It wasn’t so long ago that sushi was still considered an exotic delicacy by many, one too strange and outside the box to pay much attention to. The seemingly simple pairing of raw fish and rice was the domain of the adventurous and the very rich. Today, however, there are sushi restaurants across America of just about every stripe, from holes in the wall turning out decent California rolls and tuna nigiri to sprawling emporiums run by internationally renowned chefs, and from cozy neighborhood favorites to upscale counters that might as well be temples to fish and rice. There are some amazing sushi restaurants in America, and this is our third annual ranking of the nation's best.
First, a little history: In the eighth century, a new way of preserving fish was developed in Southeast Asia, a process in which whole fish were salted and wrapped in fermented rice. The primary purpose of the rice was to prevent the fish from spoiling (it was thrown away before the fish was eaten) — but over the years, fermentation time decreased and people began eating the rice along with the fish. Eventually fermentation was done away with all together, and the rice was treated with vinegar instead (the classic written form of the word sushi meant “sour-tasting”). By the early 1800s, sushi had become something of a fast food in Tokyo; chef Hanaya Yohei is generally regarded as having invented “modern-style” sushi at this time, although his fish was generally marinated in soy sauce or lightly cooked to prevent spoilage. Inexpensive sushi stands proliferated, and when they were outlawed by the government because of sanitation issues, the chefs took to opening restaurants instead.
Sushi finally made its way across the Pacific in 1966, when Noritoshi Kanai and business partner Harry Wolff opened Kawafuku in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo. It was a huge success with Japanese businessmen, who introduced sushi to their American colleagues. Four years later, Osho opened in Hollywood and became popular with celebrities and other movers and shakers. The trend caught on in New York and Chicago, and it took its first major strides toward becoming mainstream when the California roll, the cuisine’s first attempt at “Americanization,” was invented — most likely in 1973 at a Los Angeles restaurant called Tokyo Kaikan by a chef named Ichiro Mashita. Obviously, LA's contribution to sushi culture in America can’t be overstated.
As with most of the finer things in life, the more you look into sushi, the more you realize how much there is to learn. For many, the boundaries of sushi don’t extend far beyond a slice of fish on a small slab of rice, or rolled up with rice and seaweed, best complemented by some soy sauce, wasabi, and pickled ginger. And that’s perfectly fine; at the vast majority of America’s sushi restaurants, that’s all that’s available, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But the deeper you delve into sushi, the more you uncover. Words like sashimi, nigiri, maki, chirashi, and omakase become part of your culinary vocabulary, and before you know it, you’re realizing that you prefer yellowtail to fluke, and from that moment on you’re hooked.
"Great sushi starts with fresh fish and the right preparation,” Toshi Ueki, the master sushi chef at New York’s Blue Ribbon Sushi, told us when asked how he defines great sushi. “The fish must be properly filleted so that it stays fresh throughout the process. When slicing, each piece has to be cut perfectly so that the final presentation is beautiful. Perfect sushi rice is also a key component."As with most of the finer things in life, the more you look into sushi, the more you realize how much there is to learn.
But isn’t the rice just… rice? Not by a long shot. The rice needs just as much attention as the fish, from washing it correctly to cooking it and “vinegaring” it correctly. The rice alone can take years to master: It needs to be short-grain, hold its natural form, and be right at body temperature; it should also have just the right amount of vinegar added and should be sticky enough that it doesn’t fall apart as you bring it to your mouth. It should, however, separate into individual grains once you put it in your mouth. This is accomplished by applying the right pressure to the rice when forming the base of the sushi so the outer layer is more densely packed than the inside. And the topping (called neta) needs to be just the right size so it’s properly proportioned to the rice.
As for the fish, there’s a lot more involved than just making sure it’s fresh. “The first thing on my list is sourcing the best quality fish from southern Japan, Canada, and the Eastern Seaboard, but quality is more than just about the type of fish,” Jose Icardi, the executive chef at Miami’s Katsuya at SLS South Beach, added. (Not all sushi chefs are Japanese these days, if you haven’t noticed.) “It’s about getting the best texture and color, too. Sushi should have brilliant, fresh color, and melt in your mouth. After that, it is all about presentation.” Sushi truly is an art form that you could spend a lifetime studying.
Today, sushi is so popular that overfishing has become a major problem, and stocks of the popular bluefin tuna have been depleted by a whopping 96 percent. At the same time, demand for it remains so high that a single fish occasionally sells for $736,000.
How did we go about identifying the best sushi bars in America? We approached it the same way that we rank the 101 Best Restaurants in America every year: We started by reaching out to leading culinary authorities to ask what their favorite sushi restaurants were. Next, we supplemented those suggestions with sushi bars featured in local reviews and pre-existing regional and local rankings, as well as the many restaurants considered for last year’s ranking. We then took that list of more than 200 restaurants from across the country and graded them on qualities including freshness of fish, variety of offerings, reviews from both professionals and everyday diners, and level of renown both local and national. Some of the top restaurants were easy to identify; temples to the craft like Matsuhisa, Sushi Yasuda, and Masa naturally rose to the top, but we were also able to feature some lesser-known places that have yet to be discovered by legions of sushi fans, but still deserve attention.
Though the majority of America’s best sushi spots are, unsurprisingly, located in California and New York City, great sushi can be found in some surprising locales as well, including Atlanta; Austin; Scottsdale, Arizona; and Jersey City, New Jersey. Thanks to modern technology, the freshest fish from Japanese waters can be out of the ocean and on any restaurant table in America within 24 hours (if someone is willing to pay for it), so in the years to come you can expect to see world-class sushi bars opening in even more unexpected places.
Read on to learn which 50 sushi bars are the best in America, and let us know what your favorite spot is in the comments.