Co-editors: Grace C. and Michael T. (updated in 1/4/2021)
If you are not looking for a sushi roll covered in mayo, deep-fried crunchy stuff, topped off with a sweet sauce, this is the list for you of the best sushi in Orange County.
A roll or two can be a good thing on occasion although this list focuses on ingredients you can actually taste and appreciate without thinking “these flavors remind me of a freezer-burned tuna that sat buried under frozen tamales topped off with some spicy sauce.” So if you want to find the best sushi in Orange County that reflects Japanese culture, you have come to the right place.
The Judging Criteria
What I am looking for:
- Nigiri sushi: edomae-style sushi is the stuff your friends saw Jiro do, and now they’re all about it which is why they have you scouting out new spots to try (this is the best list for Orange County, but don’t expect much).
- Pricing: my pockets can’t make it rain Benjamins or Jacksons for any Nobu, Daisuke, Aki, Alizay, or Cristal, so I’ll warn you of the pricier spots.
- Sashimi to makizushi: starting off as a baseline, they have to at the very least do it as well as my obachan (grandmother) did, or at the level of my aunts or uncles trying to carry on the tradition of preparing futomaki and California rolls (that’s the Japanese-American side). BTW, I have no idea how this came about, but we used to eat maguro sashimi with lettuce which maybe was a daikon alternative?
- Kitchen menu: sushi bars in the States have to appeal to American diners, so I’ll also base things on the tempura, the teriyaki combo’s, to the kaiseki menu (I think only one spot on this list offers one).
- Service and atmosphere: I have a design background, so I like design but the hunger from my belly covering up my 6-pack abs come first.
The Sushi Bar Contenders
I know there might appear to be a lot of Japanese restaurants in Orange County, but the vast majority of them are Americanized or “Japanese inspired.” The ones below are for the most part legit although some can fake-the-funk, but I won’t bother calling them out.
- Name of the restaurant: Google Places imagery.
- (#) signifies the number of times I’ve been, thanks Michael T.
- A brief description: hopefully I’m spot on with the summary.
- Bistro Anju (0), Aliso Viejo, “bistro,” for those looking for Euro influenced sushi.
- Buddha’s Favorite (0), Newport Beach, dockside but not nearly as pricey or the ability of Nobu.
- Hamamori (0), Costa Mesa, they’re located in South Coast Mall.
- Hanare Sushi (0), Costa Mesa, high on my hit list of places to try.
- Roku (2), Newport Beach, mainstream company that does a lot right (esp. staffing).
- Shunka (180+), Costa Mesa, more variety than most aquariums.
- Ikko (2+), Costa Mesa, gold flake, caviar, truffles, and no American rolls.
- Imari (0), Costa Mesa, rolls, rolls, and maybe some nigiri sushi.
- Jizake (1), Laguna Niguel, they put the bar in sushi bar.
- Jizake (3), Newport Beach, it looks like a Long John Silvers inside.
- Kasen Sushi – CLOSED (2), Tustin
- Kakurega Sushi, Costa Mesa, the place a Kitayama veteran started early on.
- Kitayama Sushi – CLOSED (4), Newport Beach, garden, tatami mats, private rooms.
- Koto Sushi (2), Costa Mesa, everybody hypes the chirashi here.
- Matsu (0), Huntington Beach, old school sushi bar with a full bar and teppanyaki.
- Murasaki sushi (50+), Santa Ana, the best, but not personable.
- Nana San (30+), Newport Beach, friendly and packed, like family.
- Nobu (0), Newport Beach, valeting your boat is next level.
- Noguchi Sushi (1), Yorba Linda, salmon, salmon, and more expensive salmon.
- Ohshima Japanese Cuisine (3), Orange, if you’re all about size, this is your spot.
- Sankai Sushi (1), Santa Ana, limited variety but a solid place for sushi.
- San Shi Go (8+), Newport Beach, the best professional service in the area.
- Satoshi Sushi (formerly Kasen, 0), Fountain Valley, the noob out of the bunch.
- Shibucho (2), Costa Mesa, S.W.A, sushi chefs with attitude.
- Sota (1), Corona Del Mar, Nihonjin’s, but the hakujin chef was very good.
- Taiko (0), Irvine, size is life/everything.
- Uoko (3), Tustin, not bad which is why they’ve been around for a while.
- Wazen Sushi (50+), Lake Forest, the best soup, salad, and rice just to start with.
- Yosuke Sushi (0), Anaheim Hills, fancy digs in the Anaheim Hills.
