Strip malls. Oh, how we love to loathe them.
Our region is cluttered with those architectural eyesores harboring boring destinations from our mundane must-do lists. I’m talking dry cleaning, dental work, check cashing and spinal adjustments.
But restaurant lovers, I offer this advice: Add strip malls to your to-dine list.
Strip malls around here hide culinary gems. I’ve hit jackpots with Szechuan, Greek street eats, Korean tabletop barbecue, and the area’s only Cambodian restaurant.
In today’s installment of my occasional series about strip-mall dining, I’m featuring sushi.
Yes, you read that correctly — strip-mall sushi.
The impetus for this story was the arrival of Domo Sushi and Miyabi, which opened in December and January, respectively, in Gig Harbor and Tacoma. They come with polished environs and dine-in sushi counters in strip-mall locations.
And a bonus: Three other strip-mall sushi restaurants that should be on your radar. They’re not new, but they’re good.
Don’t eat sushi? Just for you, I’ve included other Japanese dishes to try.
2919 S. 38th St., Tacoma; 253-474-1650, miyabisushi.com
When the longtime Japanese restaurant Kabuki closed in late 2013, it came with a surprising announcement that dulled the painful loss of that 20-year sushi favorite. The regionally respected sushi restaurant Miyabi, which operates a sushi restaurant in Tukwila and an upscale bistro in Seattle, would open its first South Sound outpost Jan. 23.
Fans of Kabuki will find menu similarities and updated decor at the strip-mall space near Tacoma Mall. Kabuki’s all-eyes-on-the-sushi-chefs seating, with tables facing the sushi bar, was replaced with long, cushy banquettes that shifted the view to either tatami rooms (glad they kept those) or wall murals. Surfaces were updated, turning the dining room into a stylish destination. (An admirable update, but I miss Kabuki’s sushi theater approach.)
Menu: Miyabi’s menu looked similar to Kabuki’s but also resembled the more modern style of nigiri and maki at nearby Gari of Sushi.
Delivery: Thoughtful, lovely plating; fish was well-handled. Top rating for quality of fish on this tour.
Service: Gracious and thoughtful; well-versed.
Nigiri: Extensive 21-item list of nigiri, fish that’s cut and draped over an oval of rice. Toro (fatty tuna) and mirugai (geoduck) — two nigiri I use as a litmus for a sushi restaurant’s execution — arrived flawless, tasting positively oceanic. Toro ($12/market price) came topped with a wisp of wasabi; mirugai ($7) was dotted with a shiso leaf.
Maki: The 38-item maki (sushi roll) list was extensive, but easily navigated, thanks to photos and brief descriptions.
Sushi neophytes should try the tightly wound crunchy California roll ($6.50) or the four-piece Miyabi roll ($9), an oversized roll filled with the sushi trifecta: tuna, salmon and crab tucked into a nori wrapper.
Salmon sunrise ($12) tasted of fresh-squeezed lemon. The rock ’n’ eel ($8.50) came with a cutesy name, but the three-bite slices presented perfectly handled tempura eel. Vegetarian diners get more than a few choices; I appreciated the veggie tempura roll ($6).
Beyond sushi: The donburi bowl, an omelet ($8.95, lunch) served over rice with a sweetened soy sauce, was solid, as was a lunch of miso-marinated mackerel ($8.95) with cold noodle and cabbage salads.
4901 Point Fosdick Drive NW, Gig Harbor; 253-851-0592
A strip mall that’s home to Lunchbox Laboratory and a Michael’s now is home to sushi. The owners of Mana Sushi in Port Orchard opened Domo Sushi there in mid-December.
The restaurant’s industrial-modern space with soaring ceilings and tile floors bounced the noisy teen-pop soundtrack. It grew even more noisy at capacity.
But the dining room looked above-par for a strip-mall stop. Soaring back-lit wall art framed the room. Fabric-wrapped chairs increased the comfort of the well-spaced tables.
Menu: The far-flung menu goes well beyond traditional Japanese with sections devoted to Korean and Chinese dishes.
Delivery: The wandering menu posed a problem pinpointing a specialty and made me wonder if the kitchen flubbed the basics under the burden of that huge menu. Trouble on three visits ranged from a missing maki ingredient to squishy fish and lukewarm dishes. I offer this restaurant with reservations.
Service: On two of three visits, servers were scattered. One wasn’t versed in the menu and abandoned the table; another forgot drinks until after entrees.
Nigiri and sashimi: The 19-item nigiri menu lacked my go-to toro and mirugai. Our server seemed unfamiliar with fatty tuna and didn’t — or couldn’t — offer alternatives. A four-piece sashimi sampler with a spicy tuna roll at lunch ($14) yielded mushy pieces of tuna and salmon. Another visit found a fresher hamachi nigiri ($5).
