Brothers Sushi Brings A New Twist to Omakase in L.A.
Mark Okuda has spent his whole life not only in Japanese restaurants, but specifically in Japanese restaurants in the San Fernando Valley, where he was born and raised. He grew up hanging out at Teru Sushi, the Studio City spot that’s been around since 1979, while his mom waited tables. A skip away at an early job at Asanebo, he honed in on his culinary technique and knowledge of sushi. For Okuda, it felt natural that he not only pursue a career in food, but also that he stay close to his Valley roots.
The perfect opportunity arrived in 2018, when he took over The Brothers Sushi in Woodland Hills and revitalized it into the critically acclaimed, perpetually crowded hotspot it is today. A second Brothers in Santa Monica arrived in 2021, and fans have continued to seek out both locations for Okuda’s creative omakase and signature dry-aged fish preparations.
We caught up with Okuda to discuss what California Japanese cuisine means to him, what omakase etiquette he wishes everyone knew, and the parallels he sees between sushi and his other obsession: sneakers.
Resy: Why did you decide to pursue a career in food? Was there a lightbulb moment?
Mark Okuda: I was always in the restaurant industry. My mother was a server at a few Japanese restaurants and after school, I would go to visit and hang out in the kitchen. Even at home, I would watch her cook and be her helper—I was always around the kitchen. And that hobby became a passion. Being a sushi chef, you’re preparing food in front of your guests, which is a unique experience. I felt a calling to communicate with my guests and to witness their reactions firsthand.
You’re from the Valley originally. What’s it been like to stay and build your career there?
It’s nice to be home. I have great support from my longtime customers. I was born here, I went to school here. I never left. It’s convenient to Downtown, the beaches, close by the mountains. It’s more family-oriented—not as crazy as the Westside or Downtown.
What about your choice to expand to Santa Monica? How did you know when it was the right moment to do that and how did you settle on that neighborhood? Are the vibes of your two restaurants completely different?
We have totally different clientele. I found that location just jiving down at the farmers’ market. I didn’t really know there was this nice quiet town side to Santa Monica. It’s driven by the community instead of tourists. Most of our guests at the Santa Monica location are all locals who live within walking distance or a three-to-five mile radius. They’re 100% supportive. We found the location during the pandemic, when there were a lot of vacant spaces. I talked to a realtor and they were kind of desperate for a tenant to come in. I think we’ve got a really good deal and opportunity at that location. And now, a lot of new stores are coming in and revitalizing that neighborhood.
How do you define your version of California Japanese cuisine?
I like to use local ingredients—produce, seafood, whatever is accessible or seasonal. Before, at other restaurants, I was taught to use only ingredients from Japan, because the products overseas were significantly better than what we could get here in the States. But I’ve been noticing more and more local growers or providers that are equivalent to—or probably surpass—what we get from Japan. And I think not many people are taught that or are afraid to try that. But for me, I’m pretty open if it makes sense or if it’s good. You know, why not use local sources? It’s right next to us.
Like people in Japan source uni from Santa Barbara, right?
Yes! It’s one of the best places to get sea urchin, in Santa Barbara. It’s even sweeter than the ones in Japan.
What makes your omakase different?
It’s a combination of techniques I’ve learned from my mentors and my own twist with local resources. It could be sustainable fish, vegetables, stuff that I grew up eating and loving. I categorize it as California fusion cuisine with Japanese flavors. Some things I don’t really touch and keep as is, like the dashi, which is the heart and soul of Japanese cuisine, and soy sauce. But what I change are the toppings and vegetables. I use wasabi from Northern California that’s just as good as what you get in Japan. The ice plant is a new type of succulent we use. And I think a lot of the ‘wow factor’ we’ve been getting from people is the dry aging. We dry age a lot of the fish. People expect a dry jerky-style fish but actually what it does is just take away the moisture and collect the protein and fat content.
What is the etiquette you wish everyone knew?
For those without dietary restrictions, I think you should definitely trust the chef to do what he does best. Let him serve what he thinks is really seasonal. Each piece of sushi is already sauced so just enjoy it the way the chef presents it. I rarely see anybody ask for soy sauce or ponzu to change up the flavor profile of the fish. Even in Japan I rarely see anybody ask for extra wasabi on the side or ginger—the dishes don’t need it. Enjoy what the chef gives you; you can’t go wrong with that.
It can get really complicated when you come to omakase and can’t have fish, are gluten free, or don’t eat any raw stuff. We have to rearrange the omakase or make sure there isn’t soy sauce. It’s typically not what we want to serve, but we have to adjust. The selection just becomes really limited.
Aging fish is something you’re well known for. How and why were you drawn to this technique?
I was always curious about how different restaurants dry age. I asked a lot of questions to chefs in Japan and got to know Liwei Liao from The Joint [a fish market in Sherman Oaks] and we started talking and he started giving me tips and advice. We became really good friends. A lot of the stuff I get comes from The Joint. He’ll check the refrigerators in our restaurants to make sure the temperature and humidity is alright. It definitely enhances the flavor profile of the fish if you dry age it.
What’s a must-order item from Brothers you think everyone should try?
The seared dry aged toro with the ice plant, and the dry aged yellowtail which is smoked with Japanese cherry wood. We use fresh toro; as soon as you try it you can definitely taste the difference. A lot of time toro is frozen so I think the texture is really different from a lot of other places. Ours is softer because all of the moisture has been removed. Some people call it the slime part of the fish; since that’s being taken out when we do the dry aging you’re literally left with oily toro with just protein and fat—it’s delicious.
For the yellowtail, the flavor profile meshes so well. The aged yellowtail is paired with a citrus sauce and a spicy jalapeno while the cherry wood with the instant smoker smells like nature. It’s not too strong of smoked flavor.
If you don’t have time to dine at the restaurant, we also have hand roll kits.
I know you’re a huge sneakerhead. Do you draw any parallels between fashion and the work you do?
Definitely. I think sneakers—and streetwear in general—at its heart is just like food. It’s two different forms of art. In sushi, you can have a California roll, but some people put a twist on it—they do a collab with the California roll. That’s kind of like sneakers. You could have Jordan 1s. That silhouette is classic but there are collabs that customize it and make it more unique to their style. For me, they’re both distinct forms of culture.
What would your dream collaboration for Brothers Sushi be?
I’d probably make a Jordan 1 or Dunk with a sushi logo on the side. That would be awesome.
Kat Thompson is a Bangkok-born, Los Angeles-raised writer. She was previously a senior staff writer of food & beverage at Thrillist and has written for Food & Wine, Bon Appetit, Eater, and more.