Unagi but Nice

Hiro Sushi, 9393 North 90th Street, Scottsdale, 314-4215. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Saturday, noon to 3 p.m.; Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 5 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5 to 11 p.m.

The Asian stock markets may be tumbling. But the Valley's Asian restaurant markets are soaring.

When I moved here eight years ago from Los Angeles, I asked a friend to recommend a Chinese restaurant. The one he sent me to--the "best in town"--featured "one from column A, one from column B" snoozers, canned vegetables and forks and knives. It was so disheartening that I almost reloaded the U-Haul. After all, in the grand scheme of things, earthquakes, smog and gang warfare are just minor inconveniences. A lack of good ethnic eating, however, is an unmitigated catastrophe.

Not even Nostradamus could have predicted this town's Great Asian Restaurant Leap Forward in the 1990s. Ever since the first pioneers arrived a century ago, the principal idol of the local food cult has been the cow, which residents worshiped with Hindulike veneration. Sushi? You're kidding. That was the Japanese word for "bait," pardner. Chow fun? That's what you'd tell your waiter, when he checked on how you were enjoying your steak.

Nowadays, however, we have more Asia experts than the State Department. Even though the only sea we live in is a sea of saguaro, our sushi mavens can knowledgeably discuss the relative merits of raw fish as if they were natives of Yokohama. Maybe that's why these folks are dropping their lines at Hiro Sushi, a wonderful new Scottsdale Japanese restaurant.

Those with educated tastes are also demanding Chinese seafood dishes prepared with the freshest, just-out-of-the-tank ocean fare. That's probably why they're keeping away from the abysmal Oriental Seafood Restaurant.

Like just about every Japanese restaurant chef/proprietor in Maricopa County, Hiro Sushi's operator spent time learning his craft at Sushi on Shea. He left for a while to set up his own venture in Los Angeles, but decided to return here. Local Japanese-food fans will applaud that decision.

The place occupies the strip-mall storefront that last housed a short-lived Spanish restaurant. It's hard to see from your car when you're whizzing past on 90th Street. But it's worth slowing down for.

Hiro Sushi is a low-key, unpretentious spot, without the clamor and crowds of Sushi on Shea. The eager-to-please staff is decked out in Japanese garb, and, thankfully, the television in the corner stayed off during each of my visits. There's usually a spot at the 20-seat sushi bar; otherwise you can manage almost as well from a table. From his station behind the sushi counter, chef Hiro takes in everything. When regulars come in--and most of the clientele seems to fit in that category--he greets them with a piercing welcome that sounds something like "Aie-aieee-y!"

My professional eating-out obligations and veil of anonymity make it impossible for me to develop a repeat-customer relationship with any restaurant. But if I could, Hiro Sushi would probably be one of them. That's because every time I left here, I found myself wishing I could move to Japan.

The sushi is marvelous. Begin with the negi toro roll, six pieces generously supplied with silky tuna, teamed with a bit of scallion to set it off. Spicy tuna roll is also outstanding.

I'm particularly fond of the specialty rolls. They're large enough to share, but they're so good my communitarian beliefs had to wrestle with my innately selfish impulses for a while. The rainbow roll brings together a half-dozen denizens of the deep: salmon, tuna, mackerel, yellowtail, shrimp and whitefish, colorfully laid over rice. (The mackerel is especially tasty.) The spider roll is another winner, filled with crispy hunks of deep-fried soft-shell crab.

I hadn't run into the likes of the Arizona roll before. It deftly combines asparagus, scallop, avocado and cucumber, wrapped and rolled in a paper-thin sheet of cucumber.

The best effort, however, is the dragon roll. Basically, it's an avocado-and-cucumber California roll that's heaped with slabs of luscious unagi, smoky, barbecued freshwater eel. It's all coated with a fetching, eel-flavored sauce fashioned with sweet sake. Unagi is reputed to be an aphrodisiac. But who needs an ulterior motive to order this when the proximate motive--yummy, yummy, yummy--is so utterly convincing?

Hiro Sushi knows how to put together hand rolls, too. The scallop hand roll is a dream, soft and buttery. The crunchy salmon-skin roll furnishes a winning combination of taste and texture.

Although sushi is the heart of this operation, the small menu offers several other tempting options. Gyoza (fried, pot-sticker-like dumplings) provide nibbling pleasure. So do the spicy mussels, four big bivalves armed with snout-clearing sauce. My only disappointment here was the barbecued squid--some of the critters were simply too hard on my jaws.

