When Nagato Sukiyaki opened for business on Dec. 23, 1970, it was a true mom-and-pop operation – plus two young boys, making the restaurant a home away from home.
One of the kids would be tucked into a toddler swing in the front of the restaurant, the other carried on his mother’s back in the kitchen while she cooked.
This was back in the good ol’ days of the Sacramento restaurant scene, when Japanese cuisine was relatively rare and highly sought after by in-the-know foodies. Sushi was, depending on whom you asked, alluring and coveted, or odd and off-putting.
Given the plethora of sushi joints that have opened and flourished in recent years, it may be hard to remember when this traditional Japanese mainstay was far from ubiquitous. And with so many flashy, trendy spots serving sushi these days, it might be easy to overlook an old-school restaurant like Nagato Sukiyaki that seems so low-key.
But to do so would be a disservice. Nagato is an establishment that does things the right way, with discipline and attention to detail. Even without the pizazz or hip décor, Nagato remains at the forefront for its devotion to consistency and great flavors, from the traditional beef sukiyaki made from scratch to the wonderful array of sushi assembled with top-quality fish and superb rice.
The menu at Nagato is large – arguably a tad unwieldy – and there are so many ways to eat well here.
You can enjoy the simplicity of the beef or salmon teriyaki, taking note of the flavor and balance of the teriyaki sauce that is house-made. It has a wonderfully deep, clean finish without any of that syrupy sweetness of stuff coming out of a jar. You can slurp up those thick, tender udon noodles in a pot of hot, delicious broth. You could go with a breaded and fried cutlet called chicken katsu or opt for donburi, an entire meal of meat, vegetables and rice in one bowl.
And, of course, you can make the finely crafted sushi and nigiri the focal point of your meal.
But no matter what direction you take, you must, at some point, encounter the finest tempura and agedashi in town. It is head and shoulders above the rest – impossibly light, crisp, flaky, tender and delicious. Tempura is perhaps the simplest yet most abused dish around, too often a mess of soppy batter fried at the wrong temperature and left to sit on a plate in grease-laden, unappetizing fashion.
At Nagato, it’s magic. It might take more than a few bites to comprehend what is happening here, but you will recognize the difference. The batter is scratch-made with eggs and a splash or two of sake to give it fluffiness. The temperature of the oil is crucial. Too hot and everything smokes and burns. Too cold and the batter absorbs the oil and you wind up with tempura soaked in grease.
When you bite into Nagato tempura, you know immediately your search is over. The flavor spreads and announces itself as the texture melts away, a culinary vanishing act that is not to be missed. Whether it’s a piece of tender shrimp or a cube of seasonal vegetables like Japanese pumpkin or squash, the execution is spot on, the flavors subtle and illuminating.
The tempura is a must order and it is served with great pride. If you inquire about it, you’re apt to hear that it is the best in town from your server. Same with the agedashi, which is another one of those simple-seeming appetizers that is too often rushed and ruined at other restaurants. Here, it is mouthwatering perfection, thick blocks of tofu that are battered and deep-fried and garnished with bonito flakes and nestled in a flavorful broth.
Yoshio and Fumie Kawano, both first-generation Japanese immigrants who met and married in Sacramento, opened Nagato Sukiyaki in the Arden Arcade area almost 44 years ago and shepherded its steady rise as a regional force in Japanese cooking. He learned to cook in local Japanese restaurants and saved for years to branch out on his own. She started working in East Sacramento cleaning houses in the “Fabulous Forties,” but had grown up in the kitchen cooking for her family in Japan.
With their restaurant established and growing, the working couple went on to have two more children – twins, a boy and a girl. One of them, Don Kawano, now 40, remembers being in junior high school and dancing around the notion that his parents owned a restaurant that served, of all things, raw fish.
“As a kid, I didn’t want to talk about it,” Don Kawano said recently. “It was easier to tell kids at school that we had a Chinese restaurant.”
Still, business boomed through the ’70s and ’80s. Nagato had a large following of regulars who drove from as far away as Penryn and Loomis, and well beyond. In 1986, that all changed. An electrical fire at the ice cream parlor next door started a major blaze that wiped out the restaurant. It took 13 months to rebuild and reopen.
