Monday, October 16, 2006, 7:19 PM

Practice safe eating - always use condiments

As soon as I walk into the place, I can smell the fish. Not breaded and fried, not buttered and broiled, but the old fashioned fishy kind. As in … recently alive and now naked, sans skills, gills and frills.

Where am I? Tokoro in Pasadena, California, which serves up sushi and rolls. And I’m ever the gamin dare devil, but I'm still going to need a drink, maybe two, to counteract the sushi? sushi! scream in my brain. I hope they have something other than sake because the one time I tried to drink sake, all the hair on my body stood up and my toes curled until my foot cramped. And maybe it’s just me, but I prefer a slow body burn or a light my fire kind of drink.

My companions and I slide into a booth and the first thing L wants me to do is to read the bottle on the table. She has trouble reading without her glasses, so I pick the bottle up and give it the once-over. My brow furrows as I look for something in English. L giggles and does a forehead-to-the-table kiss. “I knew you were going to do that,” she said. Meanwhile, C is doing the mad dash back from the car because she forgot her wood engraved chopsticks. She’s a pro. Been here, ate most of it.

The menu is like trying to read a football play, it makes no damn sense to me. I have no idea whether I'll prefer squid over octopus, eel over albacore, or yellow fin over squid, but I know I want a glass of wine.

“Wine doesn’t go well with sushi,” L tells me gleefully after my glass arrived and I sucked down a healthy portion of it.

I have a nagging suspicion that for me, dead fish isn’t going to go with diddlysquat, but I decide to try her beer. And then C’s. Hot damn! Perfect. It must be because beer is made with wheat and hops and corn (veggies) and compliments the, er … fish. (Yes, I know all fish we eat is dead, but for some reason raw fish is dead fish to me. Otherwise it’s broiled, baked or fried.)

You know how at some restaurants they bring you crackers, bread and olive oil, or chips and sauce while you linger over drinks and the menu? At Tokoro, they bring you pea pods. I try to eat the outer casing that houses the sweet pea, but the skin is unusually thick and won't give. When I give up and take it away from my mouth, there's a neat outline of the vegetable’s spine. The rest of it is being ground between my molars. Crunch, crunch, gulp, like swallowing a piece of gum.

That’s when either L or C tell me the correct way to eat this thing, which isn't a pea pod at all, but a soybean. I'm supposed to dip it in the low-sodium soy sauce then eh-scrrrrrape my teeth along the green, forcing the beans inside out onto my tongue, leaving the thick green hide intact. Just like squeezing a blackhead out of a pore.

When the sushi arrives, I look for the noodles, the rice, the mashed potatoes. There's nothing on the plate but clean-looking, raw flesh in tones of pink, white and tan. But I'm in for a grin, in for a hee-fricking-haw. I’ve never tried dead fish before and tonight is the night I'm going to, for better or for worse.

My first bite is of albacore, something I'm familiar with. I prefer Star-Kist Albacore Tuna. Charlie, you know? The raw meat is cool and smooth in my mouth. Chewing it is like something I’ve never tried to chew before. It isn't exactly chewable. I think it's supposed to slide down my throat. It almost melts against my tongue and maybe it would have (and I could have enjoyed the sensation) if I could get past the idea that I'm eating raw fish.

Before the night was over, I tried yellow fin (my favorite), tuna tuna, albacore and something else that I can’t remember right now. Scallops. Lobster. Wasabi (I know it's not fish, it’s a nose-hair stinger). It was interesting and I’m glad I experienced it, but for me sushi is like nearing Gack City and having to pay $200 as I pass Go. And since I live in LA, I need that $200 bucks, thank you.

After Tokoro’s, we went to McDonald’s and I inhaled an order of small French fries. Isn’t that what all sushifites do?

10 Did the Unhingey Jiggy Engage in Unhingenosity
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