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Photograph by George Sakkestad

Sushi Superman: Chef Isao Tamaki rolls his own at Sukeroku.

Japanese Jewel

Westside Santa Cruz has enjoyed the impeccable sushi-bar atmosphere of Sukeroku for over two decades

By Christina Waters

THERE HAVE BEEN years when I visited Sukeroku so often that other regulars must have thought I was a co-owner. Let's just say that this tiny Westside fixture has been one of the staples of my personal dining journey for the past 20 years. And that's why it counts for something when I tell you that the dinner Rosemary and I had there last week was arguably the best meal yet. Such a track record speaks well for the nimble sushi stylings of gregarious Isao Tamaki and his hostess/wife, Toshiko, a woman who exists in a state of calm perpetual motion.

With a small hot sake ($2.50) before me, I considered the new menu options since my last visit. Appetizers are more varied than ever. Not just the wonderfully succulent gyoza, or addictive green edamame soybeans. We sampled a stylish presentation of something listed on the menu as "Lutus," but is actually pickled lotus root ($3.75). Crunchy, faintly fiery, sweet and sour, these crisp slices went beautifully with Rosemary's Sapporo Draft beer ($3). Arriving in a deep stoneware bowl, an order of Agedashi tofu ($4.35) was easily the finest excuse to eat tofu I've had in a decade. Fat cubes of fermented tofu--three of them--sat on a nest of spun daikon. Each one was topped with something unique and effective in terms of powering the mild soy into a more exciting culinary world. Shaved bonita gave one bite of tofu an intense seafood perfume. Garlic covering another cube added its welcoming depth. A third was topped with a sesame hot sauce. And we dipped the bites in additional ponzu sauce provided. Actually, we threw in a bit of soy and wasabi just for added firepower.

The revelation, appetizer-wise, was a small sample we scored of ama-dai, one of the evening specials ($11 as a dinner). Known as tilefish in the west, this Atlantic seafood is prized for its incredible clean, tender texture. It was gorgeously fried without a trace of oil and arrived with a sweet Worcestershiresque katsu sauce. Fabulous. And so was another tiny appetizer of nuta, a rectangular slab of maguro barely seared and topped with rich mustard sauce ($4.50).

The flavors were glorious. As were our sushi orders.

Rosemary, always a yellowtail fan, enjoyed some exquisite, buttery hamachi nigiri, soft white filets atop sticky rice ($3.50). She also loved an order of flawless unagi ($4.50), barbecued in molasses-like, sesame-enhanced sauce and tied to its oval of rice by a thin ribbon of toasted nori seaweed.

It's nice to know there are tricky sushi variations filled with nuts, fruits, veggies and acres of tobiko. But at Sukeroku, I invariably succumb to the classics. Like an order of tekka maki--maguro and rice tightly rolled into tiny, jewellike cylinders--each slice enhanced with a peppery leaf of shiso ($3.50). It's one of those custom orders that anybody can get, if they just ask. Tekka maki with shiso--it'll change your life.

Finally, we split an entree of what I consider the all-time Sukeroku classic, an iron pot brimming with the Japanese answer to chicken soup, nabeyaki udon ($8.25). An almost sweet miso-based broth teems with luxuriously plump udon noodles--ultra comforting--chunks of chicken, hard-boiled eggs, carrots, bamboo shoots and mushrooms. On top of all this is a small forest of crisp tempura--prawns, eggplant, broccoli--which becomes really interesting as it starts to absorb the wonderful broth. This dish was in top form last week, living up to two decades' worth of experienced expectations.

I'm not sure I can manage any higher praise. Sukeroku deserves its longstanding reputation among fans of Japanese cuisine.

Sukeroku Restaurant
Address: 1701 Mission St., Santa Cruz
Phone: 831.426.6660
Hours: Lunch Tue.-Fri. noon-2pm; dinner Tue.-Sun. 5:30-9pm. Closed Monday.
Service: ** 1/2 Sushi comes out as swiftly as the traffic will bear.
Ambiance: **1/2 Small and tidy, the sushi bar puts you in the center of the action.
Cuisine: *** Dynamite sushi and a substantial listing of Japanese culinary favorites.
Overall: A neighborhood gem catering deliciously to everybody's need for a prime sushi fix.

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From the April 5-12, 2000 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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