Allen Pierleoni

Counter Culture: Hana Tsubaki relies on favorite family recipes

The Spicy Sammy roll is a filling winner.
The Spicy Sammy roll is a filling winner. apierleoni@sacbee.com

Name an ethnicity and you can find Sacramento restaurants serving the cuisine of that foreign land. Local diners have a more diverse menu of choices than our counterparts in most other places. (As one of the world’s great dining cities, San Francisco doesn’t count.)

That hasn’t always been the case. Take Japanese cuisine, for example. It is easy to go online and find 30-some Japanese restaurants in our area. Internet aside, that wouldn’t have been possible in 1978, when husband and wife Katsumi and Tsutae Takashiba helped pioneer Japanese food in Sacramento by opening Hana Tsubaki (“Camellia Flower”).

“We do home-style Japanese cooking (from family recipes), focusing also on sushi and sashimi with seasonal fish from all over the world,” said James Takashiba. He began working in the family business “about 20 years ago. My mom and dad are the ‘co-commanders’ who call the shots, and I do whatever needs to be done. Dad has always been in the back of the house, and Mom always in the front, now mostly at dinner.”

A lunch pal and I stopped by recently and found a compact, low-ceiling, well-decorated dining room with attractive back-lit Japanese screens showing a palm frond motif. It was full of regulars intent on their udon (noodle soup), donburi (rice bowls with meat/fish and veggies), sashimi, sushi, tempura and various chicken, pork and beef dishes.

High stools border the small sushi bar, where the chef’s flashing blade sliced briny delights into tempting rolls. A wall-posted whiteboard named the daily specials: black sea bream, maguro (tuna) with avocado, assorted sashimi with seaweed salad, and assorted raw fish over sushi rice. We soon learned the fresh-brewed iced tea has serious body and taste.

Our polite server, Yurie, told us she’d come to Sacramento six months ago from Okinawa, where she met and married a U.S. military man. My lunch pal, who has visited Japan several time, tried out his Japanese on her. She seemed impressed – one way or another.

We started with an inherently mushy mound of pinkish tuna tartar, the ground-up fish fresh, clean-tasting and slightly tangy from a spritz of lime juice. Better was a deep-fried soft-shell crab, dark and slightly salty, cut into crispy-creamy segments that were made better with house-made ponzu (citrus) sauce.

From the long list of sushi rolls, we chose No. 27, the hefty Spicy Sammy stuffed with shrimp tempura, spicy tuna, unagi (freshwater eel) and avocado, topped with coral-colored flying fish roe. An accompanying dark sauce helped bring the flavors to life.

Miso is soup seasoned with a paste made from fermented soybeans and is usually served before a meal at Japanese restaurants. Most are afterthoughts, but this version showed unusual depth of flavor. We nearly asked for more.

A combo of tonkatsu (fried pork cutlet) and tempura arrived, with chewy white rice and cucumber salad. We alternated bites of tender breaded pork and crisp, lightly battered shrimp and veggies, again with their own dark dipping sauce. It was a solid, satisfying version, but nothing exotic.

Our solo table neighbor – Kim the yoga instructor – recommended the salmon shioyaki, which turned out to be the best dish on our table. A hefty cut of sashimi-grade salmon was lightly salted and seared on a hot grill. The skin was cackling, the flesh succulent, tender and delicious.

We finished with quartered scoops of mochi ice cream – strawberry and mango ice creams wrapped in pastel-colored pounded sticky rice shells. Cute, cold and quickly gone.

The lunch pal summed it up: “With its Japanese fans, soft lighting, restrained ambiance and Japanese staff, Hana Tsubaki is the next best thing to dining in Japan – and a heckuva lot cheaper!”

On the phone later, I asked James Takashiba about his favorite dish.

“I love sukiyaki because my parents used to cook it at home when I was a kid,” he said.

The menu describes it as “chicken or beef cooked with vegetables in delicious oriental sauce.” We’ll give it a go next time, along with some gyoza (potstickers), and more iced tea.

Hana Tsubaki

  • Where: 5006 J St., Sacramento
  • Hours: Lunch 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays; dinner 5-9 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, and 5-9:30 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays
  • Food:
  • Ambiance:
  • How much: $$-$$$
  • Information: (916) 456-2849, find it on Facebook
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