It’s hard to believe that as recently as 25 years ago, sushi was still considered by many to be an exotic delicacy, 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, the ones who were looking to impress. Today, however, there are sushi restaurants across America of just about every stripe, from holes-in-the-wall turning out serviceable California rolls and tuna sashimi to sprawling emporiums run by internationally renowned chefs, from corner neighborhood favorites to upscale counters that might as well be temples to fish and rice. There are some amazing sushi restaurants in America, and from a restaurant in Los Angeles where a 30-course omakase (chef's choice) menu costs $375 — and one in New York City where the tariff rises to $450 —to an under-the-radar gem in Chicago that has been ranked by Zagat as serving the best food in the city, these are the 35 best purveyors of sushi in America.
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 altogether, and the rice was treated with vinegar instead (the classic written form of the word “sushi” translated to “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 due to food standards, the chefs took to opening their own 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 Manashita. Obviously, L.A.'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."
But isn’t the rice just… rice? Not by a long shot. “The most important characteristic in sushi is definitely to have the best quality sushi rice,” Ralph Scamardella, chef/partner at New York’s TAO, added. “Everybody can get the same quality fish, but you need to treat the rice with love and respect – from washing it correctly, cooking it correctly, to 'vinegaring' it correctly — making sure each batch has love put into it to ensure the highest quality sushi dish possible.” 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. “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.” The deeper you delve into sushi, you realize that it truly is an art form that you could spend an entire 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 close to $1 million.
How did we go about identifying the best sushi restaurants 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 are, and we supplemented those suggestions with sushi restaurants featured in local reviews and pre-existing regional and local rankings. While many of these restaurants also serve a menu of traditional Japanese food, the primary focus needed to be on sushi. We then took that list of 112 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 identify some lesser-known places that have yet to be discovered by sushi fans and that deserve attention.
While the majority of America’s great sushi restaurants are located in New York City (13 New York restaurants made our list), plenty of other cities, from New Orleans to Miami, Atlanta, Chicago, Honolulu, Philadelphia, Boston, and especially Los Angeles, also made our ranking, proving that truly great sushi is making its way to every corner of the United States. So read on to learn which 35 sushi restaurants are the best in America, and let us know what your favorite spot is in the comments.
#35 Asanebo, Los Angeles
Since 1991, this cozy San Fernando Valley gem has been turning out some great sushi and homestyle Japanese delicacies, good enough to earn them a Michelin star in 2008 and 2009 (Michelin suspended their L.A. guide in 2010). The kappo-style menu is full of unique dishes like miso-marinated seared U.S. Kobe beef with peach compote, sea urchin tempura, and steamed red snapper head, but the sushi is the true standout: the wide variety ranges from sweet shrimp (amaebi) to halibut fin (engawa), and house signature dishes include halibut sashimi with fresh truffle, seafood ceviche, and sea urchin that’s been salt-cured, steamed, and chilled.
#34 Sushi Zen, New York City
From décor and presentation to style and taste, everything at this decades-old Midtown West sushi restaurant is about harmony. Stepping in off the busy street just a block from Times Square, you immediately feel a calm only Japanese hospitality can provide. Allow yourself to be ushered to the 10-seat counter that doesn’t feature the sushi case ubiquitous to most sushi restaurants for an intimate and deliberate experience. There is no rush, the ingredients are high-quality, and the delivery and presentation are precise (you’ll be reminded that pieces come pre-seasoned with wasabi). That’s a good thing, given that Sushi Zen is one of the city’s few spots to serve fugu, the pufferfish delicacy that can be deadly if not prepared correctly. Chef Toshio Suzuki is a master whose omakase is always on-point, if a little on the expensive side. While a sushi omakase technically starts at $65, you’re likely to want extra pieces beyond that, at which point things can start adding up quickly.
Dan Myers is the Eat/Dine Editor at The Daily Meal. Follow him on Twitter @sirmyers. Additional reporting by Colman Andrews, Arthur Bovino, and Alanna Stang.