Cafe Reviews

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.

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Howard Seftel