Mitch’s Sushi Bar
Image: martha cheng

Even in sushi, sometimes the atmosphere’s not the thing

Mitch’s Sushi Bar / We all have a love affair with hole-in-the-wall eateries, which let us feel like we’re privy to a little secret that only a couple of (thousand) people in Honolulu know about. More to the point, we love them because they are cheap.

So what are we to make of a hole-in-the-wall where it’s all too easy to drop $200 for two? Do we cry bloody murder, or do we fork over the cash like drug addicts in need of a fix–our drug in this case being some of the freshest, most luscious fish in town?

Welcome to the dilemma posed by Mitch’s Sushi Bar. Located in the airport’s industrial neighborhood, it’s carved out of a warehouse space and repurposed into a small, clean, nondescript sushi bar.

Here, there’s no mood lighting, wood panelling, nor sushi chefs greeting you “irasshai!” Instead, you get fluorescent lights and two sushi chefs behind the counter that look on with bemused boredom (they don’t get their sake until 7:30pm, after which they liven up). Come right around 5pm, at the start of dinner, and you’ll see an empty room with five stools in front of the sushi bar, a few tables and a waitress who doesn’t want to seat you if you don’t have reservations. Within half an hour you find out why. Almost every seat (all 15 or so) is occupied; by a guy in slippers and stained shirt, dining with his cell phone, a group of middle-aged guys with a cooler of beer (Mitch’s is BYOB) and two young couples who have eschewed candlelit dinner and heavily-sauced plates for raw fish and rice in a converted warehouse. Nothing’s private–in this small space, we can hear every word of the couples’ conversations, though their voices are kept intimately low. (Mitch’s did recently build a cozy wood-panelled room on the other side of the warehouse, a tatami-in-the-wall, you could say.)

As orders trickle in, the previously slack bodies of the sushi chefs are focused in quick, efficient movements of slicing fish and molding rice for sushi. In our case, moments after we order, we are confronted with our first course brought from the tank outside: a spiny lobster waving its antennae and languidly flipping its tail. The server brings it to us for our approval and then reappears with it; the meat in the tail has been carved out, a white, translucent mound. It’s slightly sweet, firm, almost crisp–more a wonder of texture than any signature flavor. I’m trying to scrape out the last bits attached to the shell, unaware that the lobster will come back to me for the third and last time, with the head and tail in a miso soup that captures all the essence left in the shell and clinging bits of meat.

The rest of our sushi and sashimi is presented less dramatically. From the specials board, the waitress is patient enough to explain unfamiliar items like kohada, a spotted sardine that arrives with a scored, silvery skin, and suzuki, a white-fleshed Japanese sea bass that’s mild in flavor. But even on the regular menu, items are impeccably fresh–maguro (‘ahi), dark red and firm, without a hint of fishiness; hamachi (yellowtail), buttery and rich, but not mushy; uni (sea urchin), creamy, sweet and slightly briny.

There are two revelations of the night. One is the toro, taken from the fatty belly of a bluefin tuna, and is nothing short of obsession-inducing. The toro slice is so marbled with fat that it’s pink; it’s smooth like butter in the mouth. Mitch’s also has a chu toro, less fatty, more firm, with more flavor of the tuna, but the toro is a truly addictive experience. Frankly, it’s easy to see how bluefin has now been fished to the point of near-extinction. But our other favorite dish, Mitch’s sake, or salmon, was a surprise. On most sushi menus we deem it too boring to order. Here, the sushi chef tells us it’s the toro of salmon, appealing directly to our demonstrated weakness. We inevitably relent and indeed, it is soft, salmon-flavored evidence of my suspicion that we love sushi because it’s the socially-acceptable, “healthy” way of eating fat. What’s especially surprising is that it’s farmed king salmon from New Zealand. Haven’t we always been told of farmed fish’s inferiority in taste? According to Craig Mitchell, who owns Mitch’s Sushi, the fish has “no antibiotics and is farmed in really clean waters. Generally with farms you get bacteria all over the fish; you don’t have that here. Good wild is good, but it’s a little overrated and over-priced.”

Mitchell attributes the fresh texture of all the fish in the sushi counter to “good rigor mortis,” as unsexy as it may sound. A fillet will retain that appealing texture for about 40 hours once cut from the fish; because of that, “I mandate…we don’t use any fish from the day before,” he says. But none goes to waste. “We have a lot of staff to feed. If you look at the size of the workers, you’ll see that we all eat pretty well.” He puts his hands on his own gut, hefting it like a bowling ball and laughing.

The workers he’s referring to are not the lean sushi chefs behind the counter, but the guys who work in Mitchell’s fish import business housed in the adjoining warehouse. They haul in deliveries on planes from Japan, Taiwan, Tonga, New Zealand and Australia, among other countries, and Mitchell sells the fish by the case-load to major distributors primarily on Oahu, minus a few fish and shellfish he puts aside for the sushi bar.

The really unique stuff Mitchell brings in is usually listed on the specials whiteboard. But beyond these, Mitchell says he would love to bring in even more exotic–some would say illegal, others exciting–specimens. He talks of whale tongue, live frogs and fugu–but is ultimately thwarted by all those organizations in America that keep our food supply oh-so-safe, humane and sustainable.

The sushi bar is just a small portion of Mitchell’s business, a hobby started five years ago to keep his dad busy (his dad is the Mitch of Mitch’s Sushi, the jolly Santa Claus-like face on the storefront and the sushi bar’s general goodwill ambassador). The restaurant hasn’t even been profitable until the last year and a half–surprising, given the prices.

And this is where we talk about the 500-pound tuna in the room–Mitch’s is not cheap. At all. The toro sushi is $20 for two pieces, the spiny lobster sashimi and soup $52. The average price per piece of nigiri sushi is $4. It’s hard to spend any less than $50 a person at Mitch’s. But for me, it’s worth it (even if the Weekly can’t afford to pick up the tab).

I could say it’s not the setting that I come for, but it is in a small way–Mitch’s quirky ambiance is its lack of ambiance. Ultimately, though, it’s the fish that has me crawling back for more.

Mitch’s sushi bar

524 Ohohia St., 537-7774

Mon–Sat, 11:30am–8:30pm, Visa and MasterCard accepted, on-street parking available.