Thoughtful Sushi

A couple of years ago, I stumbled upon an anecdote from a Las Vegas chef, regarding the Pixar movie “Ratatouille.” He organized a weeknight field trip to a local cinema with 40 to 50 fellow chefs to catch the last showing of the flick on a Tuesday night, after all the serious dining patrons had returned to the land of loud ticket-spitting machines and free cocktails. The collective nestled into their seats and quickly realized they had commandeered the theater, giving them the freedom to act and react any way they damn well please without judgment. According to the anecdote, when they got to the moment where the film’s eponymous dish whisks the mind of briquette-souled food critic Anton Ego back to his mom’s perfect iteration of the dish as a child, a chef shot out of his chair like a Mentos-addled soda stream and proclaimed, “You see? THIS is why we do what we do!” Nobody shouted him down. They were too busy nodding in agreement.

It’s a great story, veracity be damned. It’s great because the sentiment plays just as well on the other side of the kitchen. I live for these Anton Ego moments, where a simple bite of food alters the fourth dimension just enough to make you a temporary time traveler within your own psyche. They’re my favorite bites without question. I have no idea how my taste buds and my inner photo book occasionally connect. I don’t care, really. I’m just glad that it does.

The best thing about taking a memory-triggering bite of food is that you have no idea when or where it’s going to happen. It’s not unlike the old relationship axiom that everyone tells you when you’re a dorky teenager. You can’t seek it out, you just got to let it happen. When it does occur, it’s fun to bask in its afterglow and deconstruct how and why it took place. Sometimes this is easy for me to do – it’s fairly obvious why a bite into a juicy burger from a mom and pop joint may evoke memories of childhood family barbecues. Then there are times when the sensation stems from a place so esoteric, it nearly feels like cognitive dissonance. Having my childhood memories triggered by sushi in deeply suburban Orange County, California qualifies as the latter.

Yorba Linda is a pretty slice of affluent suburbia tucked in the far northeast quadrant of Orange County. It’s stocked with gently undulating foothills, and select streets are lined with wide white post and rail fences to prevent neighborhood horses and their riders from accidentally veering into the road. Its limited freeway access also makes it a trek for most OC residents to visit. The restaurant scene here tends to reflect this logistic challenge; the city is loaded with chains and neighborhood family joints that, while buoyed by the devotion of locals, aren’t very alluring to outsiders needing to contend with rush hour traffic and overstuffed weekend schedules.

There is one exception: Sushi Noguchi. It’s in a strip mall along Yorba Linda’s main drag, a few doors down from a grocery store and a couple of doors up from a liquor store. Its unassuming location boosts its trustworthiness – Southern California’s best sushi joints tend to be in strip malls. When you walk through its nondescript storefront, you’re treated to bright woods, black and white family photos and flourishes of color, some of which are provided by the beautiful hunks of fish lining the bar where sushi chef and co-owner Hiro Noguchi crafts his magic. You’re also in the presence of OC’s finest sushi.

I say this now because I’ve been there several times. When I initially heard about it, I had trouble getting past the specter of driving 20 miles for sushi. There were places near my neighborhood that satisfied. All I could think of when I heard colleagues talk it up was, “is it worth the drive?” This question weighed heavily at first, but the inquiry’s poundage inquiry kept dropping each time another colleague raved and showed me photos of their sculpture-quality omakase – and there were many colleagues. Eventually, I felt like a weirdo for not embarking on the journey. When I finally went, my enthusiasm equaled my curiosity.

That I was willing to drive for sushi is nearly a story on its own. I used to be an ugly American when it came to raw fish for reasons that can only be chalked up to flimsy rationale. I was a teenager when sushi made its first hard, widespread splash in the Los Angeles area in the mid-80s. When it did make the scene, local lifestyle shows like “Eye on L.A.” presented the Japanese delicacy as some wackadoo fad du jour followed by trend-obsessed Angelinos. My brain latched onto this treatment like canon. I don’t think that I was ever turned off by the concept of eating raw fish, but I was definitely put off by the notion that eating sushi equated to chic Hollywood silliness. I came from a blue-collar family. We ate relatable food like chili and meatloaf. Sushi was too gauche.

I carried this stubborn position with me until a summer night in 1998. I was ironically in Hollywood, helping a friend that needed a house manager for a play his fledgling theater company was producing. About a half-hour before the space’s doors open to the public, one of the actors speed-walked up to me, a quartet of sushi piece semi-sandwiched between black Styrofoam and sloppily pulled back cellophane in his left hand.

“Hey man,” he said. “You want this?”

“Uh…sure?” I replied nervously.

“Cool,” he answered, slapping the container on an adjacent table. I didn’t think about things; I just reached down, grabbed a roll, and popped it in my mouth.

“Crap. I like it.”

I now realize my abnormality. The proper response would have been to be wowed by the discovery of a new and exciting food that had unexpectedly entered my life. Instead, I reacted with a twinge of disappointment. I’m not entirely sure where the emotion came from, either. It’s still debatable whether I was saddened because I willfully avoided an awesome food for over a decade or because I felt like a sell-out. All I know now is that the sushi probably wasn’t all that great. Sushi packed in Stryofoam and cellophane seldom excites. I also know that every time I indulge in quality sushi, there’s a part of me that feels like I am making up for lost time.