The tempura is one of the Valley's best: light, delicate and only seconds removed from the fryer. And pork katsu is also right on target, a tender, breaded pork cutlet fried to a golden sheen.

If you're suffering from a winter cold, the nabeyaki noodle soup is just what the doctor ordered. It's an oversize, steaming bowl filled with chicken, shrimp, vegetable tempura, fish cake, hard-boiled egg, mushrooms and noodles. You can feel your body tingle with good health after just a few spoonfuls.

If you haven't gotten your fill of unagi from the sushi, una-don should satisfy your craving. It's the main-dish version, lots of barbecued eel teamed with rice and sauce.

When dinner's done, the chef will peel and cut up an orange, then artistically put it back in its skin and pour on a bit of sweet syrup. It's designed to put a smile on the customer's face. But the effort is superfluous: Most people here have been grinning from ear to ear from the moment they picked up their chopsticks.

Oriental Seafood Restaurant, 1951 West Indian School, Phoenix, 264-3131. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 3 p.m.; Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 4:30 to 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 4:30 p.m. to 1 a.m.

Oriental Seafood Restaurant is just the kind of place I really wanted to like. It's cheap, it's ethnic, it's in a funky part of town and it's run by folks with only limited English skills. Every once in a while, a spot like this turns out to be an ethnic gem. My hopes were also buoyed by a rave review from the daily paper, proudly displayed on the front door.

But in my line of work, you can't let hopes interfere with critical judgment. And in my critical judgment, if you get the urge to visit Oriental Seafood Restaurant, you should lie down at once until the feeling passes.

The restaurant's specialty is live seafood. You can't miss the setup: Just inside the entrance are tiered banks of spotlighted tanks. Circulating water cascades down from the top. It makes a nice initial impression. But once you get close, the impression isn't nearly so pleasant.

To be frank, I haven't been this reluctant to go near the water since I saw Jaws. No, I was in no danger of being attacked. Just the reverse: Most of the live seafood here looks frighteningly comatose.

More than half of the crustaceans in the murky shrimp tank lay upside down, motionless. Not even their antennae were twitching. Perhaps they were practicing the synchronized backfloat. During another visit, I overheard a group of customers order a tilapia. I watched as one of the staffers dipped a net into the tank and hauled it out. Usually, a fish pulled out of water puts up a struggle. This one didn't even wriggle. And though the lobster and crab showed occasional signs of life--a raised leg, a moving feeler--there was none of the vigorous scuttling that might have helped ease my mind about their seaworthiness and eatworthiness.

By this time, the thought of making my way through the menu filled me with the kind of dread that Kierkegaard might have felt at his gloomiest. But duty called.

I wish I hadn't listened. The food here is awful.
I thought I'd ease into dinner with pan-fried dumplings. They arrived scorched and greasy, which did nothing to relieve my anxiety. An energyless Oriental seafood soup, flecked with bits of desultory shrimp, squid and fish and a touch of greenery, didn't ease my mind, either.

The scallops were the last straw. They were "off," ruining the two dishes they showed up in.

There's no sense lingering over the rest of Oriental Seafood Restaurant's dismal fare. I made sure that the Szechuan hot shrimp were made with creatures other than the "live" specimens in the tanks. But it didn't matter. This dish was moribund, DOA, with no zip, no heat, no taste. Gritty oysters in black bean sauce came with an unappetizing crunch--somehow pieces of shell got into the mix. Ginger chicken showed not a trace of kitchen skill, from the prefab-looking chicken to the huge, inedible slabs of ginger inelegantly tossed in. What's special about the house special rice noodle? It couldn't have been the taste. And yui-shan eggplant, a dish that usually gets me in a lather, couldn't even raise a sweat.

I have a friend who supplies local Chinese restaurants with meat. He makes it his business to eat at every restaurant he calls on. I asked him if he'd ever been to Oriental Seafood Restaurant. He nodded. "I ate there." Then he raised a finger, as if in warning. "Once."

That's one more time than you have to.

Hiro Sushi:
Arizona roll
$6.95
Dragon roll
9.95
Pork katsu
4.95

Oriental Seafood Restaurant:
Pan-fried dumplings
$4.25
Szechuan hot shrimp
6.95

Show Pages
 
My Voice Nation Help
0 comments
Sort: Newest | Oldest
 
Loading...