Fish Story

Working for scale: A meal goes swimmingly at Sonoda's.
Sean O'Keefe

I'd been eating out with Glen again, which is almost never a good idea, and I think I felt the building housing Sonoda's shudder with relief when the two of us finally showed the front door our backs. Although the servers had never rushed us, had never been anything other than unfailingly friendly and helpful, there was no doubt we'd been a bother. Glen had been Glen -- his usual loud and abrasive self, always the source of bad social radiation. And I'd gotten a little drunk. But then, we'd come to Kenny Sonoda's fifteen-year-old sushi restaurant in Aurora (the original of what's now a four-location chain) not just for dinner, but on a quest.

We'd come to eat an entire tuna. And we succeeded.

Most male friendships -- and in particular, mine and Glen's -- are contests of will and extended games of schoolyard double-dare. As with Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, they flourish only as long as both men are willing to mount the donkey and ride. And since Glen has yet to refuse one of my challenges or wave off a windmill that needs jousting, he had seemed the perfect companion for this mission: a giant man to help me eat a giant fish.

"Do you think they'd just give us the whole fish if we asked?" he'd wondered. "A little one?"

"Probably not," I'd replied. "The good ones weigh hundreds of pounds."

"So? We'll pack your trunk with ice. Take it with us."

"Trust me," I'd said. "We'll do okay off the menu."

And we did. The order was complicated and came in flights of bits and pieces, but in the end I don't think we missed much of the fish -- or anything else. Our meal started with the house soup, a rich, roundly flavored dark fish broth (made with flaked bonito clarified into a strong stock) in which cubes of soft tofu, scallions and shreds of anachronistic portobello mushrooms had been steeped. I sipped mine considerately from the water-slide-shaped pho spoon that had been brought for that particular purpose. Glen shoved the spoon aside and drank straight from the bowl.

On any normal night, this soup -- with a little green tea, maybe a side of pork-filled, oniony Japanese gyoza dumplings dipped in bitter soy sauce -- would have been reason enough to spend an hour or two in Sonoda's comfortable dining room, decorated as it is in the black-lacquer, pastel and marbled-wallpaper style of a Benihana, circa 1987. All four Sonoda's have their own excellent ways with soups and broths. In Aurora, the kitchen's miso is a cloudy beauty, powerful and salty at first blush, with starbursts of sharp scallion top notes. In LoDo, where the second Sonoda's sits squeezed in among pizza joints and breakfast eggeries, the kitchen makes a bang-up soba broth, warm and reminiscent (to me, anyway) of a French galley's unreduced demi-glace, stolen from the pot early, thin but with a strong meatiness buried deep beneath the forward flavors of earthy spices. I've spent many lunches sitting in the upstairs smoking section of this Market Street outpost -- leisurely lunches, by necessity, because service does not hurry when you're seated among the smokers -- savoring bowls of that soup.

But this time, the soup was just the beginning. Glen, who doesn't give a damn about chefs or restaurants or food (except to make sure there's some in front of him whenever his big man's appetite demands it) was already bothering the waitress, asking about the fish in the big tanks that surrounded us -- chubby grouper, bright little things that looked like rainbows with fins, nasty fat suckfish lurking in the rocks -- and asking if he could eat them.

"Ignore him," I told the waitress, who had brought the soup with our first round of drinks -- Momakawa pearl sake, rough-filtered and cloudy -- and was now ready to collect our sushi order. "He's very hungry."

"What about a whole tuna?" Glen asked. "My friend here wants to eat a whole tuna."

The waitress just smiled politely as I handed her the single-fold sheets with our selections ticked off in pencil. "This will be fine," I said. "Just bring them as they come up."

And as they came up, we were able to eat our deconstructed tuna in roughly its proper order, from neck to tail -- fifty or so pieces in all.

Hamachi kama -- yellowtail collar -- was first, with a side of bright-green edamame that we ate like nuclear peanuts. We chased the collar with hamachi sashimi -- thick, purply-white slabs of slightly sweet raw tuna meat draped over hand-formed eggs of perfect sushi rice, firm and dimly tart with vinegar. Sonoda's has the best-quality yellowtail I've found in Denver, an absolute credit to Kenny Sonoda and the fresh-fish sources he has cultivated over the years. The oils and fats of fresh, well-handled hamachi are soft and transient; they coat the tongue like liquid velvet just for a moment, then fade, melted by the touch of pickled ginger, quickly washed away by green tea or sake. The older the fish, the more tenacious the sensation. Elderly tuna tastes like a mouthful of cold fish oil, old hamachi like a chilled shot of lard.  