My wife and I take a seat at Sushi Noguchi’s sushi bar. We have ordered Hiro’s omakase, per the recommendation of every colleague that had dined here before. The leadoff dish comes out shortly after we pour sake for each other. It’s a visual stunner. Radiantly hued sashimi festoons each corner of the triangular plate – tuna, salmon, and yellowtail, simple yet sensual. They’re arranged diagonally, and each piece naturally directs the eye to the center, where two gorgeous, burly rolls of uni wrapped in seaweed boldly stand. Their golden shade is too alluring to let stand for long.

I take a slow bite of the uni. The oceanic essence of flavor bursts in my mouth. My eyes close without shutting. I’m no longer looking at the plate where the uni once stood. Instead, I’m 12 years old, hanging out amongst the rocky outcroppings of Point Fermin Park in San Pedro, California, a few slippery steps from the Pacific Ocean, in the shadow of a massive cliff. I’m precariously standing on a too-smooth rock, surrounded by tide pools of varying sizes. The brine fills my nostrils. The summer sun mildly taps my fair complexion. The surf and cliffs create a polyrhythmic beat as if it were a jazz fusion percussionist. I look down to spot a hermit crab in his latest makeshift shell darting from one crag to another. I look up and see my father on a broad, flat rock that’s dripping wet with the occasional intrusion of surf. His hair is not shock white. His knees have yet to betray him. He is the dad of my youth, the dad that still exists in my heart, the one that I still cling on to when I see him slowly amble to my house with hunched back and cane-addled gait. The visual lingers too fleetingly. It would have been too short if it lasted minutes. I return to reality with a slightly quivering lip.

“Everything okay?” my wife asks.

I breathe deeply. “Oh, yes,” I reply, leaning back in my chair. “I just had a moment. A very good moment.”

I finish off the uni, knowing full well that the next bite will not contain flashback material. That’s the way these things work. You cannot re-experience the unexpected once the veil has been lifted, no matter how transcendent the morsel. This seems especially true if the experience comes from highly odd origins. But I don’t care. A delicious piece of sushi sent me back and time so I could chill with my dad amidst rocky outcroppings. There’s no reason for me to get greedy.

About a month after my sushi-fueled fever dream, I’m in the midst of a father-daughters day with my two pre-teens. Our Friday morning excursion to the Long Beach Aquarium wrapped up quicker than anticipated, despite sitting down and watching a sea lion show and a documentary analyzing the Port of Long Beach’s insane daily bustle. Heading home isn’t an option given the summertime gorgeousness. I get an idea. We’re going to Point Fermin.

This decision is purely a product of logistics. Point Fermin is 25 miles from my house and tucked away from freeways. This normally makes it a pain to visit, yet the trip to the Aquarium cuts the slog in half. This make it perfect for me to pass my childhood happiness to the next generation.

We pull into Point Fermin’s parking lot, and the oldest excitedly points out the park’s centrally located lighthouse in a manner that I may have some thirty years ago. They scamper quickly toward the black and white-striped tower while I mosey behind under thick shade. The park is empty, save for the couple strolling hand-in-hand along the seawall. The chunky crunch of waves slapping cliffs grows with each step. It’s positively Kincaidian.

And all I can think about is Hiro’s uni.

My senses became engorged on the memory of this bite. The scent of the sea makes me miss the aromatics of the dish. I shut my eyes long enough to visualize the texture of the morsel. I breathe through my mouth to see if any tastes are triggered. It only succeeds in making me wonder when I’m going to get back there to enjoy the uni again, which I naturally hope is sooner than later – you know, making up for lost time and all that.

It’s a good thing Hiro’s uni keeps my mind occupied. Point Fermin is a fraction of what existed in my head. Its grass is unkempt and blotchy, its benches and pergolas distressed. The natural rock formation that leads to the tidepools I frolicked in is now forbidden territory, cordoned off by a hideous chain link fence. The barrier’s presence knocks me from my mental sushi loop long enough to recall the story of Mario Danelo, the USC placekicker who fell to his death around here. Even if the tragedy does not officially equate to the closure, it becomes self-correlation as I stare through its holes. I spy a pair of young guys slowly squeezing through a makeshift gash in the fence, carefully maneuvering past the sliced metal sticks that threaten to snag their T-shirts. Any personal temptation to do the same thing ends with my daughters’ voices. I sigh.

I gather the girls and head back to the car. Hiro’s sushi fades from memory by the time we hit the parking lot. “Did you have a good time?” I ask.

“Yes!” the eldest squeaks. “Can we come back and tour the lighthouse?”

“Sure we can!” I reply.

“Coolio,” she answers demurely.

We get back on the road, a big smile on my face. Sure, dropping by Point Fermin turned out to be a dud for me – apparently you can’t go to parks of your youth again, either. But I at least have the satisfaction of knowing that one day, there may be a day my daughters inadvertently flash back to the time spent at the park with their old man. Possibly because of a perfect bite of sushi.