As the sushi world turns
Sacramento, CA 95814
There is no restaurant in Taka Watanabe’s Sacramento sushi empire that isn’t improved by the presence of the Great Man behind the counter.
This particular day, he graces Ju Hachi at 18th and S streets, formerly Taka’s, but the statement is just as true if he were at Kru in Midtown or Taka’s Sushi in Fair Oaks.
Despite its majestic ring, ju hachi is “18” in Japanese. Ju is 10 and, well, anyway …
Ju Hachi is bright with a swanky L-shaped, 12-seat counter, most of it parallel to 18th. The original Taka’s was dark with a claustrophobic sushi counter. In 2004, Taka sold it to his then-business partner Benny Hom, who expanded the restaurant and improved the premises, angering the landlord. The landlord ejected Benny and invited Taka back. Benny now operates Zen Sushi at 15th and I streets.
Ah, the tangled world of Sacramento sushi.
This particular day, Taka is coming on like the flack for the Metro Chamber. He talks of small-business credit travails. The tanked economy has halved the number of restaurants in Fair Oaks. “It’s not just my family that depends on me. I have 75 employees,” he says.
The maestro and I have some history. The kid who I bought baby clothes for when Taka helmed Tokio’s on Fifth and J streets is now 11 years old.
At Tokio’s, Taka created the Michael Roll, which lives on as the Corbett Roll at his establishments. Michael Corbett, a longtime local-government lobbyist at the Capitol and Tokio’s habitué, routinely asked Taka to fashion rolls that included this, that and the other. Often, Michael would hand Taka a homegrown habanero or two to fire things up. Lesser mortals, including me, have bled from the eyes attempting the fieriness of Michael’s preferred heat level.
One day Michael asked for shrimp tempura, smoked salmon and avocado. Taka laid the salmon across the top of the roll, whipped up some spicy cream sauce and punctuated the creation with lemon slices. It’s $12 at Ju Hachi.
The first visit to Ju Hachi is with my favorite sushi-phile, Donna Kaylor, a lovely woman who lobbies for Pfizer. She orders. Of the 30 rolls on the menu, our waitress recommends the Ziggy, a soy wrap of deep-fried soft shell crab. The menu says the sauce contains garlic and avocado and is also spicy and creamy. It is indeed.
We dig Ziggy, which, though generously portioned, weighs in at $15.
A favorite from Donna’s and my dining adventures at Nishiki Sushi Bar on 16th and P streets is albacore sprinkled with jalapeños in a citrus ponzu sauce. At Ju Hachi, it’s the $12 B.T.S. and tastes just the way it’s supposed to. Donna delights in the deep-fried jalapeño rounds. She wonders if it’s fair to criticize the sunomono, since it’s complimentary. I assure her I spray 360 degrees. A sweeter dressing and less skin on the cukes, please.
Orion, a lager from Okinawa, is a very pleasurable alternative to the holy trinity of Asahi, Kirin and Sapporo.
Afterward, I’m disappointed. My preconceived notion was that this new iteration of Taka’s would feature more of Kru’s inventive élan instead of offering a stalwart array of sushi and bento boxes.
Things improve markedly on a return with Kate Folmar, the secretary of state’s press secretary and a former Capitol Press Corps member. Not a sushi fan, Kate orders the $8.50 barbecue albacore lunch special. Unlike me, she prefers a less sweet salad dressing. But the albacore is grilled expertly, remaining tender on the inside.
I tell Taka to work that voodoo only he do.
The first creation is a very Kru-ish series of six deep-fried wheels of sushi. The far outside pieces are topped with scallops. Next to them is poke, Hawaiian-style sashimi. And, in the center, chopped apples. A handful of Donna’s beloved deep-fried jalapeños dot the outer edges of the thin rectangular plate.
Eat from the outside, in, Taka says.
As Kate and I lament that The Associated Press employs the only women left in the Capitol Press Corps, Taka presents a bowl with a craggy island of monkfish liver in a sea of B.T.S. sauce. On the receipt both items just say “special,” but best guess is the monkfish is $8 and the superlative sushi sampler $16.
As has always been the custom with Taka, an order of lomi—salmon drizzled with ponzu and daikon slivers—is dessert.
When Taka’s present: authoritative. Otherwise: very appealing.