Toku Unagi and Sushi (West Hollywood): A Pictorial Essay

During my inaugural visit to Tokyo years back, one of the things which struck me most about the dining scene there was the incredible degree of specialization of the restaurants there. For example, there are places which only serve one type of ramen from one part of Japan, whereas another would be a Hokkaido crab specialist, while another dealt exclusively in tofu skin, and so on. The business owners there knew the risk of narrowing down their menu offerings. But at the same time, they realized that if they properly prepared their special dish and/or ingredient, this would assure them a niche repeat audience in a large city, and also reduced the likelihood of direct competition from other wannabes.

Since that first eye-opening trip, I’ve often wondered if the Japanese dining scene in Los Angeles would ever evolve to anywhere the level of culinary specialization I had seen in Tokyo. With the opening of the newest branch of Toku Unagi and Sushi in West Hollywood, it seems we Angelenos are indeed one step closer.

Unagi, or freshwater eel, holds a special place in Japanese cuisine. The preparation of eel is steeped in tradition. In its homeland, unagi don (eel rice bowl) is considered a ”power dish” to be consumed, and is hugely popular there. Erstwhile here in L.A., though unagi don and unagi hitsumabushi are sometimes found on menus in various eateries around town (such as Wadatsumi and occasionally Hayato), there has not been an unagi specialist which has set up shop before.

Occupying the second-floor space of the former Sushi Wa in West Hollywood, Toku Unagi and Sushi welcomes customers with a bright and welcoming dining room and bar. Yes, there is a sushi bar, and yes, sushi is served here. The remainder of the menu also looks appealing, with a myriad of other eel preparations and a whole host of appetizers and small bites. But we are primarily here for unagi!

A shot of the sake list, for those interested…

Toku serves two main special preparations of eel, with generations-old recipes hailing from Hamamatsu, in Shizuoka Prefecture. First there is unaju, which is a classic eel rice served with eel sauce, in a lacquered container. A second method of preparation in which to enjoy is the unagi is to order the eel rice served in an ohitsu (Japanese rice bucket) with tea. I decided to go with the hitsumabushi (ohitsu with tea) prep.

The chef cooks the eel over hot coals. He then applies the eel sauce, the recipe for which was developed in the Meiji era.

Tea: Japanese green tea… Refreshing and vibrant.

Appetizers: Crab salad with vinaigrette… This was lovely. The delicate seasoning and fresh lumps of crab meat were delightful and really whet my appetite for the unagi goodness to come.

Appetizer: Cashew potato salad… Nice and smooth, topped with a pinch of black pepper.

Appetizer: Tofu steak with mushroom, in Japanese broth sauce. This was great! Balances of textures and flavors from the tofu, mushroom, all bathed in an umami-laden broth.

And now, onto the main event: Unagi hitsumabushi (tea on rice with broiled eel, served in ohitsu), “Extra Special” edition… A gorgeous bucket of eel rice was presented with sliced scallions and wasabi for garnish, some Japanese pickles, and a pot of hot tea. Miso soup was served on the side as well. In addition, there is also a wonderful soft tofu with seasoning, which was just excellent.

There are three stages to experiencing this dish. First, enjoy the unagi don on its own… WOW! An explosion of splendor. The flavorful nori in the rice really adds to the bite! And the eel is just so fluffy and straight-up delicious. The rice itself is a premium Japanese blend, and accompanies the eel in flawless unison, soaking up all those juices from the eel and the sauce.

Second, add the garnishes to season… The crunchiness of the pickles and punch from the freshly-grated wasabi (from Shizuoka) add a new dimension to the bowl. Delightful!

And finally, pour the tea into the remaining eel rice… The addition of the tea allows all the sauce coating the bowl to mix back into the rice, and elevates the whole dish yet again with its delicacy. This dish is pretty much exactly the same in terms of quality and brilliance that I recall from Japan.

Dessert time!

House-made hoji-cha ice cream with mint sprig and tea… Another surprise here, as the ice cream is packed with sweet delicate earthy tones. What a wonderful way to finish a great unagi meal!

Service is cheerful and attentive. I really felt taken care of here. Store manager Makoto-san runs a tight ship, and does it all with a genuine smile.

Toku Unagi and Sushi offers experienced eaters and newcomers alike with a true Japanese unagi feast. Side dishes here are strong as well. Without doubt, I must come back to try the lacquered box unaju, and a slew of the other small dishes also. The eel specialist has arrived in L.A.!

