A sushi scion make waves in sleepy Ahwatukee with his spot-on renditions of Japanese classics.
Sushi Nakano in Ahwatukee would have been a godsend, and likely the best sushi joint in the Valley in the 1990s, when sauce-glopped maki rolls filled with cream cheese, fried food and who-knows-what were all the rage. But today, this low-key purveyor of clean, classic sashimi and delicately embellished nigiri is merely one of the best sushi restaurants in this corner of the Valley.
Not instantly declaring it a must-visit restaurant somehow feels wrong – but if you have a Hiro, Shimogamo or Hana in the neighborhood, you probably won’t find Nakano revolutionary. I guess we’re spoiled.
The brainchild of young gun Leo Nakano (son of Hirofumi Nakano of beloved Hiro Sushi in Scottsdale), it blends old and new, adhering to some sushi traditions while breaking others. I love finding real wasabi root mashed to creaminess (for $5 extra) and a chalkboard featuring obscure fish and seafood – one essential hallmark of a great sushi joint.
Appetizers, which skew old-school, range from the merely pleasant (chilled, sesame-sparked cooked spinach salad called gomae) to the exceptional (thinly sliced eggplant smothered in salty-sweet miso sauce, a creamy flavor bomb that recalls classic
dengaku). Light, wispy shrimp and vegetable tempura is exemplary; too-chewy agedashi tofu (deep-fried tofu cubes afloat in a sweet, skimpily applied sauce) is not.
You’ll want to skip the Philly and Las Vegas rolls that Nakano puts on the menu to please sake-bombing neophytes, and focus on the chalkboard, which changes frequently. My pal and I begin with a sashimi platter of sweet, silky scallops, buttery salmon, and rich, fatty yellowtail, all posed with frilly lettuce and tiny hillocks of wasabi and pickled ginger.
Better still, let Nakano create an individualized, off-the-cuff omakase, drawing from that same chalkboard. His specialty is amped-up nigiri, those finger-size fish morsels served in pairs over lightly seasoned rice, so impressive they’re destined to become his claim to fame. Translucent Japanese red snapper (tai), draped with a few strands of seaweed and three juicy dots of ikura (salmon roe) is spectacular, a new favorite for me both here and at luxe sushi chain Roka Akor in Scottsdale. I’m just as astounded by ultra-fresh aoyagi (surf clam, still living when I eat it), sweet with a faintly crunchy texture; shimmering, roundly flavored kinmedai (golden eye snapper), given a dot of citrusy yuzu; and nori-flecked maguro zuke – tuna marinated in brown sugar and soy until its mouthfeel is dense and velvety. Fabulous. Salmon roe served gunkan-style – i.e. in a bite-size thimble of seaweed – is a sushi bar standard, but there’s nothing ordinary about Nakano’s supernal version, the roe marinated in soy and, I’m guessing, kombu or katsuobushi for savory, oceanic tang.
On a whim, I try raijin – a deep-fried rice patty stacked with spicy tuna, avocado, jalapeño and garlic chips – and find that I love this mashup of butter, spice and crunch more than I could’ve anticipated. It’s a fun little novelty dish, which usually isn’t my thing, and isn’t the thing I like most about the restaurant. That would be Nakano’s nigiri, which might be the best in the Valley – and maybe does make Nakano a must-visit after all.
Contact: 4025 E. Chandler Blvd., Phoenix, 602-603-2129, facebook.com/sushinakanoaz
Hours: M-Sa 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m., 5-9 p.m.
Highlights: Aoyagi nigiri (surf clam, $3.25); eggplant in miso ($7); Japanese tai ($3.25); Kinmedai ($4.25); maguro zuke ($4); gunkan ikura ($3.50); soft-shell crab ($7.50)