The Burbankian stretch of the 5 Freeway is a haven for chain restaurants*. Despite the small-town-street stylings of San Fernando Blvd., they've jammed a world of consumer-oriented enterprises to make Orange County jealous.
Burbank does have its hidden spots, though, after you've stumbled out of the AMC Theater blinking in the sunlight and looking for lunch. A sign outside Tomo boasts a large vegetarian menu, which brings us inside; we smile at the hundreds upon hundreds of one dollar bills taped to the walls, each decorated by patrons. This is not a precise, minimalist, tightly zen sushi establishment, but is fast and loose, creative and casual without delving into the embarrassing world of sake bombs and setting-sun headbands.
The man behind the counter is Tom, who greets people enthusiastically. Locals know and love this place, caring nothing for the fact that Tom happens to be Chinese, for he obviously loves his craft, putting together unusual combinations which he urges you to try.
The cut rolls here are futomaki style, thick and unwieldy and put together oh-so-fast, many wrapped in ghostly soy paper instead of nori. He is a little heavier on the anointments--shoyu and wasabi--than typical.
His signature piece is the Tomo Roll, a combination of crab, unagi, shrimp tempura, cucumber and avocado that works unexpectedly well, wrapped in soy paper and dusted with sesame seeds. The warm, sauce-brushed eel smolders in the center, contrasting with the cold shreds of crab.
We normally shy from casually titled dishes, but the One Night Stand Roll has sinful personality, like an angel descended from Heaven and made you forget your earrings on his/her nightstand. Shrimp tempura and crab meat cohabitate again, but with an orange shock of spicy tuna, making for an energetic mouthful. Again, coolness rubs against the warmth of the shrimp tempura, and the result fairly shines with flavor.
The Futomaki Roll is a nicely mellow in-between piece. Gobo (Japanese carrot) mixes with avocado, strips of fried tofu, cucumber, and shrimp. Tamago (sweet egg) lends a yellow friendliness. This is one of the few rolls encased in the conventional nori instead of soy paper.
The Happy Family Roll is an absurd semicircle of crunchy sweetness; a snappy pile of tempura shavings lies atop more of Tom's smoothly spicy tuna; tempura shrimp tails grin from either end. The interplay of temperature and texture is astounding. The face is drawn with careful squirts from a bottle of sriracha hot sauce.
The ono is something you need to try. Most elegantly presented on the Snow White Roll, the milk-white tuna is draped over a crabmeat-filled roll. It has a quiet intensity to it, worthy of contemplation yet not something in which you overindulge. It is the dot on the exclamation point.
Tom will often prompt you in his booming voice, eliciting your approval with mackerel from Japan (melty), Japanese scallops (sliced like half dollars and incredibly soft). He may finish with a tiny square of nori, on which is an entire clove of Japanese garlic, which pops like a light cashew and has no garlicky reek at all; or, he may throw some spicy tuna, crabmeat and cucumber stick onto stiff fried wonton wrappers and drizzle eel sauce on top for a curious sweetness. Many of these things will be on the house. Before you recover from this epiphany, you will have orange slices and even some Strawberry Pocky.
* Off the top of my head, within potato-gun range: Kabuki, P.F. Chang's, Fuddrucker's, Baja Fresh, Chipotle, BJ's Brewhouse, Hooters, Chevy's Fresh Mex. This does not include the Swedish meatballs at Ikea.
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), Japanese, Vegetarian/Vegan, Burbank/North Hollywood, Seafood )
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