NEW (edit 12/27/2019) KAKUREGA SUSHI / COSTA MESA
Before Kitayama in Newport Beach closed, this is a where a veteran of Kitayama went off to start-up.
I have not been yet because I am currently in Colorado building a ramen ya business, but I’m sure this is a few folks from Kitayama (Sho’san). He’s connected to the same network, so I know it’s got to be good.
10. MITSUWA (REFRIGERATED SECTION) – MULTIPLE LOCATIONS
The Jessica Albacore roll at every Americanized sushi spot could could care less about their sushi rice which is why Mitsuwa makes this list.
I feel like a dick having Mitsuwa as number ten on this list because it is not a “sushi bar,” and it is pre-made sushi that is in the refrigerated section of the market. Although I have it on the list because I would rather eat the sushi here more than a majority of the sushi bars that are in Orange County.
The quality of their neta (topping/filling) is good, but the reason why it is on the list is due to their sushi shari (vinegared sushi rice) at Mitsuwa is always one of the few places where it is done right. Why you wonder, well I am here to tell you why which is that too many of the sushi bars cater to Americanized rolls, so many of them do not season the sushi shari correctly because a vinegar flavored rice isn’t doing anything for that Jessica Albacore roll.
Tip: if you get there close to closing time, they discount leftover items. Unfortunately, if you get there a tad too late, they often sell completely out.
Pricing: 5-pc sets start as low as $5.99 for shime saba (marinated mackerel), $7.99 fresh hamachi (yellow tail), $9.99 fresh blue fin akami (lean) tuna $12.99, or you can get a multi-piece deluxe set for about $17.99.
Address: 665 Paularino Ave, Costa Mesa, CA 92626
Phone: (714) 557-6699
9. SUSHI ROKU / NEWPORT BEACH
You can not knock a massive chain like Sushi Roku when they know how to hire the right staff.
Sushi Roku is owned by the Innovative Dining Group (IDG) which owns and manages several restaurant brands such as Roku (teppanyaki), BOA Steakhouse, Katana (robatayaki), and Robata Bar (bar/robatayaki). Also, slightly off the subject, BOA steakhouse ranks number 78 out of the top 100 independent restaurants in the US in annual sales which grosses upwards of 14 million dollars annually.
Regardless of how much money they make or spend on the interior fluff, Roku does several essential things right like a nicely done kitchen menu with a number of quality chefs working their sushi bar.
Pricing: premium edamame $6.50, Hokkaido scallops $18, 2pcs maguro $7.50, to a spicy tuna roll $9.75.
Address: 327 Newport Center Drive, Newport Beach, CA 92660 (located in the Fashion Island Mall, in between Hopdaddy burger bar and Whole Foods, by True Foods).
Phone: (949) 706-3622
8. MATSU SUSHI / HUNTINGTON BEACH
This is where many sushi chefs got their start because Matsu is the O.G. out of all the sushi restaurants.
“Yo bro, according to your list you have never been here, so how is it on your list?” Just cuz, that’s why. Well actually because a number of sushi chefs either got their start here and one of which would work part-time at a restaurant I frequent quite often. Every time I sat in front of him, I enjoyed the dishes he would prepare, and if that isn’t a good enough of a reason, the owner of the place I am speaking of, also had worked at Matsu for several years prior to starting his own restaurant that is on this list.
If I still don’t have you convinced, let me tell you that Matsu is one of the very few places that has a sushi bar, a full bar, along with teppanyaki (you know, the stuff made famous by Benihana in the 60’s to the 80’s, but in 2018, I think the founder of Benihana’s son, Steve Aoki is more famous). It is that combination of offerings that has made this place out last a number of other restaurants in the area for decades.
Tip: a great family friendly place to take your entire family too because of the variety of food they offer up. Plus, if you ever wanted to try Japanese whisky, this is your spot.
Pricing: shrimp cocktail $7.50, sushi dinner $20, tuna $3.50, spicy tuna roll $5.00.
Address: 18035 Beach Blvd, Huntington Beach, CA 92648
7. WAZEN SUSHI / LAKE FOREST
Ahhh Nobu’san is in sloth mode most of the time, but what he does produce is well above most restaurants on this list.
Before you even go, be warned that the service here can be extremely slow. If you can imagine a kitchen being worked by sloths, that might help manage your expectations on why a dinner service could take well over an hour, and you better have a good patient dining partner that doesn’t go from hungry to hangry. It also doesn’t help that the wait staff was always understaffed or just not qualified, but it has gotten a lot better over the years because Nobu’san has been able to retain one or more employees from quitting.