“We lived off the savings they had built up. They weren’t big spenders,” Don Kawano recalled. “They didn’t have restaurant insurance at that time. I remember my mom saying she was so bored she was going to apply at McDonald’s. One of my brothers worked at Marie Callender’s.”
From 1992 to 1999, Nagato served very little sushi and didn’t have a sushi bar. But as the 20th century came to a close, the new generation stepped up at Nagato, and with it came a reaffirmed commitment to sushi. Don Kawano is a nisei, the term used to describe the children born to Japanese immigrants and educated in a new country. He brought a progressive attitude to the restaurant while sticking to many of its great traditions.
The sushi has an elegance and simplicity to to it. My favorite choice, when sharing with two or three others, is to get chirashi sushi (assorted raw fish served over a bowl of rice), the seven-piece chef’s choice of nigiri sushi (a simple presentation of raw fish pressed over rice) and a selection of rolls for a little fun, color, variety and texture. My favorites at Nagato are “Krazy Mary roll” with fried salmon, cucumber, avocado and a creamy garlic sauce; and the “spider roll” with soft shell crab, wasabi and masago roe. It’s worth noting that Don’s twin sister, Mary Kawano, is the owner of two local boutiques, Krazy Mary’s and Sugar Shack.
During recent visits to Nagato, which moved to a new nearby location in 2013 (from Fulton to Marconi), I approached my dining experiences in several ways. On one occasion, I went with classic, unfussy sushi so I could appreciate the exquisite textures and flavors of the raw fish, including mackerel, yellowtail (hamachi), salmon and tuna (maguro). Then I went new wave, and picked out a series of sushi rolls full of flavors and sauces that traditionalists might find fun (like eating candy), overwhelming (hard to distinguish flavors when so much is packed into each bite) or even disagreeable (that sauce, why?). At a table of four serious eaters, I heard all three responses.
For years, Don Kawano has taken pride in preparing the rice each day, and he continues to do so. For sushi, especially, the rice is a crucial ingredient. Properly seasoned and with just the right texture and chew, it can bring out the true flavor of the fish with which it is served.
My other favorite dishes here include the beef sukiyaki, which is served in a large bowl with glassy noodles, tofu and vegetables in a dark kombu broth that is sweetened slightly and simmered with kelp and sake. It adds up to a hearty, balanced flavor that is meant to be enjoyed with rice.
Another great dish for the seasoned eater is the Unagi Don (broiled eel over rice). If you haven’t tried eel, don’t be afraid. The texture of this dish is rich, tender and satisfying, with a big, barbecue-y flavor. An extra delight is the garnish of thinly sliced pickled daikon.
For dessert, an elegant little dish of green tea mochi ice cream is a must.
No matter how you decide to eat at Nagato, your meal is certain to show why this restaurant has persevered, overcome, flourished and endured. Nagato opened when sushi was a novelty and continues with conviction now that sushi is everywhere. If you’re overwhelmed by all the options out there and are looking for an eating experience that is unfussy, traditional, consistent and sincere, Nagato will never go out of style.
2820 Marconi Ave.
Hours: Lunch: 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Tuesday-Friday. Dinner: 5-9 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 5-9:30 p.m. Friday; 4-9:30 p.m. Saturday; 4-9 p.m. Sunday.
Beverage options: Wine and beer, including a small, varied selection of sakes as well as craft beer, including local bottles from Auburn Alehouse
Vegetarian friendly: Yes
Gluten-free options: Some but not indicated on menu
Noise level: Moderate
Ambiance: Small sushi bar, open dining area, casual setting, low-key
Overall * * * 1/2
One family’s enduring vision of traditional Japanese cuisine, including sushi.
Food * * * 1/2
It takes time and effort to cook the old-fashioned way, but it shows in nearly every dish at Nagato, where all of the broths are made from scratch, the seafood for the sushi is top-notch, and the quality of the tempura, that often underappreciated dish, is off the charts. Even though it is more than 40 years old, Nagato is old-school in the best of ways.
Service * * * 1/2
The staff is friendly and knowledgeable. And it’s always a treat when matriarch Fumie Kawano visits your table.
Value * * * 1/2
Most of the full dinner plates are less than $15. The sushi prices are competitive and the quality is high.