Sushi is now as American as apple pie.
Sounds strange, doesn’t it? But with sushi available everywhere from grocery stores to giant corporate restaurants to casino buffets, it is not much different from other formerly foreign foods like pizza, tacos or Chinese stir-fries, all of which have been stirred into the culinary melting pot.
Kansas City once had only a handful of Japanese restaurants to choose from, with an even smaller selection of sushi. But the city now finds itself well into its second generation of sushi evolution.
As with other cuisines, numbers promise availability, not necessarily quality. The search for good sushi can take you to unexpected places, like a suburban Parkville shopping development, home of Sakae Sushi, the second sushi restaurant for the Hoang family.
Sam Hoang ran the popular Wasahi in Kansas City, North, for years before transitioning to this newer iteration with his son Peter a little over a year ago. Once inside the doors, you will find yourself in their skilled hands, as they roll, form and plate sushi creations that rival those of many of the more heralded sushi restaurants in the city.
The décor here is nothing out of step with your average small suburban restaurant. The difference is that the bar you encounter when you enter is the sushi bar, denoted by large letters hanging above spelling out “S-U-S-H-I,” if the bar top refrigerated box containing a variety of cuts of fish didn’t give it away before.
The eight sushi bar seats were full on my first visit, so my dining companion and I settled for a table. I often prefer sitting at the bar, which I did on another visit, to watch the chefs in action.
The yellow tail Mexicano on the specials board immediately piqued my curiosity: blowtorch-kissed slices of thick-cut fish and hot sesame oil popped with the cooling Latin flavors of a cucumber pico de gallo.
Sushi, traditionally based around raw fish and rice, is an exacting cuisine that requires excellence in product and execution to truly shine. This dish was a nod to the modern generation of sushi that infuses flavors from other cultures into the traditional Japanese approach, a school of thought ushered in by chefs like Nobu Matsuhisa at his world-famous Nobu restaurants.
After an enchanting first bite, I was excited for what the menu had to offer. There was a nice array of sashimi (raw fish without rice), nigiri (fish with rice) and maki (items rolled with rice in seaweed), ranging from traditional to the more modern selections.
I went with mostly new school options like the Lemon Drop, a roll of spicy salmon and avocado with pieces of torched salmon and paper-thin slices of lemon draped over the top. It was a surprising mix of tart, savory and rich flavors that pleased at first bite.
Again, the torched salmon offered an ever-so slight touch of a temperature difference, enough to activate the top layer of fat in the oily fish. It is a subtle but admirable skill in chef Peter’s repertoire, and one that speaks to traditional Japanese sushi, where slightly warm rice marries with cold fish to create harmony.
The Spicy Tuna Bite was another pleasant surprise. Hot, crispy rice was topped with spicy tuna mix, a slice of avocado and a sliver of grape. The flavor and texture were again a winning combination.
There were also a few “safer” ingredients, like kani (imitation crab) and cream cheese, that are meant for those who are sushi-phobic but do nothing for me. The Black Widow maki roll is popular, with tempura soft-shell crab, spicy kani, asparagus and avocado. Creamy avocado and the vegetal tones of asparagus played well off the crunch of hot crab, but the spicy kani was just filler.
Our server recommended the Daikon maki, a roll stuffed with yellowtail, tuna, salmon, kani and masago (fish eggs), rolled in shaved, marinated sheets of daikon radish and topped with yuzu ponzu (a citrus, mirin and soy blend).
In taste and mouth feel it was like eating a rolled salad, with the toothsome bite of radish wrapper playing foil to the hunks of yielding fish inside. I could have eaten two rolls by myself, it was so light and satisfying.
A follow-up visit was less busy and sushi bar seats were open, allowing for a front row view of chef Peter’s handiwork and convivial nature.
This time I started off with the Hamachi (yellowtail) Jalapeno sashimi, which featured thick slices of fish neatly folded over, topped with jalapeno and cilantro, laying on a bed of spiral cut daikon radish and edible pink and purple orchid flowers, which garnish most of the dishes at Sakae.
After sampling some traditional items, I asked chef Peter to prepare something especially for me. I mentioned my love of chutoro and otoro (fatty tuna belly), which they don’t generally carry because of cost and low demand, so he made an astounding creation from the fatty salmon belly instead.
I watched him score the flesh, blowtorch it briefly to activate the rich belly fat and then infused it with smoke under a dome using a Smoking Gun. The slick salmon fat and smoke melded to perfection on my tongue.
Temperature is one of the details that play an important part to Sakae’s food. At the sushi bar there is a large ice-crushing machine that is used to keep plates cold or serve sushi on. Fried dishes, of which there are many, come out hot and are served quickly to maintain their quality. Rice is served properly, on the warm side of room temperature.
The kitchen at Sakae doesn’t have much space for refrigeration or freezers, so they purchase fresh ingredients frequently. Attention to detail and quality of ingredients elevates Sakae’s sushi from merely good to great. And great sushi is worth traveling for, even if you aren’t particularly close to Parkville.
Tyler Fox is a personal chef and freelance restaurant critic who lives in Kansas City. To reach him, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
6325 Lewis St. Suite 100
Food: ☆☆☆ High-quality fish and creative sushi selections make for a diverse and reasonably priced menu with solid execution and beautiful plating.
Atmosphere: ☆☆ The small restaurant is tasteful, clean and has small touches of Japanese flair, making it a nice place for a quiet dinner or a date.
Service: ☆☆1/2 Servers are nice and fairly well informed, though at times inconsistent on minor details. A seat at the sushi bar is the best bet for great service and a first-rate show as the sushi gets rolling.
Hours: Lunch 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m., dinner 4:30-9 p.m. Monday through Thursday; lunch 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m., dinner 4:30-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 4-9 p.m. Sunday
Entrée average: $$
Vegetarian options: Separate full vegetarian and gluten-free menus give numerous options to choose from, including sushi rolls, tempura and various hot and cold dishes.
Kids: No separate kids menu. Cooked items, rolls and dishes like lettuce wraps, dumplings and tempura could be options for children.
Parking: Shared strip mall parking.
Handicap accessible: Yes
Noise level: Low to medium. The small restaurant stays fairly quiet, even with two mounted televisions and a crowd.
Star code: ☆ Fair, ☆☆ Good, ☆☆☆ Excellent, ☆☆☆☆ Extraordinary
Price code: $ Average entree under $10; $$ under $20; $$$ under $30; $$$$ over $30.
Code of ethics: Starred reviews are written after a minimum of two visits to a restaurant. When required, reservations are made in a name other than the reviewer’s. The Star pays for review meals.
What to drink
Sakae features a surprisingly large cocktail, beer, wine and sake menu for such a small bar. The most popular cocktails are the Mai Tai and Electric Lemonade, which go out by the dozens on Friday nights. While some opt for wine with their meals, the chef recommends choices from the sake selections. They have standard Gekkeikan, but also higher end Sho Chiku Bai and Ty Ku selections.
Spicy Tuna Bites, $8
Hamachi Jalapeno sashimi, $12
Lemon Drop maki roll, $12
Daikon maki roll, $9
Black Widow maki roll, $13