I know it has “sushi” in the name, but that is not why Wazen is on the list. Yea, his sushi is coo although as a kitchen chef, Nobu’san reigns supreme. So when it comes to something as simple as miso soup, to a somewhat simple salad, or that he offers either plain rice or takikomi gohan (flavored rice), and a placemat you don’t want to spill anything on, these are the many small details that makes you love the things here that most other restaurants consider trivial (look at his Google Places pics of the salad). Although to really top things off, his pricing makes the nearby Jack’n’the Box look pricey.
Pricing: One of the best values in O.C., so don’t worry about the price. Just be concerned how long it will take you to get your meal.
Address: 22641 Lake Forest Dr, Lake Forest, CA 92630
Phone: (949) 855-8330
Website: hahahaha, yea right. You’d have to rely on Google places to provide you any additional information on Wazen.
6. SAN SHI GO / NEWPORT BEACH
This is where you take your date when you’re not out with your family in Newport Beach.
If you want to show your oriental (btw, it’s “Asian”) date the best possible service this is where you’ll want to go when you’re not out with your wife/husband and your family. From the time they sit you down, you don’t have to worry about being the gentlemen or the accommodating date because San Shi Go has got you. Not only will they pull the chair out for your date, but they will also place the food from the sushi chef directly in front of you two, so that you can be your normal self and not lift a hand or finger, except on your date.
The food preparation and presentation is well above average although the neta and portions are on the small side like many of the other restaurants owned by the Oki Doki group. One example is that they only charge $4 for a spicy tuna roll, but the catch is that while many other restaurants may charge $5, San Shi Go gives you only half a roll, or 4-pieces versus 8-pieces.
Tip: sushi chefs here like to drink as much as squirrels like to be fed in the park, so they might not be so attentive after 2 to 12 drinks. Also parking can be a big hassle, and if you live in the area, I suggest you Uber/Lyft it on down. One other thing, it’s “Daisuke (the head chef),” but people call him “Dice” although “Dice-kay” isn’t that hard to say.
Pricing: 2-pc tuna $5, spicy tuna (1/2, 4 pc) $4, and the majority of Japanese fish start at $8 to $16
Address: 205 Main St, Newport Beach, CA 92661
Phone: (949) 673-3724
Website: Japanese only do hi-tech toilets, no social media, and no website which is why pictures for San Shi Go are on Google Places.
5. OHSHIMA / ORANGE
You come here because it has the clout, but the main reason is that you are size queen (good means “large pieces”).
(imagine big fat cuts of fish here)
If you think pulling the fish off of the rice is being smart and you’re into purely size, this is your spot. It is also the reason why I think the owners of Ohshima are really smart because they know their customers which is why they’re packed. The neta (sushi topping) is on very the large side where it seems more like a slab of sashimi which keeps the size queens happy, and I don’t know if that typifies “Kanto” or “Tokyo-style” as they claim it to be.
One thing they do attempt to adhere to is to not have shoyu laid out, so that you won’t be tempted to have your nigiri sushi chillaxing in your slurry of soy sauce and wasabi.
Tip: this is another place that often has a waiting list, so it is best to call ahead to check on the wait times before showing up.
Pricing: tuna $5, spicy tuna roll $9, lamb chop with miso $14, fish from Japan $7+
Address: 1956 N Tustin St, Orange, CA 92865
Phone: (714) 998-0098
Website: you want sushi or a website although if you want pics, try Ohshima on Google places.
4. NANA SAN / NEWPORT BEACH
A family operation where you feel like family after a couple visits which is also why you better expect to their to be a wait time.
This place always has a waiting list and it is not necessarily because it is a tiny spot, and I think it’s because people love this place. If you get here before they open, it is not unusual to see people putting themselves down on the waitlist. It could be the sushi that draws them back here, but I also suspect that it is also due to the head sushi chef/owner Goro’san and the entire staff in which Goro’sans wife works the front of the house. The entire staffs friendly and cool disposition is what makes this a local favorite.
Tip: you can show up prior to their dinner service (opening) to put yourself down on the waitlist for the sushi bar.
Pricing: 2-pc. tuna $5, spicy tuna roll $7.50, sushi combinations $17 to $28.
Address: 3601 Jamboree Rd, Newport Beach, CA 92660
Phone: (949) 474-7373
Website: not available because their coolness just doesn’t come through via a website, but pictures do come through of Nana San on Google places.
