It's ridiculously awkward to be seated all primly and silently in front of some perfect-postured, kindly-eyed fish-slicing wizard who's spent his whole career polishing his arrangement technique, to be handed an aquatic work of art, and then to spill the whole thing in a waterfall of shame down my chin and onto the front of my shirt when I try to either bite it or force the whole thing in.
I touched on this briefly here and I won't comment further except to say that I'm being overdramatic for effect (although the description of the waterfall of shame is not an exaggeration): of course I still eat and greatly enjoy sushi. But I am less inherently stressed by chirashi, where I can bite my fish in half in peace. To me, a good chirashi place is like a neighborhood diner. I go there to relax and enjoy the closest thing to a Cheers-style diner, only with the kind of food that refreshes and invigorates me.
I have an unequivocal favorite chirashi place in the Los Angeles area, and that's the implausibly located and discouragingly named Toro's Japanese Fusion Seafood.
It sounds like it could be a wacky-roll emporium, but despite the giant-screen TV set up behind the chefs that constantly plays deep sea or aquarium slideshows, it's not. It's the purveyor of what are almost certainly the thickest, pillowiest, most flavorful and oceanic slices of tuna in Los Angeles. The restaurant is called 'Toro's' for a reason - it's owned, and likely kept afloat by, tuna.
It's sliced thick, fatty, and looks absolutely nothing like the archetypal dark maroon maguro. You know the kind: you see it, darkened and cloudy, stuffed next to cucumbers and browning avocado in supermarket sushi, and more often than not, it's mixed with and camouflaged by 'spicy sauce'. Old, it's smelly, but even fresh, in my opinion, it's usually flavorless.
Not at Toro's - the tuna here is a bright salmon pink, striped with fat, and snuggles into the rice's nooks and crannies like a blanket. They cut it huge and thick, at least the width of my finger. It's not only the tuna they cut thick - the hamachi is thick enough to see its shiny, cream tinged white sheen, and the salmon to count up to ten striations in its rich orange flesh.
Those three fish may be the predictable three 'chirashi fish', but they sure don't taste the same here.
Toro's will also put in, depending on the season, scallops, ikura, spicy albacore, squid, lotus roots, hirame, or masago... but there's always ample seaweed, a beautiful triangle of sweet tamago, and perfectly vinegared sticky rice.
For dinner, the restaurant is outrageously expensive - although probably still worth it. I wouldn't know, because I would never pay $60 to fill myself up on even the best quality sushi when I can roll in at noon and pay $16.
Toro's takes the top spot in my heart, so it will take up the majority of the text space, but I have some honorable mentions to award, too, in case you don't want to drive all the way out to Alhambra (but, just saying, you should drive out to Alhambra).
Murakami Sushi in West Hollywood has the casual ambiance that I crave - its breezy outdoor seating is paired with compact, ideally proportioned, and customizable bowls of fish that are impressively fresh for the price (though nothing compared to Toro's and the fish is certainly not sliced as generously). Murakami specializes in build-your-own chirashi - you choose 4, 5, 6, or 7 types of fish and the price goes up in increments, starting at $12 for the 4 ingredient bowl. My favorite combination is mackerel, hamachi, scallops, and salmon. The scallops, tender and marinating in a masago-flecked white sauce, really are outstanding.
The fish itself, in my opinion, is unexciting - fresh, clearly, but unexciting. The joy lies in the variety - taking turns surprising your tongue with the pops of ikura, the gum-like tako, the crunch of lotus, the tacky slips of sea bream, and the accompanying pickled salads and sticky mochi. If you bring a friend, force them (I mean, cajole them nicely) to order the Tamon Bento, whose shiso dust-topped rice, giant juicy mushroom, and greasy, charred, and flaky black cod make an excellent accompaniment. The shrimp hiding within the tempura is springy, but the time I went, the oil was a bit stale.
Though Tamon sounds like the weakest of the the three options I listed - and it is - there are a couple reasons to choose it. The first is if you are on a date and you want something darkened and formal. The second is that Fugetso-Do is across the street, and you can you stop by for some 101-year old mochi. I mean, the mochi isn't 101 years old. The shop is. And the instant your teeth sink into one of their creations - silky, soft, fluffy clouds that envelope your tongue in joy and happiness - you'll know why.
*I have noticed that the only way I can be positive that Anthony Bourdain REALLY likes something is if he calls it 'fucking delicious'. He might have written 4000 words on its preparation or the bumpy third world train ride he took to reach it or the artistry of the chef that dreamt it up, but if the words 'fucking delicious' are not present, all bets are off. So please take this phrase in the manner in which it's intended: to convey that chirashi is something I love, crave, and aggressively seek out on a regular basis.