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Chefs That Have a Unique Wrap on Sushi

Written By: Susan Krupa 5 SD Restaurants Doing Sushi Differently

Photographed By: Josie Gonzales

Sushi is known to be a minimalist cuisine and, at its core, is simply vinegar-flavored rice accompanied by fish, vegetables or egg. However, there are seemingly endless ways of combining these basic ingredients to create something that is delicious yet unexpected. Sushi, as we know it today, originated as eating raw fish with rice in order to consume the fish at its peak flavor before it could be altered by cooking or time. It has been a part of Japanese cuisine since the early 1300s, but really became a part of the national identity after the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. Sushi chefs were dispersed throughout Japan to aid in the disaster relief. They made sushi locally by plucking fish from the sea and laying it over rice to feed the masses.

In San Diego, there seems to be a sushi restaurant on almost every corner. While convenient for picking up a California Roll during lunch, it gives the illusion that all sushi is created equal. In reality, there are plenty of restaurants in this city and surrounding areas that are distinguishing themselves by creating items that are unique, spins traditional sushi on its head, or are just plain fun. So whether you are a sushi purist or like to push the boundaries, there is a sushi restaurant in town that’s sure to be just right for you.

Blue Ocean Robata and Sushi Bar
2958 Madison St
Carlsbad, CA 92008
760.434.4959 |

After a day at the beach, you are looking for something that is cool and refreshing. That pick-me-up is the Summer Roll at Blue Ocean and Robata in Carlsbad. Tuna, salmon, white fish, krab, avocado and smelt egg are all beautifully wrapped in cucumber. A little spicy mayo and ponzu sauce perfectly finish off this light dish. Guess what? There isn’t any rice, so no extra bulge in your pool belly to worry about! The quality of the fish is always the crux of the dish as Blue Ocean prides itself on combining the fresh flavors from the ocean in new and beautiful ways. Each dish not only is expertly prepared but is artistically designed with flowers, sliced fruits and vegetables carved into elaborate decorative designs called Mukimono. The overall effect is a plate that looks like an edible spring garden.

Blue Ocean also features menu items not commonly found in your typical sushi restaurant, such as live shellfish options. If you have never had live urchin, scallop or geoduck clam, be adventurous and give them a try! Live urchin specifically has a surprisingly rich, creamy flavor with the texture of butter. It is a true departure from how urchin is typically served. If live shellfish isn’t your thing, Blue Ocean has a wide selection of specialty rolls and sushi items. Head Sushi Chef Scott Yang recommends the French Kiss with krab and avocado topped with albacore, kaiware (daikon sprouts), garlic mustard, spicy mayo, and a drop of chili sauce. Rather than being rolled in rice and seaweed, the fish is artfully presented on individual slices of cucumber.

Blue Ocean also has many robata-style grilled items that are slow-cooked over hot charcoal imported from Japan. They offer many cooked skewers of meat, seafood and vegetables, such as Stuffed Shiitake Mushroom, Wagyu Meatball and Scallop with Bacon. With such a variety, everyone can easily find something to enjoy. Open for lunch, happy hour and dinner, Blue Ocean is the place to go for fresh, top-of-the-line sushi where each plate is truly a work of art. Reservations for dinner are recommended.

Native Knowledge: Mukimono is the art of creating beautiful decorative garnishes from fruits and vegetables. Mukimono is different from more commonly seen garnishes of herbs as they are intended to be eaten as an accompaniment along with the dish, so don’t leave those pretty carrots or shredded daikon behind. They have been purposefully selected to go with your dish!

Sushi Freak
5175 Linda Vista Rd #105
San Diego, CA 92110
619.296.2500 |

For the ultimate in customizable sushi, Sushi Freak is a fast casual restaurant where you can have your roll made your way. Co-founders Michael Broder and Jenifer Duarte have created a place where every decision you make is sure to be a delicious one. Walking into the space, you are presented with over 40 different ingredient options that you can combine into New School Rolls or smaller Old School Rolls. As sushi is typically not food that travels well, the New School Rolls were created with those who take their sushi seriously. At Sushi Freak, your entree-sized roll is wrapped in paper, like a burrito, and conveniently sliced in half making it the perfect Japanese food to go.

To place your order, select either a seaweed or soy roll. Next, choose your protein. There are both traditional sushi items such as tuna, hamachi and salmon as well as non-traditional sushi choices like chicken teriyaki and coconut shrimp, so both landlubbers and seafood enthusiasts alike will find something to enjoy. Even vegetarians will be happy to see inari (fried tofu) on the menu. After the protein comes the toppings: do you want mandarin oranges with your tofu or avocado with your hamachi? How about asparagus, mango and jalapeño with spicy tuna? Add some toasted coconut or wasabi mayo — why not? The possibilities are endless. Then watch your New School Roll come to life. Want to throw a curve-ball during the creation of your “sushi burrito” by adding unagi sauce? Go ahead! Wrap it up new school! Sushi Freak encourages all creativity.