3. SHUNKA SUSHI / COSTA MESA
Don’t take your kids or go with your date to an aquarium when you have Shunka because you can try a number of Japanese fish to the standards (maguro to unagi).
Yea I have been here a lot, probably upwards of 180 plus times because this is my local spot, and I used to live in walking distance which is good when you like to drink.
I would either walk or bike here, and I would try to avoid Ubering only a couple blocks away because that is shameful when my parents and grandparents had to walk miles just to get to school. So, being the person I am, I endured the walk for the sake of my generation. Besides, I have to be able to tell future generations how I used to walk a lengthy 0.8 miles just to eat, and I didn’t have drone delivery or my powered exoskeleton to get me everywhere.
Go to any of your sushi bars around Orange County or throughout the country, and you’ll most likely only get salmon, tuna, shrimp, and yellowtail as your options. Well at Shunka, you can expect that, and then some because Shunka is one of the very few spots to offer a number of Japanese fish. Depending on the season, they will offer kinme, medai, sawara, fresh tako, seabream, shima aji, isaki, ishi dai, akamutsu, tochiuo, hata, Itoyori, suzuki to kamasu. Just don’t expect a high-level fancy pants preparation here which would up the $$$$ because you should be glad that they are able to serve up more variety of fish than the Aquarium of the Pacific for only $$.
Tip: be sure to TIP big with your servers here because Shunka just so happens to have very good service, and if you happen to be lucky enough to have Chitose as your server, I can assure you, that you will be in for a trouble-free and enjoyable night.
Pricing: 2 pc big eye tuna $5.50, spicy tuna roll $6.50, most Japanese fish starting at $7-$7.50
Address: 369 E 17th St #17, Costa Mesa, CA 92627
Phone: (949) 631-9854
Website: Japanese aren’t big into marketing, so you’ll have to go to Google Places for pics of Shunka
2. KITAYAMA / NEWPORT BEACH (1/18/2020, PERMANENTLY CLOSED)
After 30 years, Kitayama is no more.
This is another one of Orange Counties long-standing Japanese restaurants, but throughout the years they had undergone an ownership change.
I have only been here during the time of the new owners, and from those experiences, I can tell you that they do not have strong management here. A restaurant this size needs to have that otherwise you run the chance of wavering on casual incompetence which I had experienced with their front of the house bar staff. If the service wasn’t enough of an issue, the gnat problem around the sushi bar was annoying enough that I could not enjoy the worn yet once beautiful traditional Japanese interior and garden that this restaurant is clinging on to as a saving grace. If it were not for that, and that they have not compromised on the sushi bar, there would be no other reason to come here because the kitchen menu consists of a bunch of items that are overdone with a ton of sauces.
Tip: they have one of those “self-serve” bars with the bracelet device that allows you to fill your glass yourself although I wasn’t able to get the bracelet or be shown how to use it because their bartender at the time was so extremely incompetent.
Pricing: 2 pc tuna $6, spicy tuna $9.50, assorted sashimi platter go from $30-45-65
Address: 101 Bayview Pl, Newport Beach, CA 92660
Phone: (949) 725-0777
1. MURASAKI SUSHI / SANTA ANA
Don’t go for the chit chat with the sushi chefs, come here for the kitchen food to the sushi bar (they kill it with everything they do)
If you are looking to chit-chat and get all chummy with the sushi chef, don’t expect that here. Not to say you can’t talk to either owner Dai or Tomo’san, but the whole drinking and schmoozing with sushi chefs has become such an expected thing for American diners (especially in Orange County, in LA they can get away with not talking as being cool). You wouldn’t expect this at any other restaurant, yet people will whine about this on Yelp about sushi bars, and I just wonder when was the last time these people buttered up the line chef at the Yard House.
The kitchen menu is the best in Orange County, and this is one of the few places where you will find even the most mundane of food items like their chicken teriyaki to be a cut above the rest. If they were in Los Angeles, they would have 5x more acclaim for their affordability, kitchen menu, sushi bar, and their occasional kaiseki offerings.
Tip: they offer a slight discount if you pay with cash versus using your credit card.
Pricing: omakase $50-70, lamb chop $8, black cod $12, rolls $10.
Address: 2901 W MacArthur Blvd #108, Santa Ana, CA
Phone: (714) 241-1000
Have a favorite not on the list, let me know although if you have imagery from any of these places, and you’d like to contribute, hit me up.
EDIT 10/22/18: sorry for the grammar and spelling issues because I threw this together really quickly. That combined with my poor writing skills can make the readability a challenge, but who reads nowadays – I should have kept things to 280 characters