Maki: The 70-plus roll menu felt unwieldy, many with cutesy names and ingredients. A few rolls were so big they spilled sloppily when handled. (Tip: It’s perfectly acceptable to eat maki with your hands.) While a few rolls fell into that traditional Japanese aesthetic of understated flavors and simple presentations, most sampled could fall into the Americanized-fusion category — big on flavor and ingredients.
Neophytes should get the Gig Harbor roll ($6.50), a spicy crab maki heavy on tempura crunch. A salmon- and tuna-topped orange blossom roll ($14) was a seesaw of crunch from asparagus, but the promised shrimp tempura was missing. Thoughtfully pith-free segmented lemon perked up flat-tasting salmon on the salmon lemon roll ($11). A triple-deckered Domo roll ($14) with crab tasted overburdened with cream cheese; the spicy tuna and tempura topper wobbled sloppily when handled.
Beyond sushi: Tonkatsu donburi ($11) was priced above market for the portion, but it was a deliciously eggy rice bowl. Nabeyaki udon ($12) in a lovely hot pot came with a fragrant broth brimming with vegetables, thick noodles and the appreciated addition of mussels. The Chinese wok dish sesame chicken ($11.50) would have been better had it been hot. I didn’t get to the Korean dishes.
Other strip-mall sushi restaurants to try:
Kyoto Japanese Restaurant: 8722 South Tacoma Way, Lakewood; 253-581-7229
You’ll hear the oasis before you enter. Kyoto’s trickling water feature requires crossing a bridge to the dining room. It’s a lilting respite in a most unexpected strip mall location amid Korean stores Shin Shin and H-Mart.
The handsome dining room’s well-spaced tables provided semi-private dining; tatami rooms offered even more privacy.
Find a menu of traditional Japanese dishes at bargain prices, with a few Korean dishes.
Sushi here was simply presented with uncomplicated flavors and elegant plating. The hard-to-find natto roll — which a friend calls the lutefisk of Japan — was offered here; it’s a funky maki filled with slippery fermented soy beans ($6.95). Nigihama ($7.95) was a must-order roll with a filling of chopped yellowtail studded with scallions. The midnight sun roll ($8.95) paired sweet scallop with peppery radish sprouts.
Stray from the sushi menu with outstanding katsu donburi ($7.95), a bargain.
Bistro Satsuma: 5315 Point Fosdick Drive, Gig Harbor; 253-858-5151
Bistro Satsuma might appear to be a casual teriyaki emporium stuck in a strip mall with a car repair shop and an art store, but it’s one of my most treasured finds in Gig Harbor and a restaurant with a long Northwest history.
Bistro Satsuma excels with a small menu that conveys a pure Japanese aesthetic. Flavors and ingredients were simple. Rolls looked delicate and were pristinely flavored.
An ebi sunomono salad ($7) appeared as artful as a floral arrangement.
I appreciated nigiri — white tuna ($5) and seared scallop ($6) — that appeared unadorned and beautifully symmetric.
For maki, steer to the shrimp-and-egg Gig Harbor roll ($7), the outstanding super tuna roll ($14) and the uncomplicated spider roll ($7.75).
The restaurant, much like my favorite Puyallup sushi destination Kanpai, closes for a few hours between lunch and dinner. One drawback: The dinner menu lists $13 ordering minimums.
I Love Bento: 1620 S. Mildred St., Tacoma; 253-460-0675
A quirky find, the dining room merged the atmosphere of a diner, a Japanese tea house and an ice cream parlor. Each spoke to the current or former life of this strip-mall find near Tacoma Community College.
Like the atmosphere, the service was decidedly casual, with servers who advised us to find our own seats. But hospitality rebounded with hot towels offered before a sushi dinner.
Extra care was displayed in the maki sushi rolls, with well-tended additions of radish sprouts, extra roe, and plates decorated with squiggles of wasabi. A tightly wound spider roll ($9.99) held fried crab with a katsu-like breading; tempura shrimp ($8.50) tasted sweet and delicious.
Find a broad mix of Japanese items with Korean flourishes: bento combination plates, sushi, donburi bowls, bibimbap, udon soup, yakisoba, katsu and teriyaki.
MORE STRIP MALL SUSHI TO TRY: In December, I took a bite out of Sushi Niwa, a Korean-Japanese restaurant inside the Paldo World Shopping Center in Lakewood. Also, try Flying Fish, a Japanese and Korean restaurant with sushi in Westgate.
Sue Kidd dines anonymously, and The News Tribune pays for all meals.