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Akari Sushi shines light on budget Japanese food

July 5, 2018

Sushi is the ideal food to eat in hot weather, but can get expensive if you need a regular fix.

That’s where Akari Sushi comes in. This tiny West Side spot is easy to overlook, but provides a good option for takeout and delivery, offering reasonably priced sushi rolls, sashimi and other Japanese items, including tempura, teriyaki, bento boxes and donburi (rice-bowl dishes). The owners are Chinese, so you’ll also find fried rice and lo mein.

A good place to start is with the “age tofu,” which at $4 is hard to pass up. The vegetarian dish, also known as gedashi dofu, featured squares of deep-fried tofu, soft and silky inside, dusted with flakes of tempura, and served with a homemade dipping broth made of dashi, mirin and Japanese soy sauce.

“I could subsist off this,” said my friend, smiling.

The nine-piece sushi deluxe ($16.95) appealed to me because, along with nine pieces of nigiri (raw fish served over beds of rice), it came with a spicy tuna roll. For $2 more, it seemed like a better deal than the “sushi regular,” seven pieces of nigiri and a California roll.

The nigiri held a wide selection of fish, including white tuna, also known as escolar; salmon; yellowtail; and red snapper; plus cooked shrimp. Our only complaint was that the rice underneath wasn’t always packed well enough.

The fish is visible in plastic containers in a cooler next to where customers order, and while it was hardly an elegant display, everything tasted wonderfully fresh.

That went for the fish in the “sashimi regular” ($16.95), which, while described as 12 pieces, was really two thick slices each of white tuna, salmon and yellowtail, with large pieces of mock crab shaped like it was just pulled out of a crab leg. All the fish was uniformly tender, which isn’t always the case with sashimi elsewhere.

The spicy tuna roll that came with the nigiri was cut into six slices, and wasn’t traditional, meaning it wasn’t popping with tuna mixed with Sriracha mayo. Instead, it shared space with a pocket of “tempura crunch.” Some sauce — without much kick — drizzled over the top, added to its appeal.

The one specialty roll we ordered from a long list of options was the cutely named “Iso Fantastic Roll,” ($13.95), with tuna, salmon, yellowtail, avocado, and cucumber and tobiko (in this case, black fish roe). It was supposed to be wrapped in white seaweed, but instead came topped with seaweed salad. The seaweed dominated its taste, so I scraped it off and ate it separately.

The eight slices were smaller than what you often find with specialty rolls. I preferred it that way because they could be eaten in one bite.

The light-colored pickled ginger that came with the sushi, sashimi and rolls was mild and delicious, and the wasabi — served in heaps — wasn’t as potent as most, which I appreciated.

Getting away from sushi, the Akari udon ($9.25) was a generous helping of thick Asian noodles with small pieces of cabbage, asparagus and carrot, and three types of protein: beef, shrimp and chicken.

The beef and chicken chunks were of high quality, and the two shrimp were large. The spicy chili sauce didn’t offer much heat, and it wasn’t as flavorful as other udon dishes in town. But it was still worth ordering, particularly for noodle enthusiasts.

The sushi came on plastic trays like you’d get with supermarket sushi. The dinner plates were disposable, too. Serious sushi lovers who need beautiful presentation may not feel comfortable here, my companion noted.

Meng Feng Wang opened Akari in February 2017 with his wife, May Dong. The couple immigrated from Fujian Province in southeastern China about five years ago, said Jia Sun, who helps them run the place and serves as a translator.

More recently, the couple opened the Downtown Poke It Up at 540 University Ave., where Erberts and Gerbert’s used to be.

Sun said Akari gets a fish delivery every Tuesday morning. But, even by Saturday night, it still tasted perfectly fresh.

Akari is housed in a mall with an Indian and African market, and is less than a mile from Elver Park. It’s in the former home of Suwanasak Thai Cuisine, and like its predecessor, Akari isn’t ever going to be known for its ambiance. In fact, a kid’s bike with training wheels and a child’s scooter were parked inside.

The two-table restaurant has two websites associated with it, which are designed for online ordering: BeyondMenu and EatStreet.

During our visit, a small TV was tuned to a cooking show featuring Mexican cuisine, and there was some faint recorded flute music coming from the open kitchen. The air conditioning was barely cutting it, and toward the end of our meal, May, who was running the whole show on a Saturday night (taking orders, cooking and serving), was loudly clanking pots and pans as she washed them.

Jia, speaking for Meng Feng and May, said they used the name Akari, meaning “light” in Japanese, in terms of the business “brightening their future.”

For the rest of us sushi fans, “light” is the best way to eat in summer.

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