Leo Nakano, with spicy salmon roll in foregroundEXPAND
Leo Nakano, with spicy salmon roll in foreground
Jackie Mercandetti

Tokyo-Style Rolls Flourish at Sushi Nakano in Ahwatukee

On the surface, Sushi Nakano looks like the kind of nondescript sushi bar that’s ubiquitous in metro Phoenix.

The tiny restaurant is tucked unceremoniously between an upscale pet shop and a math tutoring center in a busy Ahwatukee strip mall. It's suburban-looking to a T. And it has a menu sprinkled with familiar Japanese dishes like tempura-fried veggies as well as American-style sushi staples like California and Las Vegas rolls.

If you didn’t know any better, you could confuse Sushi Nakano with any run-of-the-mill sushi parlor in the city.

Peel back the strip mall veneer, though, and you’ll find that Sushi Nakano is closer in spirit and substance to a traditional Tokyo sushi bar. You’ll note that the menu is pretty light on American-style maki – souped-up rolls heavy on imitation crab, cream cheese, and mayo. And you’ll detect an underlying obsession with very fresh fish.

That’s a good sign at any sushi restaurant, but especially at one like Sushi Nakano, where the pristine quality of raw fish is preserved and amplified via careful, stripped-down preparations. There’s also the matter of fresh wasabi, which, if you play your cards right, you can enjoy here in all its grassy, slow-burn glory. It’s a small thing, but an amenity that separates the fluffy, conveyor-belt restaurants from the kind of place that inspires you to spend your hard-earned paycheck on things like uni and salmon roe.

And that attention to detail makes sense when you consider that Sushi Nakano is the debut restaurant from Leo Nakano, the product of one of the Valley’s most respected sushi institutions. His father, Hirofumi Nakano, is owner of north Scottsdale’s venerable Hiro Sushi. Longtime Valley sushi fanatics will recognize the younger Nakano from his years of apprenticeship behind the Hiro Sushi counter.

Nakano shares his father’s elegance with the knife and a similar propensity toward traditional yet artful sushi. The younger Nakano and his small culinary team break down the fish behind the counter with a studious intensity. The sense of quiet, rigorous work is amplified by the intimate, monastic quality of the dining room.

The austere space is bedecked in blond wood and earth tones. The most notable design feature in the house is the enormous tuna skeleton artfully nailed to the wall behind the sushi counter. There’s only a handful of tables, plus a long bar with room for about a half-dozen customers. Reservations are not accepted, and finding a seat on the weekends, I’m told, involves a mix of patience and good luck.

Spicy rainbow roll, one of the offerings from Sushi NakanoEXPAND
Spicy rainbow roll, one of the offerings from Sushi Nakano
Jackie Mercandetti

For starters, there’s a pretty great selection of sakana bar snacks, including standard delicacies like geso karaage – deep-fried squid sheathed in an exceptionally light batter. The dish, at once crisp and chewy, really shines here. Deep-fried agedashi tofu, garnished with scallions and steeped in a hot salty broth, registers as creamy and decadent. And a lovely and well-cooked hamachi kama, or grilled yellowtail collar, bulges with rich, sweet, succulent meat.

You’re probably best off skipping the boilerplate pork gyozas, which on a recent visit were surprisingly airy and dull. If you make room for only one appetizer, make it the ankimo, a luxuriously rich monkfish liver pate spackled with sesame seeds and touched with a vibrant, homemade sweet miso sauce. It’s wonderful.

Sushi, nigiri, and sashimi options are plentiful. The fastest route to fresh, artfully prepared raw fish is via the omakase chef’s choice tasting menu. The option isn’t advertised on the menu, but the staff is happy to customize a tasting menu for different budgets.

If that’s not an option, you’ll be gratified to know that Nakano’s nigiri and sashimi game is strong. Unagi, lightly torched freshwater eel pressed against rice, is delightfully savory and earthy. A light glaze of eel sauce draws out the fish’s sweet notes.

Spanish mackerel, on a recent visit, was conspicuously clean and fresh, with none of the assertively fishy inflections that sometimes give it a bad reputation. The chirashi, a colorful sashimi sampler served over lightly vinegared rice, delivers a clean, spare assortment of fresh fish. The selection included a glistening mound of salty, crunchy orange roe; generous slabs of exquisitely fatty toro and bigeye tuna served with bright pickled veggies, spongy slices of sweet tamago egg omelet, and lightly steamed butterflied shrimp.

Monkfish liver with snapper, Spanish mackerel, and yellowtailEXPAND
Monkfish liver with snapper, Spanish mackerel, and yellowtail
Jackie Mercandetti

On the whole, sushi rolls are well-balanced and creative, without veering into the realm of novelty. Options include simple, traditional rolls with ingredients like Japanese cucumber or fermented soybeans, as well as popular standards like the ubiquitous salmon skin roll. Too often, salmon skin rolls are underwhelming and soggy, but the version I sampled over lunch recently was delightfully crisp and a touch smoky.

The deeper you go into the sushi menu, the more Nakano’s playful and baroque side comes into focus. Take the Raijin, a maki roll whose name invokes Japanese mythology, and whose architectural success hinges on a tightly packed square of deep-fried rice, which balances glistening tuna, avocado, and jalapeno. The flavor of the tuna, lightly dabbed with a chile-infused soy glaze, is exceptionally bright and vibrant. But it’s the mashup of textures and flavors — the crisp rice dovetailing against the smooth unctuousness of the fish and fresh avocado — that makes the dish so pleasantly unforgettable.

Another sushi highlight, the Rising Sun, features creamy tuna wrapped around burdock root. The roll is flash-fried and served with a delicately sweet-and-sour miso sauce. The tuna, served at room temperature to bring forward all of its flavor, is supremely rich and creamy. The compelling composition of the roll, bringing together salt, fat, sweetness, and crunch into a single bite, is creative and delicious.

Sushi Nakano also offers a small selection of hot noodle dishes and bento boxes. Of these, the most compelling I’ve come across is the Okinawa soba, a porky noodle bowl whose clear broth is perfumed with scallions and meaty pork spare ribs. It’s a dish not very far removed from the Hiro Sushi menu.

Longtime Hiro Sushi diners will no doubt feel and taste the inescapable influence of that restaurant at Sushi Nakano. That’s far from a bad thing, though.

In his first solo outing, the younger Nakano shows he’s ready to step out on his own, and maybe even put his own stamp on more than 400 years of sushi tradition.

Sushi Nakano
4025 East Chandler Boulevard
Hours: Monday through Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5 to 9 p.m.; closed Sunday

Geso karaage $7
Ankimo (monkfish liver pate) $9
Chirashi sashimi $21
Rising Sun roll $14

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