Drivers used to see Lou Valente’s face every time they rolled by 28th and P streets in midtown Sacramento. Now it’ll take a trip inside the veteran sushi chef’s Del Paso Boulevard restaurant to catch a glimpse of him.
The mural of Valente plating rolls outside his old restaurant, formerly known as Lou’s Sushi, has been painted over. The man himself now spends his days at Southpaw Sushi, which amassed 25 Yelp reviews — all five stars — since its soft opening on Aug. 6 ahead of its grand opening last weekend in north Sacramento.
Valente’s relationship with Lou’s Sushi ex-partner Dan Walsh had been fraught long before the end of 2016, when he told Walsh he planned to dissolve the restaurant’s LLC. On April 10, 2017, Valente woke up to a text from his lawyer telling him not to come into the restaurant, he said. Lou had been fired from Lou’s Sushi.
The next day, Valente filed a lawsuit in Sacramento County Superior Court accusing Walsh of pulling money from the LLC for his personal use. Though Walsh initially denied all allegations, he eventually settled with Valente for $55,368.32 in August 2018.
Walsh is now the sole owner of the former Lou’s Sushi, rebranded as Midtown Sushi in January. Midtown Sushi’s website, however, hints that yuzu isn’t all that’s sour in the kitchen.
“After five years in business we’ve learned some things, and realized it’s not just about one person as the former name would indicate. We realized it was about our team of dishwashers, cooks, servers, chefs, managers and owners,” Midtown Sushi’s website reads. “We thought it was time to give ourselves a name that truly reflected who we are (and) the unique environment where we are doing it.“
Midtown Sushi has added more vegan options and small plates since the name change, said Walsh, who also co-owned Sushi on the River with Valente in addition to Tokyo Fro’s. The restaurant’s new lease required the building be painted, Walsh said, though covering up the mural was probably in everyone’s best interest as both sides move on.
“I wish (Valente) all the best, but I don’t have the utmost love and respect for how it all went down,” Walsh said. “I’m happy with how things ended up because I ended up with a very successful restaurant and a great group of people in a good community.”
For Valente’s part, he called his time at Lou’s Sushi “a life-changing experience” in which he “learned a lot about business, learned a lot about people.” He hasn’t been back to the restaurant since it became Midtown Sushi and has no plans to do so, he said.
“I have no idea what they’re doing now,” Valente said. “I’ll never — it’s in the rear view mirror. I don’t even think about that, not even one little bit.”
But Valente’s past venture is never fully out of the picture. Valente and partners Kelly Brean and Phil Perry — the last of whom also co-owns The Burger Saloon in Woodland — seriously considered naming their new project “Sushi By Lou” before opting to highlight Valente’s left-handedness.
Valente started hunting for a new restaurant space as soon as he left Lou’s Sushi, he said, eventually deciding on 1616 Del Paso Blvd. for the cheap rent and burgeoning culinary culture. Though the area surrounding Southpaw Sushi has seemingly been “up and coming” for two decades, Valente’s new neighbors include King Cong Brewing Co., Shift Coffee, D’s Smokin’ Pit and Woodlake Tavern, all of which have opened since 2017.
“They’ve been trying to revitalize this area for 20 years, and I thought the way that Lou’s changed that P and 28th area that we could really make a difference here,” Valente said. “I think it’s on the cusp of exploding ... I just think that this area is ready for what’s coming.”
Southpaw Sushi’s menu is a mix of classic and modern rolls in the $5 to $15 range, with a Spider Roll alongside the Uptown Roll (spicy tuna and grilled asparagus topped with salmon, a housemade garlic sauce and sliced jalapenos, all torched). The drinks menu lists 17 varieties of chilled sake as well as local and Japanese beers.
Kitchen creations include grilled baby back ribs coated in a sweet garlic and ginger soy sauce and a dish listed simply as “ganja” (tempura-fried spicy tuna wrapped in shiso leaves). A happy hour menu — all day Tuesdays and Sundays, 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. otherwise — has a variety of rolls and bites for around $6.
A Philadelphia native, Valente fell in love with sushi after moving to Los Angeles in 1991. He started as a dishwasher at Malibu restaurant Bambu before attending the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco, paying his way through school by working at various Bay Area sushi restaurants.
Valente moved to Sacramento in 2000 and opened his first restaurant, the short-lived Sushi On The River. That was followed by stints at now-closed Taka’s Sushi and Zen Sushi until he and Walsh opened Lou’s in 2013.
After nearly 25 years in kitchens, including several head chef gigs, Valente spent the two years leading up to Southpaw Sushi’s opening in a humbling role: a self-described “helper” in Shige Tokita’s Shige Sushi, a compact den in a Carmichael strip mall.
Described by Eater as “the capital region’s godfather of sushi,” Tokita was classically trained in Japan before coming to the U.S. He’s passed on his wisdom to several well-known sushi chefs in the Sacramento area, including Ray Yamamoto of Oto’s Marketplace and Taka Watanabe, the owner and chef behind Midtown’s Ju Hachi who retired earlier this summer.
But Valente stood out as a trainee, Tokita said.
“Lou is good compared to other people,” Tokita said in Japanese. “He made very beautiful rolls.”
Southpaw Sushi imports hamachi, uni, snapper and amberjack from Japan. Cooks cut the restaurant’s fish and make a house tamago, which Valente said didn’t happen at Lou’s Sushi under his watch. All that is partially thanks to Tokita, who Valente said showed him a new grade of quality and technique.
That’s not to say he’s perfect yet. Valente’s cuts for prepping fish were slightly off, Tokita said.
“And his nigiri was a little hard,” said Tokita laughing, referring to the careful art of not squeezing the delicate sushi too hard for the perfect mouthfeel. “Japanese people wouldn’t eat it.”
Tokita said he wants to try Valente’s work, but it may be awhile. Southpaw Sushi, like many local restaurants, is closed on Mondays — and that’s Tokita’s day off.