and had this strange unidentifiable odor lingering in the air. If I had to say something, I’d say dirty-dishrag-that’s-been-forgotten-in-the-corner-for-seventeen-days. Yeah, I’m sensitive to smell like that.
I don’t know what happened in the last few years, but it seemed that the place couldn’t quite keep up with itself nor with its raucous neighbors. I rarely, if ever, saw people eating in Hana Sushi, but maybe the view was just obstructed by teeming post-college patrons still clinging to their frat boy days. Then one day, with no prior warning, Hana Sushi was boarded up with “Under Renovation” spray-painted across as if by some freeway underpass tagger.
When it re-opened, I hadn’t been to Hana Sushi in more than 5 years, but decided to go back and try it. I was hopeful. If they renovated, surely they found that dirty dishrag hidden away now under the floorboards? Perhaps they had changed owners and would bring some quality sushi, even if it had to be between a keg stand and tequila shots. Then again, the fact that the sandwich board out front advertised a 4 to 7 pm Happy Hour was suspicious. Two-for-one draft beers or two-for-one chips and salsa from either of Hana’s neighbors is normal. Two-for-one sushi is...yikes.
Hana Sushi has definitely cleaned up, in both style and hygiene, but the overall decor and schizophrenic vibe still leaves a little to be desired. There are high bar-style tables and chairs on the front patio seating, presumably to ogle the gawk at the antics on the sidewalk in front on either side. Inside, it’s not quite as dark as it was before, but that’s due mainly to the glow of about a half dozen TV screens scattered around the restaurant flickering with football and other sports. The biggest screen is over the sushi bar that's manned by unhappy, reluctant Japanese sushi chefs. The internal structure of the restaurant is the same, with the long sushi bar along the right wall and tables in the middle of the dining room floor that are served by Latino servers in bowties. They still kept a few of the booths along the left wall, with updated upholstery. I don’t remember these existing prior to the re-model, but there is a small, full bar in the front tended by Bubblicious Academy girls, and in the back, a semi-private room labeled “The Office.”
Though the lure is the Happy Hour that starts at a very early 4 pm and ends at 7, the offering is less than desirable. The claim is that sushi is 2-for-1, but the Happy Hour menu is limited to just a few rolls, and the fine print at the bottom states that the special is on two of the same rolls. Two-for-one toilet paper at Ralph’s is awesome. Even jeans that are two-for-one are a good deal, since we all know that in LA, you can never have enough jeans (some are “going-to-the-market” jeans and you certainly can’t wear those as “going-out” jeans, duh). But two-for-one of the exact same maki sushi is too much. The beauty of sushi is that one can eat a few pieces of many different kinds of sushi. Two-for-one at Hana Sushi means one is eating twelve pieces of a Rattlesnake Roll. That’s a dozen pieces of too-thin unagi and imperceptible avocado loosely wrapped up in way too much rice and nori and drizzled with an overdose of sticky sweet unagi sauce.
Salmon skin and spicy hamachi rolls are better, but the cut pieces were tossed onto the plate without much apparent care, and pieces of rice were left to the wayside on the ends of the roll. They didn’t taste bad, and the salmon skin was wonderfully toasted, but sushi is one cuisine where looks very much matter. Then again, this is Happy Hour, and while some bargains truly are bargains, most of the time, you get what you pay for. Sushi is one of them. I’m not saying that extraordinary prices always mean extraordinary quality sushi, but more often than not, extraordinarily cheap prices reflect sub-decent quality sushi
Happy Hour has two-for-one sake, as well. The sake tasted somewhat of a fruity rubbing alcohol. Two-for-one, indeed.
Hana Sushi has a regular menu of appetizers and Japanese-inspired entrees (none of them part of the Happy Hour menu). As a breather from the sushi bar, I was interested in trying the duck spring roll, which yes, surprised even me, since I am not a huge fan of duck. I think I reasoned that if I’m going to learn to love duck, I may as well try it now, since pretty much anything will tastes good after two-for-one Rattlesnake rolls. The spring roll was flattened, so it looked more like an enclosed panini. Instead of simply deep-frying the spring roll skin, the roll had been unnecessarily dipped in a tempura batter then deep-fried, making for an extra crisp exterior. The ground duck filling inside wasn’t bad. It was very heavily spiced, so it didn’t taste much at all like duck – couldn’t decide if that was a negative or positive thing.
