In the raw

Sister sushi restaurants deliver on freshness, flavor

The nigiri plate at Big Tuna offers a sampling of three different fish. Pictured: maguro (tuna), hamachi toro (fatty yellowtail) and sake toro (fatty salmon).

The nigiri plate at Big Tuna offers a sampling of three different fish. Pictured: maguro (tuna), hamachi toro (fatty yellowtail) and sake toro (fatty salmon).

Photo by Evan Tuchinsky

Big Tuna Sushi Bistro
1722 Mangrove Ave. 345-4571

Izakaya Ichiban
2000 Notre Dame Blvd. 342-8500

Both open daily for lunch & dinner, 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.

For years, I would frequent Rawbar and Japanese Blossoms with my wife, Amy, to satisfy sushi cravings. Even though a couple of friends raved about Big Tuna Sushi Bistro, we never made it there before moving to the Central time zone five years ago.

Finally I did, soon after returning to Chico last winter. Turns out I didn’t know what I was missing.

Big Tuna isn’t big at all, just a narrow rectangle in a Mangrove strip mall, with just enough room for the sushi bar and about a dozen tables. The welcoming smiles were wide, though, especially from one of the chefs, Kazu Yamashita, with whom I made an instant connection. (I’d just relocated from Arkansas; he’d spent 16 years in neighboring Oklahoma.)

In contrast with Amy, who relishes multi-ingredient rolls with sauces, I prefer the basics: dishes that harmonize the freshest fish with well-prepared rice. From that first visit, for a late lunch, through what’s likely my 50th, for a recent afternoon snack, Big Tuna always has delivered. The quality of fish, particularly the namesake variety, is exceptional, especially for the price compared with other Chico restaurants of this caliber.

The Tuna Plate—sashimi, cut roll, hand roll and nigiri sushi, with miso soup or salad—at $18.95 can be a meal in itself. The Nigiri Plate, a sampler of tuna, yellowtail and salmon, also with miso or salad, costs $12.95; the Bomber, a wide roll, cut in thin slices, combining tuna, albacore, yellowtail or salmon with cilantro, garlic, green onion and optional Serrano chile costs $7.50.

As for those “fancy” creations: The Hawaiian Roll (yellowtail, mango, avocado and tuna, with flying fish eggs as an accent) actually is a personal favorite, while a friend one lunch praised Big Tuna’s Dragon Roll (snow crab, cucumber and avocado, topped with seared eel and sauce) as the best she’d tasted.

The staff T-shirts boast the name of a second restaurant, Izakaya Ichiban, across town near the Chico Mall. Over the course of my Big Tuna visits, I heard enough raves that I decided to try it out, too.

Izakaya Ichiban opened on 11/11/11, almost exactly three years after Big Tuna. Owner Masayuki “Masa” Watanabe wanted to have a larger restaurant more conducive to professionals and their families, versus the vibe that draws younger customers—in droves, I’ve discovered—to Big Tuna.

Indeed, there’s a lot more room at Izakaya Ichiban, and it’s developed its own legion of fans. Watanabe expanded the space last year, plus incorporated live music on the patio as an added attraction.

My first visit, for a weeknight dinner, I sat at the sushi bar next to a middle-aged man who told me he lives three blocks from Big Tuna but frequents Izakaya Ichiban. I encountered similar loyalty on subsequent visits.

The base menu at both restaurants is the same, but Izakaya Ichiban has a greater variety of special items and fresh fish because of the number of customers served. Each offers cooked food; Izakaya Ichiban’s kitchen features three chefs, all Japanese (one in his 50s, one 60s, one 70s).

I have availed myself of the expanded offerings at the sushi bar, such as albacore from Oregon, anchovy and king mackerel.

In terms of sushi preparation, the biggest differences are slicing and saucing. Big Tuna chefs tend to serve thicker pieces that speak for themselves. Izakaya Ichiban chefs add flavored soy and other sauces, plus accents, to many of the pieces of nigiri sushi. While I’ve preferred the seared bonito at Izakaya Ichiban, on the whole I favor Big Tuna’s approach.