By Rachel Parsons
To break one of the first rules of writing, a cliché: Hama Sushi is a venerable old hole in the wall.
It’s small, and there are no reservations. If you’re not standing outside the door on Second street in Little Tokyo at noon or 5:30 p.m. waiting to come in the minute it opens, you’re going to be waiting, period. At 12:20 p.m. there’s a line of people five deep. Unless you’re alone; then there’s a much better chance of snagging a seat at the bar.
So there’s no confusion, a sign handwritten in Magic Marker directly inside the front door clears up several things right off the bat:
You get sushi, sashimi and a hand roll or two. That’s it. No noodles. No rice. No California rolls.
The small kitchen behind the sushi bar cranks out deep fried deliciousness like soft-shell crab and fills the place with the scent of smoke layered over the scent of fish, but don’t kid yourself, you’re not getting an entrée.
There’s another single-seater next to me at the corner of the bar. Like me, he knows that inviting friends just means you go hungry longer.
“It’s the best sushi in L.A.,” Dylan says. He’s a law student at Southwestern. He lives nowhere near Southwestern or Little Tokyo, but I can see the recognition on the chefs’ faces when he sits down.
“I was here yesterday,” he says. “I’m here like three times a week. I spent a month in Japan, living in a van, driving all over the country, and this is better than all but a few places I ate at there.”
It only seats 26 people in total, 28 if you cram one more chair at each of the two tables sectioned off in the front corner of the restaurant. If you come in with children, another of the handwritten Magic Marker signs says, you’re going to sit at a table. The other 18 seats are at the sushi bar where three men, the same faces I’ve seen for years, sling fish.
Hama Sushi has been in existence either 37 or 38 years, the young server cannot remember. She wasn’t yet born when it opened. Everyone else is too busy to ask. To last on the Los Angeles restaurant scene 37 or 38 years is a positive feat.
The city is notorious for restaurant turnover. Hama, then, is older than the also venerable, much lauded and famous but by no means hole-in-the-wall Japanese restaurant Nobu on La Cienega, which opened in 1987. It also beats out the well-known Katsu-ya restaurants that launched in 1997.
A man with silver hair and a thoroughly lined face busses dishes and runs food from the kitchen. He looks like he’s been here from the beginning.
This place has a long memory, and in turn, people remember this place. Several years ago, I broke my rule of not telling anyone about the tiny joint (Dylan says he’s made the same mistake) and took a friend who was in town from Belgium. Hussein said it was the best sushi he’d ever eaten, too.
He gushed over every piece of fish, handed over only when he was ready for the next sublime little bite and offered up his plate to our chef. He was so taken with the food that he wasn’t even terribly upset when the woman sitting next to him dumped her drink all over his part of the bar. She didn’t apologize, but no fish was harmed.
The three chefs behind the bar move with such economy of motion that I imagine they do actually occasionally make the same movements in their sleep. When there’s finally a lull on my side of the of the bar, and my chef’s six customers shrink to four for a precious few moments, I ask him how long he’s been making sushi. His hair is gray, and though his face is not as lined as the busboy, I know he’s been doing this for decades. He glances down at his workstation and thinks. Then he cuts me a side-eye and a Puckish grin. “Two months,” he says, holding up two fingers covered in rinse water. Then he scoops up another palmful of sticky rice without looking at the pot.
The album playing in the background has changed, jazz to Japanese instrumental. The busboy stops to answer the phone that rings and rings until someone, anyone, can stop long enough to answer it. Then he scurries back toward the kitchen.
I pay the bill, say goodbye to the young server on my way out and ask if Hama is also the name of the owner. No, she says, just the Japanese word for beach.
“That’s the owner,” she says, pointing to the busboy.