If all of this is just sounds like too many decisions to make, Sushi Freak offers a variety of pre-planned (but not pre-made) “burritos” and rolls. A creative option is the Mango Tango which is a soy-wrapped “burrito” with krab mix, mango, cucumber and spring mix with a delightful Thai vinaigrette. Also, the New Mexican is a fun Japanese and Mexican fusion “burrito” that includes salmon, krab mix, avocado and cucumber topped with spicy tuna, New Mexico green chile and fire sauce. Sounds like a lot? Well, combined together into a jumbo burrito sized roll, it makes for a crunchy, spicy, party in your mouth. If you want a smaller roll, try the Dragon, which is an adventurous mix of krab mix, avocado and cucumber with freshwater eel, tobiko and unagi sauce on top. Fellow diners will consider you fearless.

All New and Old School Rolls come with homemade dipping sauces which recipes are guarded under lock and key; trust me I tried to get them to share the ingredients to no avail. The restaurant is constantly cutting fish and making fresh rice. They even have a loyalty card: buy 10, get a roll free. And if you are a USD student, Sushi Freak accepts the Torero ID Card. Sushi Freak lives up to their claim that they are a sushi experience like you have never had it before — your way.

Native Knowledge: Jenifer Duarte, COO of Sushi Freak, was taught by traditional Master Sushi Chef James Oh. Chef Oh’s approach to sushi making is patience and artful preparation. He had to be convinced that good sushi could be made in a fast, casual setting. By incorporating skilled fish cutting techniques and continuous preparation of ingredients, Sushi Freak stays true to the time-honored traditions at the root sushi culture.

Sushi Deli 2
135 Broadway
San Diego, CA 92101
619.233.3072 |

In downtown San Diego within walking distance of the Gaslamp District is Sushi Deli 2 — a sushi restaurant that is the epitome of fusion cuisine. Seeing the popularity of Mexican cooking in Southern California along with San Diego’s love of sushi, Kuniko Holmes explored ways to combine the two. The result is a menu that is full of items that marry the two culinary cuisines into dishes such as the Spicy Tuna Tacos, the Shrimp Diablo Roll and the famous SD Nachos.

When creating the SD Nachos a year ago, Homes was looking for an item that would be something that the locals and her regulars would love that they couldn’t get anywhere else. She experimented with many different combinations before deciding to use fried wonton chips and topping them with krab, tomatoes, homemade spicy mayo, tonkatsu sauce, onions and cilantro. It’s a great appetizer to share, and the crispy wontons have the same texture as tortilla chips, but have a flavor that proves to be something completely different. The krab, sauces and toppings combine together to produce a flavor that is salty yet sweet, and spicy yet mild. Even those who aren’t fans of sushi would like the wonton chips and sauces.

More fantastic fusion-inspired items are the salmon and shrimp Sushi Tacos. The tacos are available every day but are on special on Tako Tuesdays. Looking to create simple, street tacos, Holmes took a scientific approach to creating new dishes. By experimenting with unusual flavor combinations like basil and sesame, the taste that explodes from these tacos defies categorization as either Mexican or Japanese. The most popular is the Shrimp Taco that has rice, shrimp tempura, avocado, jalapeño, spicy sauce and cilantro. The delicious Salmon Taco has Asian pesto, toasted sesame seeds, cilantro and seaweed salad with a generous piece of fresh salmon. Non-fish fans can order the Chicken Taco with grilled chicken, house-made pico de gallo, cilantro, wasabi mayo and firecracker sauce. Sushi Deli 2 is where Japan and Mexico share a common border.

Even the drinks have a Mexican-Asian flair. The Soju Boody Mary uses soy sauce instead of Worcestershire Sauce and wasabi instead of horseradish. For margarita fans, there is a Soju Margarita. Local, craft beers are also available on tap as well as Japanese favorites. When you can’t decide between Mexican classics or traditional sushi, Sushi Deli 2 is a great place to come for reasonably priced sushi, craft beer, Tako Tuesdays, or a late night happy hour.

Native Knowledge: Japanese native Kuniko Holmes moved to California with some knowledge of the English language, but certainly not Spanish. To find the places that served some of the most authentic Mexican food in the area, Holmes learned Spanish and is now trilingual. Her language abilities enabled her to learn about Mexican cuisine from Spanish and English speaking locals in order to be able to incorporate it into her own brand of Mexican-Japanese fusion.

