The Zen of fish bits
Sacramento, CA 95826
There’s nothing stealthy about Ninja Sushi. In fact, entry can give one a start as Julian, the effusive host, offers a loud and longish greeting in Japanese that drowns out the din of the other diners at this former drive-thru. Even on busy Fridays, when the sake bombs are 99 cents. But like its namesake, Ninja delivers food with swiftness and skill. Often Julian will sit down and enjoy the chef’s creations at various tables. Or send over a special treat such as two pillars wrapped in saba and crowned with sauces that spill down and swirl across the small square plate. Julian is a fitting poster guy for Ninja’s motto: “Good Food. Fun. Great Deals.”
Naturally, there are other offerings besides fish bits: Like the two-dozen lunches starting at $6.95 and 17 dinner entrees beginning at $11.95 with chicken, beef, tempura, gyoza, tonkatsu, donburi and curry all part of the mix. But they’re way at the back of the colorful sushi-centric, heavily illustrated menu. There are more than 85 rolls here, which is perhaps 10 more than the wide-ranging selection at Sushi Hook over on Howe Avenue. There’s no shortage of rolls with place names, those with names that honor events such as a Hole in One, or those crediting various individuals who helped inspire the roll’s creation. Old Auburn, deep-fried fake crabmeat with salmon on the outside; Brandi’s Special Roll, with spicy crabmeat, avocado, yellow tail and spicy tuna; and Folsom Blvd., with freshwater eel, avocado and cream cheese are just some notables.
But then there are the rolls named for Annie, Kayla, Jess, Sari, Lindsay, Akira, Kim Bob, David, Rhonda, Jenny, Koji, Melody, Peter, King Kong, Snow White and (the no doubt fiendish) Dr. Lorenzo.
Short of systematically powering through the multi-pages of listings, where should a sushi swain begin? In keeping with the rigorous scientific methodology employed here to render each week’s precise appraisals, the best starting point is somewhere that’s been visited before (that has sort of a Zenlike ring to it. Now snatch the wasabi from my hand, Grasshopper). Creating this foundation for comparison at Japanese eateries is Hawaiian poke and what’s usually called “pepperfin.” These two dishes trend toward the sashimi end of the sushi spectrum—pepperfin usually comprises slices of fish lying in a slick of ponzu with jalapeño and a splash of green onions on top. But that allows a taste of the fish and provides a largely agreed-upon universe of components. Ninja breaks the mold on poke. Its is a leafy green salad of iceberg that, because of its inclusion, seems long on lettuce and short on tuna. Downtown’s Zen Sushi, for instance, offers a jumbled pile of ahi cubes with some daikon threads and a bit of wakame. Actually, there’s a fair amount of tuna in Ninja’s version accompanied by some long, thin cucumber strips and a dusting of sesame seeds. Poke isn’t an entree at Zen Sushi. At Ninja, it sure could be. The pepperfin falls squarely within the norm presented as a volcano of seared ahi, studded with bits of jalapeño and adorned with plenty of daikon threads.
Also sampled is the Spicy Rhonda, of whose identity the server has “no idea.” The combination of spicy and deep-fried tuna with salmon, tuna and crabmeat on top needs way more jalapeño to live up to its claim. Servers allege the Flaming Dragon—served on fire, obviously—is unique to Ninja although the folks at Sushi Cafe on Freeport Boulevard feature something comparable. The Kim Bob offers a changeup. It’s centered on a core of teriyaki beef or chicken counterbalanced with pickled daikon, cucumber and avocado and a bit of seaweed salad.
Overall: Festive—although a quiet corner can be elusive—crammed with options and brightened by the presence of its owner. Leave the nunchaku at home, sensei.