Welcome back to Dining On A Dime a bi-weekly feature in which Lizbeth Scordo surveys LA's cheap eats—often obscure, ethnic, unsung restaurants—proving that dining on a dime is alive, well, and quite tasty in this here city. Where do you think she should go next? Drop us a line.
I accidently drive past the building that houses Sakae Sushi at first. Though its address is Redondo Beach Boulevard, the sliver of a restaurant faces side street Denker Avenue and, therefore, is just out of eyeshot as I drive along the main drag. If I weren’t so set on actually eating here, I could easily succumb to a meal elsewhere. During the short time it takes me to turn around, I pass dozens of other eateries. Noodle shops next to tofu joints next to teriyaki houses, all wedged into various shopping centers, strip malls, and well-landscaped buildings that could pass for office parks. People in this town clearly like to eat out.
Luckily, I stick to the task at hand and make it inside where I’m greeted at the counter by Emi. She's part of the third generation helping to run the family business along with her mom, two uncles, an aunt, and her brother, all working diligently in the kitchen behind her. When I tell her I’ve never been here before, she happily delves into an educational spiel about every menu item — all six of them.
There's a nori-maki roll stuffed with shitake mushrooms, spinach, kampyo (cooked squash), and oboro (a cod paste); a tamago-maki roll, identical to the nori version except for the fact it's rolled in a ridged piece of sweet egg in place of the seaweed; and a California roll made with shrimp. The second half of the menu includes Inari, a triangular sack of fried tofu stuffed with rice; saba, pickled Atlantic mackerel over a block of rice; and ebi, shrimp in a vinegar marinade also over a rice block. Their sushi's the pressed kind, known as Oshizushi, made by using a wooden box which makes a rectangular finished product. Nothing’s raw and they don’t do inside-out rolls. I can order as few or many as pieces as I want a la carte or go for one of their mix boxes. With that, she turns the ordering process over to me.
The menu is so refreshingly short and inexpensive (with nothing over 90 cents), it seems you pretty much can't go wrong by simply ordering one of each and supplementing from there. Trying to navigate the exhaustive combo menu is a bit more confusing. Prices start in the $5 range for a seven-piece combo of nori and inari or a mix of everything but California rolls or just California rolls. Box sizes top out at 36 and, apparently, locals love those biggie boxes for celebrations. A sign with instructions on how to place New Year's Eve orders beginning December 1 has a footnote now taped to it: SOLD OUT for New Year's Eve.
As planned, I order one of everything and ask Emi to choose a few to double up on. “Pressure!” she jokes. People either love or hate the mackerel, she says, but after doublechecking twice to make sure I like fish (that would be a yes) she throws in a double order of the Saba and suggests a second California roll too. I've had one too many of those in my lifetime and veto it, so she adds an additional Nori-Maki roll instead. Grand total for this custom-created eight-piece extravaganza? $6.40.
Remember that famous line bouncers used to yell out when a bar closed? “You don’t have to go home but you can’t stay here.” (They probably still use it, I’m just thankfully not still out at closing time anymore.) That sort of sums up the dining situation at Sakae. It's a takeout joint in the truest sense of the term. There are two vinyl green couches and a couple of wooden stools inside the narrow space, but I imagine, attempting to eat here would probably get you the same odd looks as if you busted out a platter of sushi and a pair of chopsticks in a dentist’s waiting room. The only table in sight is covered with issues of Vanity Fair and InStyle to help customers pass the time until their orders are ready ? and they leave to eat elsewhere. I sit down along with two other diners-in-waiting and watch as a twentysomething, who's clearly more thought out than the rest of us in here, breezes through to pick up an order all ready for him.
The perfectly-packed white cardboard box the sushi arrives in is truly gorgeous, wrapped in a paper sleeve with the restaurant's logo, and it reminds me of the boxes of pastries my family would pick up from the local Italian bakery when I was a kid. Sakae is, indeed, serious about its packaging. Boxes of 12 pieces or more get wrapped in string rather than paper, and any order under seven pieces comes on a much less exciting Styrofoam plate covered in wax paper. Take my advice: It's well worth throwing in a few extra pieces just to proudly march out with that box and unwrap it like a gift when you get home.
When it's finally time to dig in later back at my place, I start with the nori-maki. The shitake pieces are plump with a touch of caramel and smoke, while the tender squash is sweet with a bite. The itty-bitty piece of fresh spinach leaf gives the roll a baby burst of color and the seaweed's consistency is spot-on. I prefer the tamago version by a hair for no other reason than the addition of the springy cooked egg rambling along the exterior.
As for the saba, a block of rice is half covered in a small sashimi-width piece of fish, while a glistening piece of snowy silver skin is draped over the rest. I’m glad I’ve got two orders, which enable me to eat my first with the rice and then try the mackerel on its own. I enjoy the delicate fish (though I only detect the faintest pickled taste), but the skin all by itself is a touch too pungent for me. Turns out Sakae happily heeds frequent requests for just fish, no skin.
The razor-thin slice of shrimp is wonderfully fresh tasting, but seems almost like a garnish for the block of rice. Part of the reason Sakae's prices are so low has nothing to do with quality, but rather quantity. The place is heavy handed with its rice, so get in the mindset that you'll be eating more of the white stuff than anything else and you'll be fine, since, luckily, that rice is something special — heavy on the vinegar and seasoning and full of more flavor than your average sushi rice.
The California roll is probably the item with the lowest rice-to-other-good-stuff ratio (read: best bang for your tiny buck) with two huge chunks of creamy avocado and a few hefty slices of shrimp.
The Inari is my favorite. The tofu skin is a touch juicy and has nutty flavor with a hint of sugar. It complements the tart rice its holding perfectly as I bite into both.
If you're craving hearty slices of fish, today isn't the day for Sakae. But for something a bit different (at a breathtakingly low price), it's worth a stop. And I've kind of fallen in love with Emi's family, who seem to truly take great pride in everything they send you home with, including, of course, that lovely little box I still haven't been able to throw away.
Sushi by the piece: $0.75-$0.90
— Lizbeth Scordo
*Closed January 1-9