Evolving rolls

Back in the day, a sandwich was a straightforward ordeal: lettuce, tomato and meat. Similarly, a burrito came in three varieties—chicken, beef or pork. The sushi roll, when it was introduced, also was a simple affair: rice, cucumber and raw fish. Somehow, somewhere, all hell broke loose with sandwiches and burritos. They multiplied and became panini, wraps and pita pockets filled with every imaginable and unimaginable combination under the sun.

Inevitably, the sushi roll went down this unruly path, as well. At first, it was just an unusual ingredient here and there, like blueberry or jalapeño. But the unusual gave way to the complex. Now, menus are littered with no fewer than two dozen roll choices—all with at least six ingredients, not including rice and seaweed. Though the mere act of reading these menus has been known to cause temporary blindness and permanent indecision, this has deterred no one from embracing the roll in all its multitudinous glory. In fact, the rolls and the restaurants just proliferate.

The owners of Taiko Sushi—Mark and Michael Hayashida, Wayne Yu and Steve Chu—are partly responsible. Taiko Sushi, which opened on K Street last October where the Teriyaki Express used to be, is the offspring of Taiko Sushi in the Sunriver Village in Gold River. It is soon to have a sibling—Taiko Sushi on East Bidwell Street in Folsom. Taiko’s mini-empire of three will go head to head with the likes of Mikuni Japanese Restaurant and Sushi Bar and Taka’s Restaurants—established sushi venues that already have a significant share of the hearts, minds and wallets of the roll-enamored crowd.

Taiko Sushi on K Street is in an interesting position. The K Street redevelopment dream has not quite materialized, but many factors (most notably the multiplex proposition) indicate it still could happen. If so, Taiko on K Street is poised to capture the appetites of the movie-going crowd, as it does now for patrons of the Crest Theatre.

Contemporary in décor, like a Pluto’s or a Jack’s Urban Eats, Taiko has that slightly young, slightly rich aura. It’s design-conscious but not extravagantly so. Taiko’s interior is distinctly un-Japanese. It exudes a modern sensibility with just a hint of retro, through a vibrant color scheme of bold yellows and blues, with occasional curvy lines. The sushi bar hearkens back to an American diner motif but one made sleek by a long, narrow, black-marble counter; and chrome-trimmed, black barstools.

Like most sushi restaurants, Taiko offers nigiri and sashimi, plus entrees like tempura and teriyaki. But the real focus, given the top billing on the menu, is rolls, rolls, rolls. Manageably presented by price—$5.95, $7.95, $8.95 and $9.95—a modest selection of 20 is offered. Some sound positively sandwich-like: tempura chicken with avocado, spicy mayo and cooked green onion (Mt. Fuji roll); or soft-shell crab, romaine, avocado and spicy garlic aioli (Son Goku roll). Others follow the cream cheese, avocado, shellfish and teriyaki sauce prototype. But the menu is not without originality. A couple of combinations, such as spicy tuna with unagi (eel) or seaweed salad with fried portobello, stretch the imagination in new and pleasing ways. Additionally, the menu reveals advanced condiment thinking through various chili oils, chili sauces and aiolis.

We tried the 7 Dwarfs roll: eight substantial pieces of fried portobello, cucumber and crab salad, wrapped in rice and then rolled in masago and topped by a crunchy seaweed salad. The combination was simultaneously refreshing and satisfying. The fry played a substantial role.

The Sea Steak roll—crab salad, ginger and onions topped by pieces of seared tuna—was a hearty affair and delicious all around. We would have ordered more rolls, but 16 pieces and appetizers brought us to a pleasantly sated state.

On the appetizer side, Taiko plays it purely traditional, with classics like edamame (soybeans), agedashi tofu (fried tofu), tempura and gyoza (dumplings). Extended tofu options also appear, such as teriyaki tofu and fresh tofu with green onions.

Being avid fans of agedashi tofu, we sampled an order. The tofu came in large, firm cubes, nicely fried and dangerously hot. Though the dipping sauce tasted overly strong and vinegary, the generous portion for just $3.50 made up for any flaws.

Walking farther down the vegetarian path, we also tried the tofu-and-vegetable ramen. The noodles had a nice texture, and the broth had a clean flavor. But the dish was a step back to the days when vegetarian food was healthy but uninspired. The choice of vegetables—zucchini with a smattering of onions and broccoli—reflected neither the liveliness nor the originality found in the rolls or in the flavor of the restaurant itself.

Despite the verdict of “Too healthy!” on the ramen, Taiko really is a restaurant that distinguishes itself with original creations; generous portions; and friendly, thoughtful service. In a competitive sushi city like Sacramento, you have to prove you can go the extra mile. Taiko on K Street shows that it can.