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

Toku Unagi and Sushi
1106 N. La Cienega Bl., Suite 201
West Hollywood, CA 90069
310.854.7285
TokuUSA.com

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In before Eater LA lol…

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Thanks for this! My friend loves unagi…it’s both delicious and reminds her of afternoons with her grandmother going to the local unagi vendor and watching them filet and cook it fresh.

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Thanks for the tip I’m gonna have to check this place out love unagi and Torrance is such a hike.

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Thanks for the scoop! What’s the pricing like for the special edition?

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Amazing find. Is this place open?

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“A shot of the sake list, for those interested…” :sweat_smile::laughing::rofl::joy: awww thanks you da man :facepunch:

Do they source live or prepackaged Japanese eels (and if so which part of Japan, do you know?) and heat them appropriately? Even if prepackaged eel is used, some thoughtfulness in doing a house made tare that’s well balanced in savory and sweet, and proper grilling to get the skin crispy (while keeping the inside soft and fluffy) is already much appreciated which sounds like at least that is what Toku is doing.

Do they do shirayaki and offer unagi liver skewers and/or unagi liver clear dashi/suimono?

For those going and want a 720 mL bottle of sake, my recommendations would be Shimeharitsuru JG $62 and Ryujin Genshu (I believe that’s a single pasteurized Ginjo Namazume) $48 of tremendous value. Personally I’ve tried the Shimehartisuru Junmai Ginjo with grilled wild unagi appetizer at a Tokyo Michelin sushi restaurant, decent pairing. But now I’m curious what would work better outside this list…

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Those pictures look amazing

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$98 for the entire set. (Worth it IMHO, 'cuz it’s a helluva lot cheaper than LAX-NRT-LAX…)

Yes! They are open for dinner service for now. Closed Mondays.

Live eels from Shizuoka! Heated properly, Edo style. The house tare (eel sauce) is as good as any I’ve had in Japan. They are serious about their unagi here. (They’d better be - They’re specialists lol!) Other eel preps on the menu include Kabayaki eel and eel tataki. I will ask about the kimo dashi - Thanks!

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I had a very similar meal in Tokyo and am pretty stoked about this. One other question (if you don’t mind)–are they taking reservations or you just need to show up?

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Hi Haeldaur, you are a kindred spirit. Toku WeHo happily accommodates walk-ins.

Thanks for being so courteous and asking about reservations - Very Tokyo-style of you!

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Great report @J_L! :slight_smile: It looks wonderful and it’s good to know they source live Unagi from Japan (although that’s probably why it’s priced so high; they are still an endangered species in decline). I can’t wait to try it, but also was curious what Japan was doing in general to rebuild that population.

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About a year ago I went to an unagi specialist restaurant in Ebisu Tokyo that used Kyosui eel from Shizuoka, deemed “unicorn eel”, well the term is more illusive/illusionary (Maboroshi no unagi) and I believe the varietal is farmed but properly bred, so there is no muddy taste, a lot of fat, and virtually melts in your mouth. They didn’t do hitsumabushi though. Very tasty morsel! If they are using Kyosui that would be super amazing.

It would be really awesome if their eels are large enough, that they can do skewers based on different cuts/body parts. And perhaps an appetizer of lightly blanched eel “sashimi”, all as part of some unagi kushiyaki tasting “omakase”.

Yeah, grilled, steamed, then finish off one more time on the grill with sauce is the proper way to do it. I assume they are using Japanese rice?

Let me research some killer sake pairings (if they allow corkage) for this if and when I come down again. I’m sure the latest Den would also work nicely here.

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@J_L having not tried both do you think the hitsumabushi style would be the way to go when ordering at Toku or would original style served in a lacquered box be worth a try?

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Hitsumabushi allows for three different variations on a theme, and would be a really nice intro to eating eel. The staff is eager to to teach any customers who may have questions on etiquette. The are well-trained. No attitude or condescension at all.

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There’s an hitsumabushi specialist in Palo Alto (of all places).

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To clarify Yayoi is not a specialist place for hitsumabushi, it’s a restaurant with locations in Japan and overseas that focuses on teishoku / set course meals, and hitsumabushi is just one offering of many. They use a strong soy sauce seasoned or katsuo forward dashi instead of sencha or some other green tea.

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Yayoi has other things on the menu, but hitsumabushi is the heavily-promoted house specialty.

https://foodtalkcentral.com/t/yayoi-palo-alto-nagoya-style-unagi-hitsumabushi

I hate to judge on pictures alone, but this one looks a lot better!

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@J_L it would be friggin awesome if Toku are also willing to do u-maki aka unagi stuffed tamagoyaki (extra added value into the course or a side order).

Example of one I had in Taipei years ago

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