I've had my share of fun at chic, trendy sushi spots around town, where the upbeat vibe and eye-candy clientele are just as interesting as any of the nigiri that lands on my plate. A few years back, it seemed they were becoming almost as ubiquitous as wine bars and gelato shops.
What's nearest and dearest to my heart, though, is the place that's seen trends come and go, the place that builds a following by consistent quality and word of mouth: the mom-and-pop Japanese restaurant. It's just easier to love.
A great example is North Scottsdale's Hiro Sushi, a place that isn't always name-dropped like flavor-of-the-moment eateries, but that's cherished like an old friend among folks who seek out traditional Japanese cuisine. There's no flash here — of course it's just a humble strip-mall storefront — but the sheer beauty of glistening raw fish, along with homey, mouthwatering cooked dishes, is dazzling enough.
Living in this city of sprawl, where there are often big disparities in amenities from one neighborhood to the next, I've given a lot of thought to what kind of restaurants the ideal 'hood would have, and although my list is pretty demanding, I could never whittle it down and omit a place like Hiro. This place is all about community.
Hanging out here and observing the way the sushi chefs interact with their customers — and the way customers greet each other at the sushi bar — it's apparent that there's a loyal crowd of regulars. From the big, glossy red daruma (round, papier-mâché dolls that symbolize good luck) on the counter to the long list of specials written on an illuminated board, the atmosphere is both convivial and timeless.
I advise that you pay close attention to what's written on that board — the stuff that's not on the regular menu is seasonal, get-it-while-you-can seafood like iwashi (beautiful, fresh sardines laid out in neat silver stripes over a ball of rice — an impressive, rare find at any sushi place in Phoenix), Hama Hama oysters from Washington (big, briny bivalves served on the half-shell with ponzu sauce, scallions, and lemon wedges), and pricey, prized toro, the fatty cuts of bluefin tuna belly that practically melt on your tongue like butter.
One night's specials list included an incredible hamachi kama (yellowtail collar), grilled until the exterior was almost crisp and lightly smoky. I poked my chopsticks into plump edges near the fins and pulled away luscious chunks of succulent meat that I dipped into a small bowl of ponzu. The fattiness of the fish, combined with that salty, citrus-y sauce, was so addicting that I picked those bones clean with the help of an equally ravenous friend.
To complement that simple but luxurious dish, I ordered one of my favorite Japanese appetizers, goma-ae, a salad of chilled, blanched spinach kissed with light sesame dressing. I could probably eat an entire bowl of this, so a dainty restaurant portion was sort of a tease. Why don't more restaurants serve it? If they did, I'm confident that more people would gladly eat their spinach.
When the long, agonizing denouement of summer was weighing on me, a cold glass of nigorizake (slightly sweet unfiltered sake) with a dish of hiyayakko (chilled chunks of tofu dressed up with scallions, grated ginger, and translucent shavings of savory dried bonito) was so refreshing. I drizzled a little soy sauce on the latter and appreciated how the toppings transformed ordinary, bland soybean curd into a tasty delicacy.
Sushi at Hiro was impeccable, starting with the perfect rice. Sure, the quality of the fish is paramount, but good rice is the foundation. Compact balls of rice topped with mild striped bass were brightened with just a dab of salsa (a unusual choice that somehow worked), while aji nigiri (Spanish mackerel) were drizzled with ponzu and crowned with a pinch of scallions.
When I was younger, I wasn't a fan of saba (mackerel) until I discovered that such a rich, oily specimen doesn't have to be overwhelmingly fishy or briny. Nowadays, I crave it when it's done right, and I will certainly be craving more of what I had at Hiro. It was lighter and more tender than just about any mackerel I've had in Phoenix.
Likewise, I'll eat uni (sea urchin) only if I truly trust the sushi chef. I'd feel confident ordering anything off the menu at this place, and the uni was as good as it gets — two rice balls wrapped with crisp seaweed and brimming with pale, peach-colored flesh that disappeared into cool, creamy, ocean-y sweetness in my mouth.
At lunchtime, I ventured into more of the cooked dishes, which were served in such generous portions that I had to suck down a lot of caffeinated soda to ward off a mid-afternoon slump. Wired, I sank my teeth into juicy, deep-fried pork cutlet and scrambled egg atop a bowl of steaming white rice (katsudon), and gorged on delectable broiled eel laid out over rice inside a pretty lacquered box. The sticky-sweet glaze and delicate texture of the eel was probably the closest thing that seafood comes to candy.
A lovely o-bento of teriyaki salmon came in a close second, thanks to a slick of sauce on the moist filet. Between that, a salad bathed in ginger dressing, a mound of rice, and several pieces of light, crispy vegetable tempura, it was a feast fit for a shogun.
Unless you happen to live or work in this corner of North Scottsdale, Hiro Sushi might be a bit of a hike. Indeed, it doesn't bill itself as destination dining of any sort. But if pristine Japanese cuisine is what you're into, then miles won't matter. Your full belly will be your reward.