207 Fifth Ave
San Diego, CA 92101
619.814.4124 |

Nobu at the Hard Rock Hotel in the Gaslamp District is Chef Nobuyuki Matsuhisa’s San Diego outpost of his popular New York and Beverley Hills restaurants which are famous for their blend of Japanese and South American cuisines. His international chain of restaurants includes two hotels, but the quality and distinctive style found in the original establishments have not been lost. The San Diego Nobu is lead by Chef David Meade who worked at both the Nobu Miami and New York locations before coming to California. In keeping with the Nobu style, the menu is comprised of unique creations presented in a sophisticated way. Served in a restaurant with an elegant ambiance, dinner at Nobu is sure to be a memorable visit.

Some of the menu items that have become popular are the tacos. Each of the tacos they have is made of different ingredients and toppings specifically made for the type of fish featured in the dish. The Nobu Sashimi Tacos are served on a wonton shell with yellowfin tuna, Asian pico de gallo and chives. The crunchy wonton shells are reminiscent of a corn shell which holds generous cuts of tuna that are velvety smooth and rich in flavor. The pico de gallo with the chives creates a flavor combination that is unexpected yet delectable. The Matsuhisa Bluefin Tuna Tacos are completely different. Served in a paper thin fried potato shell, these tacos are made with an excellent piece of bluefin tuna belly that has been minimally handled or changed, leaving it extremely tender. This results in a piece of mouthwatering tuna unlike other cuts or tuna varieties.

The rest of the dinner menu includes Nobu’s legendary Black Cod Miso and the Yellowtail Jalapeño Roll. Other creative noteworthy items include the Baby Abalone with Light Garlic Sauce, Lobster with Wasabi Pepper Sauce, and Squid Pasta with Light Garlic Sauce. Nobu is open for dinner nightly and is a classy yet modern restaurant in a great location serving exceptional food that cannot be found anywhere else. Nobu is definitely the place to go for a stylish dinner while out for a night on the town in the Gaslamp District. Reservations are recommended.

Native Knowledge: Nobu became a celebrity chef after the opening of his Beverly Hills restaurant in 1987. Frequented by many Hollywood actors, it quickly was “the place to eat” in the LA food scene. Robert De Niro, who was a frequent guest, became one of Nobu’s business partners and together they took the restaurant global. His friendship with De Niro even resulted in Nobu appearing in Martin Scorcese’s film “Casino.”

Fish Attack Sushi House
4575 Clairemont Dr
San Diego, CA 92117
858.490.0150 |

When Bara Kim opened Fish Attack Sushi House 16 months ago, she was looking for something original to put on the menu. Given how popular pizza is in American cuisine, she wondered if they could make a sushi pizza. After a period of trial and error, the Sushi Pizza as it sits on the menu today was born. This unique creation uses a small, deep-fried sushi rice base as the “dough.” It is drizzled with three kinds of sauces including spicy mayo, wasabi mayo and eel sauce instead of a tomato sauce, and topped with spicy tuna, fresh hamachi, and sprouts. It’s then sliced perfectly for sharing. The crunchiness of the deep-fried rice is a nice contrast to the texture of the fish, and the combination of sauces add a sweet and spicy flavor that is different than any pizza you’ve had before. It even looks like a pizza, as opposed to other sushi rolls that you may pick up with chopsticks. It doesn’t need soy sauce or any additional accompaniment, making it a great item to order to go.

At Fish Attack, Kim’s focus is on combining quality ingredients in order to best complement the natural flavors of the fish. The restaurant uses only real crab, fresh fish and Japanese mayonnaise. The Fish Attack Special Roll combines all of these elements. With crab, eel, avocado and cucumber topped with tuna, hamachi, salmon, sprouts, and four kinds of sauces, it is an explosion of flavors. It’s sweet, spicy, salty, and umami all in one bite. Another popular roll is the Kamikaze, which has scallop, crab, spicy tuna and asparagus topped with salmon and hamachi. Drizzled with spicy mayo and teriyaki sauce, this roll is for those who like their sweet with heat on the side. The Kobe Beef Roll is shrimp tempura, crab mix and avocado topped with real Kobe Beef, green onions and sweet and spicy sauce. It’s Fish Attack’s take on the classic surf and turf.

The restaurant is especially busy for dinner with Kim making sushi alongside other seasoned sushi chefs. Working in their groove, they turn dozens of complex rolls to feed the many guests coming in to sit down and those who are grabbing and going. However, Kim is clearly the head cheerleader of her restaurant. She knows many guests by name, knows her food and ingredients well, and makes the restaurant a welcoming place for both friends and first timers alike.

Native Knowledge: Anyone who has tried Japanese mayonnaise can vouch for the fact that it is distinctly different from traditional American mayonnaise. But what is the actual difference? The key is that Japanese mayonnaise uses a rice vinegar and egg yolks rather than other mayonnaise that uses white vinegar plus both the egg yolks and whites. American mayonnaise also includes water, whereas Japanese mayonnaise does not, which makes it thicker. Additionally, some brands of Japanese mayonnaise use MSGs instead of salt, which gives it an umami taste.