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Sakana Shows Sushi's Suburban Evolution

Snakes on a plate


A countrified KD Lang sings over the sound system in this unremarkable, suburban dining room. A foursome sips large Cokes through straws as they nibble on iceberg lettuce. A toddler attacks a coloring book with crayons. A guy in overalls orders coffee. Then my miso soup arrives.

Welcome to Sakana Japanese Sushi and Steakhouse in Meridian--and the ongoing evolution of sushi in America.

In the early '80s, sushi restaurants were small, cult-like jewels of Japanese gastronomy found only in large coastal cities, attracting eaters with fat wallets and a taste for the exotic. The focus was on raw fish prepared by highly trained sushi masters, served as precise, elegantly understated works of edible art.

In the '90s, sushi pushed inland from the coasts, from cities to suburbs, and began morphing into something more palatable to mainstream America. Today, sushi restaurants are casual, complicated presentations are common, and rich sauces, once antithetical, are nearly obligatory.

An obvious result of this suburban sushi evolution is Sakana's really, really big rolls. The menu has a regular assortment of sushi and sashimi--there are even a couple of underutilized teppanyaki tables near the back of a room that, with a rejiggering of accessories, could just as easily have been a sports bar or deli--but nearly everyone on this Saturday night is demolishing some kind of monumental, multi-colored roll.

My waitress recommends I try the Evergreen, one of seven daily special rolls (all $14.95 with miso soup) with names like Playboy, Wow and Candy Cane. Traditionally, a single roll wouldn't be enough for a meal, but the Evergreen is enormous. Unlike the standard rattlesnake-diameter sushi roll, it arrives python-size, electric green, spanning the length of a long, horizontal platter and flanked by double lines of sauce. I nearly need an unhinged jaw to get a slice into my mouth.

But once there--if I erase all references to Japan--this mash-up of shrimp tempura, mango, raw tuna, avocado, king crab and rice wrapped in lime-colored soy paper is pretty damned tasty. A gooey, unfocused richness surrounding a satisfying, deep-fried crunch, it's more akin to an American potluck than the distinct, singular flavors I associate with Japanese food. It's ridiculous, but I like it.

Hey, evolution happens. Even with food. If cuisines didn't adapt to new cultures, the world wouldn't be blessed with burritos, tiramisu or chicken tikka masala.