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RestaurantsSanta Cruz
May 31-June 7, 2006

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Naka Sushi

Photograph by Carlie Statsky
Gone Fishing: Photography is prohibited inside Naka Sushi.

A Little Rice, A Lot of Fish

Lovers of flavor get their money's worth at Naka Sushi

By Selene Latigo

Now that it has finally warmed up and dried out around here, I am feeling myself reorient to the seasons. Like a sponge, I've been soaking up the heat and devouring all of the new fruits and veggies that are starting to make an appearance. Apparently, my intense craving for sushi comes seasonally as well, so we joyfully indulged in a feast at Naka Sushi to welcome the sun.

For the longest time I drove right past this unassuming, heavily curtained gem. Everyone seems to know about the place across the street, but once you make the journey to the other side, you'll see why Naka Sushi has won the hearts of devoted regulars.

The tiny space is covered in odds and ends, including a full wall of pinned up business cards and sushi diagrams. Masao and Keiko Nakagawa run the place smoothly and genuinely, welcoming everyone who steps through the door. A small specials board greeted us first, and we sat down, knowing already that the toro nigiri was the top of our list. We briefly scanned the menu, which features a handful of creative, but not overzealous or trendy signature rolls, classic sushi items, and several entrees and combination dinners, and then proceeded to order our favorites.

Our large Asahi beer ($5.50) arrived swiftly, along with two small glass tumblers and my mug of toasted green tea (80 cents). Although most of the little two-top tables and counter seats were filled, all of our food was made up quickly and delivered with practiced pace. The miso soup ($1.50) was steaming and contained a precise amount of seaweed and pillowy tofu cubes. We also ordered the wakame salad ($6.95), a well-portioned and unique version of the more typical concoction. The bowl was filled with a tri-offering of salty, seasoned thin and chewy strips of bright green seaweed, another pile of pure, ocean flavored, almost black ribbons of soft seaweed, and a third stack of razor thin cucumber slices. Each element held different layers of flavor and texture, all topped with tiny lemon triangles and a light sprinkle of sesame seeds.

Next came a lacquered wooden plank with a "Naka Sushi" branding on top. This held most of our selections, including the best unagi either of us has ever had, hands down. Honestly, I've never been much of a fan of eel, as I find the sweet sauce coupled with the common chewiness overpowering in most restaurants. But these generous, expertly grilled pieces of unagi nigiri ($6.95) were an amazing balance of silky meat, crisp skin, and subtle sauce, all draped over small squares of sticky rice. I'd return just for this, and we saw more people in the know making a double order.

The Dynamite roll ($6), a house special with choice of hamachi or magaro, was a veggie-infused and mayo-less take on the classic spicy tuna roll. The four large rounds were stuffed with glistening pink slabs of fresh magaro, cucumber spears, romaine and green onion, and drizzled with the unmistakable, brightly hued Siriacha hot sauce.

A refreshing bite of shiso, the Japanese herb that is a relative of spearmint, was a magical touch to the aji maki ($5.95). To me, this herb presents nuances of not only mint, but also coriander, basil, licorice and maybe even a hint of dill. Mackerel's characteristic fishiness was not apparent in this roll, and the flavor was enhanced by the fresh cut of fish and complexity of the herb.

And for dessert? Our toro nigiri ($9.25) was delivered as the finale to this delightful meal. As with every item at Naka Sushi, the pieces of light pink tuna were huge, dwarfing the merely symbolic cubes of rice underneath. We both savored our prize, taking little nibbles of the smooth, satinlike meat to prolong the experience. "It tastes like California chardonnay," proclaimed Dave, or in other words, like butter.

We will definitely be back, having found everything we ordered to be fresh with a quality touch. The prices, only a dollar or two above some of the other sushi places around town, are a tremendous value considering that the amount of fish that arrives is practically a double portion. The mom-and-pop ambience and expert execution make Naka Sushi my east side replacement for our departed West Side favorite.

Naka Sushi

Address: 851 41st Ave., Capitola

Phone: 831.479.9620

Hours: 5-9pm Tue-Thu, 5-9:30pm Fri-Sat, 5-8pm Sun

Price Range: $5-$25.

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