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Eat This, Riverside: Outstanding Sushi at Sushi OK

Don’t let the name mislead you - under-rated Sushi OK offers outstanding Japanese food in a modest strip mall setting. Seth Zurer’s latest Eat This Riverside explores the extensive menu at this bustling sushi bar.

Chef/Owner Sam Choi presents a Chirashi bowl.

There are a lot of sushi places in Riverside. Most of them are… OK. The all-you-can-eat joints are justifiably popular for students or other penny-pinchers, but I have a little trouble digesting (mentally) the faster-cheaper-better idea when it comes to raw fish. I’d rather pay a premium for the knowledge that the seafood is fresh and well-handled than save a few bucks on merely OK commodity salmon and tuna.

At the other end of the sushi-economic spectrum are places like Momo, which focus on chef’s-choice “omakase” meals at astronomical price points. I love the high quality and interesting pescatory options, but sometimes leave feeling like I need to stop for a cheeseburger on the way home from dinner.

Right in the middle, in my sushi-economic sweet spot, is the inaptly named Sushi OK, in the Heritage Plaza mall across from the derelict Sears building on Arlington.

Sushi OK at 5228 Arlington Avenue.

The food at Sushi OK is way better than OK! It’s my top choice for raw fish on rice in Riverside.

Owner Sam Choi bought the restaurant from the previous owner four years ago after working as a chef there for half a decade. He’s not accustomed to attention from the media. When I approached his staff about doing an interview, I struggled to explain that I was writing a review - they thought at first I wanted to interview for a job. When I communicated to Choi that I wanted to write about him and the restaurant, he was astonished. In his nine years at Sushi OK, he says, no one had ever come to ask him any questions about the restaurant. Mid-conversation, he got shy and ran off to seek refuge behind the sushi bar.

Chef/Owner Sam Choi working behind the bar at Sushi OK.

His humble demeanor notwithstanding, he takes sushi and hospitality very seriously, having gathered a dream team of sushi chefs and waitstaff at Sushi OK who commute from all over the region to help him realize his vision.

Their menu is extensive, covering a wide swath of the Japanese culinary landscape. They have all the classics: California rolls, edamame, tempura shrimp and veggies, plus a broad menu of nigiri, with the perennial tuna, salmon, and yellowtail but also choice offerings like halibut, spanish mackerel, king scallop, and amberjack.

Besides sushi, the menu boasts a deep bench of dining options. An appetizer of grilled yellowtail collar is bony by nature but full of succulent nuggets of savory fish waiting to be discovered with a probing chopstick. Sushi OK also serves up noodles in all shapes and sizes from chunky udon to speckled gray buckwheat flour soba noodles in a variety of configurations. In case that’s not enough, how about bento boxes, bulgogi, or oysters on the half-shell. There’s something for everybody, OK?

I really like their nigiri -Choi and his team of sushi chefs have a skilled hand with a knife, carving out tender slabs of fresh fish to top well-formed batons of flavorful sushi rice. They pay attention to the small details - usually slicing off an extra piece of fish at no additional charge as a sashimi lagniappe with each pair of nigiri and garnishing each piece with creative flair. On a recent visit, explosive dabs of ginger-marinated fresh wasabi adorned my orders of Spanish mackerel, halibut, and red snapper, offering an eye-watering burst of flavor to the silken seafood.

Check the menu board by the sushi counter for daily specials and seasonal items.

The specials board behind the sushi bar at Sushi OK.

Their handrolls are tight cones of fresh crackling nori, overflowing with rice and your choice of filling. I had a delicious negitoro hand roll, made with chopped-up bits of fatty tuna with scallions, more fresh wasabi, soy, and a sprinkle of sesame seeds.

Negitoro (tuna) Handroll.

I also like Sushi OK’s chirashi - a rice bowl topped with an assortment of fish (raw and cooked) along with umami-laden squid salad and cooling marinated seaweed.

Chef / Owner Sam Choi with an order of chirashi - raw and cooked fish over rice.

I could visit Sushi OK a dozen times and barely cover half the menu. There are 30 creative variations on California rolls alone, as well as separate sections for smaller traditional rolls and wild fusion rolls topped with things like cajun albacore ceviche, chopped crawfish, or pan-fried scallops. Plates are lovingly composed, with edible flowers and artful splashes of sauce.

The decor is fun - an entire wall of the restaurant is devoted to polaroids of regular customers; colorful lanterns and inverted umbrellas hang from the ceiling. The ambiance inside is much more pleasant than its strip mall exterior would suggest.

Sushi OK is NOT all you can eat, as a sign at the entrance informs diners. When asked why they bucked the all-you-can-eat trend, manager David Cho highlights Sushi OK’s focus on quality, which, he says, justifies a higher price. He compares his all-you-can-eat competitors to cheap generic footwear: “Sure, you can buy shoes for $20-$30, but if you want quality you have to spend a little more - you can’t get Nikes for $20! It’s the same with our sushi - we source excellent fish from all over the world and pay careful attention to how we keep and treat it.”

The service is friendly and attentive. At the end of your meal, you’ll be offered a complimentary bowl of ice cream. To conclude, Sushi OK is excellent.

Sushi OK is located at 5228 Arlington Avenue, to the right of Smart & Final. They’re open for lunch and dinner seven days a week, from 11:30 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. Monday - Saturday and from noon - 9:00 pm on Sunday. They have a full bar with beer, wine, and cocktails. Sushi OK takes reservations and can get busy during peak dinner hours, so plan ahead!