One major pet peeve and limitation I’ve observed, and I’m sure this is prevalent in Southern California as well, is that a lot of Japanese restaurants, including sushi places, put together a sake list that focuses more on a wider spectrum. But it has the effect of throwing darts hoping some would stick on the board, rather than precision.
A lot of business owners and chefs, they get a lot of credit for at least doing the food right, and in some cases very, very well. However they themselves are not as knowledgeable on sake and rely on wholesalers/vendors/reps to come over to introduce new releases or updated portfolios to try, as well as those annual major food and beverage trade shows that are only open to industry people.
There are reps who really know what they are doing and serve the general population and a popular restaurant fairly well, and perhaps help them further with building the right sake list. The alternative is for restaurants to hire a sake somm, but that does not come cheap. Ultimately the business owner is faced with the challenge of selling the product, and training their staff to also go above and beyond to increase sales (but not being pushy), of which the latter is extremely difficult. I noticed this very recently at a place where the sake list is well thought out, but the staff were really clueless and had to ask me three times if I ordered a specific sake (of which their question of what I ordered was wrong).
Granted this is not an easy subject at all. I’ve seen waitstaff attend the food and beverage trade shows where their employers want them to learn/experience, but ultimately what they do with that knowledge, how much they absorb, rate and willingness to learn, what they like vs how they can sell something they may not like but may work for the food and balancing that with customer’s needs, is also up to them.
The Japanese sensibility and way of doing business is on the premise of relationships where manufacturer (or harvester of the seas e.g. fishermen) want to make sure whoever is carrying the torch of a product from the wholesalers down to retailers not just takes good care of it, but also pass down the knowledge/deliciousness to the consumer. This is one key takeaway from the movie Tsukiji Wonderland, and in some ways I can see how some sake are so limited and sought after in Japan, and while the need for making money and expanding is important, so would be the ideals of treasuring the product in a way that a consumer truly appreciates what went into it, and maximizes enjoyment out of it by finding the right occasion, food, serving it at the sweet spot temperatures etc. Of course that’s a silly thought for many consumers. This is where sake somms, izakaya, sake bars (in Japan) shine and do out of the box things, sometimes to slight dismay of sake brewers.
Which leads to warm sake and tempura. Sure you can ask how a restaurant warms its sake, that’s a good start. The next would be what kind of sake they use to warm it. It’s easier to actually try a variety of what the restaurants have to offer, then perhaps find a bottle that is great for warming, and try it at home (the right away) to compare.
If I take worldsake dot com’s portfolio, for example, and look at some sake that structurally would be excellent warmed up, unfortunately the restaurants that carry them are mostly sushi places. And it is possible they will likely just serve it cold/in an ice bucket, and may not have hot sake equipment (with thermometer)…you could ask.
So I suppose if you want to experience warm sake in Southern California, you need to find a place that is willing to offer it properly and it probably won’t be a place that will also have tempura. Maybe some izakaya, so long as they have the right equipment. Kinjiro has a nice list, and they do have one warm sake that I really enjoy…it’s Kenbishi Kuromatsu Honjozo, and their 180 mL is a great size. It does come in a specially designed bottle that will work in a microwave (though better in a hot water bath), and normally you should not microwave sake. Maybe Nijiya or some other Japanese supermarket might sell that, and it’s a great intro to warm cost effective sake. The other is Hakutsuru Toji Kan (Yamadanishiki) which looks like the new hot sake offering at Shunji, it’s very affordable everyday type sake by the bottle if you can find it retail (my local Nijiya has it), and you can definitely serve it warm/hot and it will be excellent too.