New sushi bar hits the mark, but doesn’t break the bank
Big Tuna Sushi Bistro1722 Mangrove Ave.
Chico, CA 95926
That name is all I needed to hear to make me want to eat at Big Tuna Sushi Bistro, the cozy new (5 months old) Japanese restaurant in between FedEx Kinko’s and Mountain Mike’s Pizza in the Mangrove Square shopping center.
Kamogawa runs the sushi bar at Big Tuna, and I’ve been a fan of his sushi skills for going on five years now, ever since he was a 20-year-old whiz kid working the sushi bar at Gen Kai under his expert father, Kamo-san. From there, I followed him to the now-defunct Katsu’s, where he ran its sushi bar for two years.
Before being telephoned out of the blue by Big Tuna owner and head chef Masayasu Watanabe and asked to manage Big Tuna’s sushi, Kamogawa was in charge of 33 Steaks, Booze and Jazz’s sushi night. Watanabe, new to town from Palm Springs in August, had heard about Kamogawa’s reputation as a sushi-making prodigy of sorts and looked him up.
I chose Cinco de Mayo to try out Big Tuna. I took along my boyfriend, David, for a lunch date.
Kamogawa wasn’t there on this particular Tuesday afternoon, but Watanabe was. I recognized him by matching his face with the one in the photos on a shelf near the kitchen, featuring Watanabe with Andy Warhol, and Watanabe with Brooke Shields—taken when he ran a restaurant in Aspen, Colo., before moving to California.
We each ordered a roll from a “Special Rolls” whiteboard near our table. I chose the tuna, shiso and asparagus roll ($5) and David picked the salmon, basil and garlic roll (also $5). I also couldn’t resist trying a bottle of a milky-green Japanese soda called Melon Creamy Soda ($2.75) from the refrigerator case near the front window. Beer, plum wine and sake are also available.
The rolls were—to be clichéd yet absolutely honest—awesome. Eight pieces each, and so fresh and yummy. The unique herbiness of the shiso and the mellow raw asparagus in mine complemented one another perfectly.
Next, we ordered chicken curry with salad ($7.50) and beef udon soup ($7.50, also with salad). David loves curry, so that was his dish. What arrived in front of him was nothing less than art in a bowl: The shallow, round, white dish contained a thick, moon-shaped disc of white rice set asymmetrically to one side, covered on one half by a curry gravy dotted with chunky pieces of chicken, and decorated with a playful “nest” of microscopically thin slices of caramelized leeks. On the edge of the dish rested a red “flower” made from fukujin zuke—a kind of sweet, picked radish. Short summary: The chicken curry tasted as good as it looked, and David loved the addition of the crispy “grass,” as he referred to the browned leeks.
Beef udon soup: Excellent.
I went back the next day alone for lunch.
Same relaxing ambiance: soft reggae music overhead, paper napkins, and no feeling that you’re underdressed. Same food that you’d expect to pay double for in many other sushi places.
Kamogawa was there, and he made my unagi (barbecued eel) roll ($5) after the utterly charming Reiko Watanabe, Masayasu’s wife, took my order (“Hai!,” she said graciously. “Hai!” as she backed away from my table.)
The eel had arrived fresh that day, Kamogawa informed me, from a new distributor in Sacramento that provides, as he put it, “Bay Area/L.A.-quality fish.”
My unagi roll was beyond spot-on, as the warm, crispy eel in the center of my rice-and-seaweed roll was just so delicious.
Big Tuna serves upscale food for very reasonable prices in a comfortable, relaxed atmosphere. Rolls range in price from $4.50-$11, with the more elaborate ones costing more. For something different, brown rice or takikomi—rice with bits of seaweed, carrot and deep-fried tofu—can be substituted for white rice in any menu item containing rice.