Very rarely do I order any of the specialty rolls in sushi bars. By creative, I am not referring to now-standard sushi menu items like the California roll or a Spider roll, or even that monstrosity of maki sushi, the Rainbow roll. I refer, instead, to those rolls that have decidedly un-sushi ingredients like mayonnaise or tomatoes or mangoes or the worst of all, cream cheese. The statement would have been “never,” except that there was a time of utter ignorance in my youth when I did eat things like “Las Vegas Roll” and “Funshine Sunshine Roll.” For some reason, it seems blasphemous to me, but for just one orange-martini-induced moment of Longhorn lunacy, I ordered a roll with cream cheese.
Don’t get me wrong. I love cream cheese. On a bagel! Okay, and I have been known, every once in a blue moon, to take a straight shot of cream cheese from a spoon. But cream cheese really has no place in sushi. Yet. At some point in the future, maybe 20 years from now, cream cheese in sushi will likely go the way of California rolls and just be so commonplace that I can’t fight it anymore. But until then, I will hold to the opinion that cream cheese, even if it’s combined with salmon, should stay on a bagel.
But I had to do it. I had to order the roll with cream cheese. It was called the Texas Roll. I know, I know. My ability to make good, sensible decisions was gone. The blue Curacao in the orange martini had clouded my judgment. Vodka had turned me into a crazed football fanatic. My tastebuds had donned some very thick beer-goggles. Or sake goggles. You know what I mean.
Hana Sushi’s Texas Roll is a Philadelphia Roll, which is made with salmon and cream cheese, but with the addition of fresh jalapenos to make it "Texan." *ugh* I am already kicking myself for calling out the "Philadelphia Roll" because I had previously refused to acknowledge that this thing has become a regular, standard item on sushi menus. Nonetheless, I did it for the game. My tastebuds took one for the team. I would like to think that lifting my personal ban on certain things in maki sushi and ordering the Texas Roll contributed to Texas' lovely 41-38 win over USC in the Rose Bowl/Championship Bowl. Because really, that was the only reason I ordered it. The Texas Roll wasn’t even on the Happy Hour menu. I paid full price for cream cheese in my sushi.
And yet, the Texas Roll didn't taste horrible. I am thinking, though, that the Texas Roll only tasted okay in those moments that I watched Vince Young gracefully sashay across the field to make a TD. Graceful. Masterful. Absolutely incredible.
What is this? A sports blog? Food. Focus on the food, girl. Stop thinking about those tight ends.
Anyway, I won’t order the Texas Roll again, and I highly doubt that I’ll go back to Hana Sushi on my own accord. Is it a sushi bar? Or a sports bar? Is it sophisticated afterwork hideaway for the office set, or a college hangout? Physically stuck between its younger, prettier, more outgoing neighbors, Hana Sushi must have had a mid-life identity crisis. But instead of improving itself by growing naturally into its best sushi self, Hana underwent an extreme makeover without knowing what it really wants to be, ending up trying, but sadly, failing, to be everything to everyone.
The sushi is sloppy and sub-tasty. Having two-for-one feels less like a half-price bargain and more like an unwanted overdose of bad sushi. The Rose Bowl evening experience was great fun with the company (somehow, my little good luck Pooh Bear in my purse escaped onto the bartop in a cocktail napkin diaper – that’s how much silly fun we were having), but the owner’s bad business is what sealed the sour deal for me. Oh, didn’t I mention what the owner did on the evening of the Rose Bowl?
Although Hana Sushi’s Happy Hour is advertised from 4 to 7 pm, it was cut off more than an hour early. I guess the owner realized that he didn’t need the happy hour incentive anymore to get people into the restaurant during what is normally a very slow period. He was getting more than his fair share of Rose Bowl business from Q’s and Cabo’s leftovers (both places had lines out front that only moved when someone left). This is understandable, and certainly, it’s his place, so has every prerogative to do what he wants. He cou
ld have even revoked the happy hour specials completely for that day. The regrettable thing is that he didn’t tell us, and we continued to order from the happy hour menu, only to be told after the fact that it had been cut off much earlier. It’s not that I would have left when happy hour was over, nor that I would have stopped eating, but if I was going to be paying full price for sushi, I certainly wouldn’t have been ordering two-for-one ickie maki.
The only reason I might ever go back there is to try the Bananagasm dessert.
But only after I cash in my prime rib dinner at Lawry’s. :) 41 to 38.