Hi, my name is Katharine Hong and I am a former employee and an avid fan of the much-hyped LA sushi chain, Sugarfish. I would trust Kazunori Nozawa with my life. Here are a few tips and tricks to navigating my king’s kingdom correctly.
Oh, Sugarfish. What is it about this place that’s wrangled the hearts of millions of Angelenos, tourists, Instagram clout-chasers, and every single one of my closest friends? Perhaps we will never know (do we all just have incredible taste?), but in the meantime, I bring you this, my life’s work: a power ranking of every single Sugarfish location in greater Los Angeles. It is accurate, it is 100% definitive, and if you think you have an objection, no, you don’t.
THE FISHES, RANKED
SUGARFISH | Pasadena
Pasadena! My baby! Full disclosure, this is where I was hired, trained, employed, and occasionally cried. It’s located in a sleepy, mall-ish complex filled with ivy-covered walls and the emptiest Williams-Sonoma I’ve ever seen. They have the sweetest staff out of all the locations (no bias), as well as a validated parking lot and Philz Coffee conveniently located right next door, just in case you happen to need a super-milky, super-sweet, iced mint latte, as I so often did. I also saw/kind-of-met Nozawa on my second full day here? And his wife? They walked in for lunch without warning and ordered two Trust Me Lites, and not a single person batted an eye. Apparently, this is the only location where he actually dines. I’m pretty sure I dropped a glass in front of him and did a weird bow when he left.
SUGARFISH | Marina del Rey
Is this the sexiest location in the city? Absolutely not. However, you gotta give SFISH MDR (as its affectionately known) mega bonus points for being the very first Sugarfish in existence. Plus, there’s a huge outdoor seating area, a parking lot that is spacious and free, and it’s extremely close to the airport. A meal here is everything you wish California could be - easy, breezy, and in the shadow of a giant Kreation Organic Juicery. In other words, heaven.
SUGARFISH | La Brea
Why do people always forget about La Brea? Maybe because it’s so close to the Beverly Hills one, or perhaps it gets overshadowed by its neighbors, Republique, Burgers 99, and (swoon), Nong La. Whatever. There’s always a ton of street parking (outside the hours of 7-9am and 4-7pm on weekdays), lines move quite quickly, and if you’re really, really hungry, you can stop by Nong La and grab a little snack.
OK, real fans (Fish Heads? Sugar Babies? Yes-zowas?) know that Studio City is where the Trust Me empire really began. Back in 1987, when cell phones looked like bricks and my boyfriend’s mother’s favorite movie, Ishtar, was released, Japan-born chef Kazunori Nozawa opened a little sushi bar on Ventura Blvd. called Sushi Nozawa. The tiny, cramped space became famous for its uncompromising values, best demonstrated by the plaque behind the bar that read, “Today’s Special: Trust Me.” Sadly, Sushi Nozawa closed in 2012 when its namesake chef retired, but was promptly replaced by the current Sugarfish location. Legend has it, that if you close your eyes and bite into the blue crab handroll in just the right way, you’ll be transported back to Ventura Blvd. in the ’80s.
This really should be lower on the list, but it’s ultimately subjective and my editor said I could write whatever I want. So, what can I say about Downtown LA Sugarfish? I worked here for a few months. It was hard as hell (that power broker lunch rush is no joke). The people wearing aprons here are some of the smartest, most efficient, and determined human beings on the planet - they can balance eight trays of tuna sashimi on each arm and won’t even blink when you say you dropped the wrong food at the wrong table for the third time that night. Parking is impossible, lines will be long, and the trash bin was always so far away from the building. Seriously, like a five-minute walk and you had to get buzzed in by some random building security person. Lame. But the move here is to come at around 2-3pm on weekdays, and at 11am sharp on weekends. Which might seem obvious, but at this particular location, means the difference between a two-hour wait and none at all.
SUGARFISH | Manhattan Beach
I don’t know anything about this location. I’ve never been here, never heard anything about it, and didn’t even know it existed before today. And that’s got to be a good thing, right?
SUGARFISH | Calabasas
The myth, the legend: Calabasas Sugarfish. This place is constantly packed and my old supervisor said he used to see Kylie Jenner and Jaden Smith here all the time, circa 2013. Here’s a hack for all Sugarfish: Although it’s technically a “no-tipping” establishment, there’s a 16% surcharge on every bill that goes towards the restaurant, paying workers a livable wage, etc. However, it’s money that’s taxed and it’s really not illegal to leave your server a little something (it’s shared amongst the entire staff), so maybe just keep that in mind?
SUGARFISH | Brentwood
There is nothing unique or special about this particular Sugarfish and that’s exactly why I like it. Expect lots of college kids (go Bruins), wealthy Westsiders, and wealthy Westsiders with their college-age kids. Something to keep in mind: Per Sugarfish regulations, you’re forbidden from switching out or changing the nigiri, but a common move is to replace the handrolls (tuna in the middle of the meal, blue crab at the end), for something more luxurious, like bay scallops or lobster. I prefer to make them both blue crab, but that’s just because I’m kind of trash.
We finally made it to the bottom three. Has this Hollywood outpost come in handy from time to time? Sure. Where else was I supposed to eat before seeing Cats in theaters back when the Arclight was still around? However, have I also waited over an hour for a pick-up order and gotten stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic here? Yes, and yes! Another tip: If you’re going to drink tea during your meal, get it hot. The hot tea comes in these gorgeous ceramic mugs, uses water from a special faucet, and, if your server really loves you, they’ll tie the tea bag string around the handle to keep it from slipping. The iced tea on the other hand, is pre-made at the beginning of the night and uses water from the kitchen sink.
As you can imagine, the clientele at the Sugarfish in the most stuck up part of town is not, how do you say, chill. The first and only time I worked here, a man and his much younger female companion put their name on the list and I quoted them an hour. He proceeded to try to slip me a $100 bill and when I refused (I was genuinely afraid this was an Undercover Boss sting operation), he told me, “This is why you’ll never succeed in life,” and walked away. But there is something special about this location, which is that there’s a secret restaurant in the back here, Nozawa Bar. It’s very exclusive, much more expensive, and you’ll get 22 courses of sushi that runs the gamut from expected to adventurous.
In a word, hell! It’s in a hidden, unmarked building shadowed by a multi-story public parking lot and Flower Child off Third Street Promenade. And yet, somehow it’s always busy. When I worked client services at a post-production house in the neighborhood (phew, what a statement), I was tasked with picking up lunch for a VIP client from here. I couldn’t find the restaurant for nearly an hour and when I finally did, almost got fired. The food’s still good though, especially that sweet, sugary rice.