We skipped the albacore rolls and went straight to a double order of tekka maki -- purple tuna flesh and white rice in a black nori wrapper mounted on a white plate with a deflated rosebud of pink ginger peels and a green wasabe volcano. The maki was fine but ultimately a waste of valuable digestive real estate, because at Sonoda's (and, to be honest, at most sushi spots), maki rolls are where the kitchen disposes of its scrap fish. Rather than cutting planks of beautiful ahi, eel or salmon to core the tight, single-bite rolls, the cooks will use off-sized ends, shreds and odd-shaped nuggets -- no worse in quality than the fish from which they were cut, but not the best of the house, either, and not always so carefully trimmed.

But that didn't stop Glen. He turned and showed each piece to the fish floating in the tanks beside him -- taunting them, tapping on the glass to get their attention -- then popped it in his mouth and chewed with obvious relish. He does the same thing to the birds scouring the McDonald's parking lot when he's eating McNuggets: a happy carnivore, unabashedly proud of his spot at the top of the food chain.

From the rolls, we moved on to maguro nigiri -- the better cuts of tuna from which the scraps filling the maki were generated, sliced thick from the flank or loin. The meat -- not some dyed-red Chicken of the Sea crap, but fresh-cut, shiny and beautifully raw -- was so delicate in flavor that the taste recalled in memory was more powerful than when actually eating it. When raw, a gentle smoothness is the maguro's only lingering sensation. But I've tried the same cut at the LoDo Sonoda's, done tataki -- seared -- and tasted a completely different level of sweet meatiness brought on by the magic of caramelization. This mild cut really requires the extreme heat of the searing pan to break the soft fat between the layers of muscle and release its truest flavor.

After another round of Momakawa and a pot of green tea to settle our stomachs, Glen and I dug into the chu-toro. This is the medium-fatty grade of blood-rich tuna belly that, like Kobe beef or the best tartare, melts across the teeth with just a whisper of tannic bitterness, which likely come from the endorphins left behind in the blood after the big fish's death rigor.

More Momakawa, and finally there was only o-toro left -- the tuna hound's ultimate high, pinkish-purple and ribbed with sinuous bands of fat, so uniquely flavored that the Japanese invented a whole language to describe it. Only here the o-toro didn't look quite as pretty as I'm accustomed to. It had the sheen of richness, the slick gleam of oil on its surface, but the generous slices were limp, the colors mottled like a bruise. On its mount of snow-white rice, the best o-toro seems to almost glow with a second life. But at the tail end of our head-to-tail binge, this -- though vivid in taste and smoothly opulent in texture -- just seemed like dead fish on a small plate.

It was an anti-climactic end to a night with so much good food and such epic potential -- but then, that's part of male friendships, too. All those adventures so gloriously conceived must eventually end in disappointment. If they didn't, why would any of us bother to get up, dust off our trash-can helmets and climb back on the mule to make another run? A quest -- whether after windmills or tuna belly -- can be ended only by success, and men are not so good with endings.

So instead of being Done-with-a-capital-D, Glen and I were just done for the night. He began singing toward the end of the meal, wheezing along with the Muzak's bubblegum pop, doing the lyrics to "Go All the Way" and accompanying himself with chopsticks and water glass, while I labored to pack away the last couple pieces of o-toro. And I couldn't leave behind any amaebi, either, our one fishy departure from the tuna theme: sweet, raw shrimp, butterflied and spread across rice balls like tiny pink Geiger aliens.  

As we crossed the parking lot, Glen lit a cigarette and stuck it in my face. I was leaning heavily on him as we made our way to our cars; I don't want to say he carried me, because there hasn't been a restaurant yet that I didn't leave under my own power, but without the plumb line of his warm bulk acting as a constant reminder of up from down, I might have ended up napping in the bushes instead of leaving in my car. Which is another reason I like eating with Glen: On nights when the effects of gross excess demand a polestar to follow, he is a big one, and he burns extraordinarily bright.

"That was good," he said, laughing thickly, breath sour with sake and soy. "We gotta do this again, right?"

"Maybe," I said. "But later." Thinking, much.

"Good. You'll call me?"

I looked up at him from where I'd collapsed against the tailgate of his truck. He looked worried. He gets that way at the end of the night sometimes, remembering what he's done, how much of an annoyance he's been. And though I sometimes swear that, no, I'll never call him again -- I'll confine myself to polite folk who don't sing quite so loudly at dinner, taunt the decorations or shove edamame pods in their pockets for the drive home -- I always do.

"Of course I'll call," I said. "I don't know anyone else who'd come along."

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Sonoda's Sushi

3108 S. Parker Rd.
Aurora, CO 80014


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