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I first came to sushi as a teenager in upstate New York. Cutting class at Irondequoit High School, I'd duck out during lunch or skip remedial math to run up to Wegmans a few blocks away for terrible grocery-store sushi in little black plastic clamshell to-gos. I wouldn't learn until much later that the sushi was terrible; in the moment, I loved it out of all proportion to its quality. Before I knew any better, I'd dip my ebi sushi in cocktail sauce, for God's sake. I thought it was fucking delicious.
That fifteen-, sixteen-year-old kid walking across the blistering parking lot at Wegmans, shoving tekka maki in his face and grinning at the raw-fish oddity of it, still travels with me everywhere I go. He is the part of me that craves the simple, dumb and joyous, who goes all quiet when stepping into a spot like Domo or Super Star Asian, where histories and backstories and the essential oddity of dining outside my culture can confound the basic act of eating. And that kid still thrills at the prospect of lunch at a place like Go Fish.
Even the name is goofy: Go Fish. A children's card game, a purely American reference. Go Fish, and then, in case you didn't get it, a picture of a fish on the logo. I laughed the first time I saw it — a Japanese restaurant and sushi bar and steakhouse all jammed together, with the most obvious name in the world. Driving past the restaurant's sign on Broadway on my way to somewhere else, I immediately tasted that ebi and cocktail sauce, sensed the sort of neutered culinary adventure that kid in me still craves and filed it away in my head for a later visit.
Come to find, Go Fish is an outgrowth of the easy, uncomplicated Spicy Basil a couple of doors down. The owners had finally found success in what I'd pegged as a doomed location in the 1 Broadway complex, doing nothing more than easy-sweet curries, sesame chicken, Phuket beef and killer shumai dumplings. So in September 2007, they decided that if one mutt-Asian operation was good, two ought to be better. Thai-Chinese in one corner, Japanese-American in the other — another formerly doomed space that had once held a Chicago-style pizzeria.
And they were right. One of the reasons I've always liked Spicy Basil is because, in addition to serving great food, it seems to have a certain innocence, a naive faith. So opening in a space that had killed three or four previous occupants was no big deal — just a matter of chasing out the old ghosts on a wave of peanut sauce and massamun curry. Lay some cloth on the tables, polish the silver, learn how to make the rice come out in that cool pyramid shape, and the people would come. That's a theory that never works — except that, once in a while, it does. It did at Spicy Basil, against all odds. And the same trick worked all over again at Go Fish.
The space is spare, almost iconic Japantown nouvelle, with wood and steel and stone all polished to a high and gleaming gloss, mismatched walls in shades of lime and mustard, one of those trickling fountain things and abstract sculptures of fish done in shiny, candy-colored laminate and burnished metal. The tables and chairs don't match. The warm sake comes from a machine like an office water cooler, only instead of cold H2O, it dispenses hot rice wine from a company that's been producing since the 1700s. And the rest of the wine list seems to be populated by bottles chosen mostly for their names and brightly colored labels.
Service is incredibly friendly, almost coddling, occasionally Keystone Cops goofy. One server had faultlessly navigated his way through a knotty, mixed order of eat-in and take-out grub — sushi and soup and snacks and steaks — and then took it in stride when, after an emergency call from my wife, I had to have everything packed to-go so that I could leave in a hurry. He never missed a beat, didn't forget the chopsticks or soy sauce, and had everything packaged so carefully that the udon didn't slosh into the salmon roll and the tempura was still crispy when I got it home. On another night, I watched a different server burn himself repeatedly at table on the same little clay serving bottle of hot sake — trying to pour, having to put it down, shaking his hand, then picking the bottle right back up and doing it again. This went on for at least three repetitions until finally, he got the idea to wrap a napkin around the bottle. Then he spilled it. It was better than TV.
But then, I've also watched a sushi chef here discard half a loin of white tuna or saba just because there was a discoloration that he didn't like, working his knife like a beef butcher and shaking his head as the cut grew shorter and shorter beneath his hands. I've shown up late for yaki soba and sat in a room so quiet that I could hear the sizzle of the wok above the piped-in soft jazz and been served precisely the same plate that I would have gotten at the height of the rush.
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This is not where I would come for toro, for tobiko or uni. Those I will save for the finer sushi bars in town — restaurants where I know not only the precise provenance of the ingredients, but their travel plans as well. If I'm showing off for out-of-town guests, I'm not going to bring them to Go Fish. It's a place that's just for me — for me and friends, for me and the Broadway neighbors. It's a place where I can eat without thinking too much, enjoy without complications and without wondering whether it's wrong to order nothing but appetizers for dinner: a plate of shumai (almost as good as at Spicy Basil), a plate of gyoza (better than anywhere but Oshima Ramen), a stick or two of yakitori (beautifully charred) and tuna tartare with avocado and cucumber and spiked with little bits of crunchy tempura batter (one of the secrets to this kitchen's success).
In a reverse of every bit of sushi-bar wisdom I know, at Go Fish the specialty rolls are better than the hand rolls — mostly because while they're just as well put together here, they're also a helluva lot more fun. Not expecting the transcendent food moments that gastronauts out indulging in high-end sashimi crave, I can guiltlessly enjoy massive volcano rolls (spicy tuna, a house specialty, mango and avocado, again shot through with bits of tempura) or lucky rolls (shrimp tempura wrapped in shamelessly artificial crabmeat, shingled with slabs of maguro and avocado) simply because I like watching the sushi rollers' knifework — the way they can deconstruct half an avocado across their blades and fan them so perfectly. Or I can skip the sushi entirely and eat Cajun-style New York strip steak with ginger sauce, lamb chops in plum-soy marinade, soft-shell crab tempura or beef tenderloin, cubed à la France, as they say in Chinese kitchens, stir-fried with garlic and onions, then served with good asparagus (also stir-fried) and carrots and bell peppers and onions (also all stir-fried) and a tall beer — the only thing on my table not out of the wok and oil.
The egg tamago is not good. The tobiko sometimes tastes pickled. The Japanese fried rice is just Chinese fried rice made with Japanese short-grain sushi rice. And I have not yet got my nuts up enough to order the sakura, because cheese is not something the Japanese generally handle well — and a plate of raw spicy tuna, crab and cheese just doesn't sound very appetizing in the first place. But the menu at Go Fish is so broad, so appealing, so essentially, wonderfully comforting that I have never been at a loss for something to eat here. Tekka maki that tastes of nothing but the soy sauce I dip it in makes me smile every time I eat it. A big bowl of udon noodle soup with tempura shrimp and vegetables almost hot enough from the oil to sizzle in the broth is better for me than some mythical grandma's chicken soup, despite the distance between me and the lands where tempura udon actually is a native comfort food.
Go Fish is by no stretch one of Denver's best restaurants, but I love it for exactly that reason — because I can come here and simply eat what I love without thinking, without having to absorb or consider or appreciate anything. It is pure, private indulgence, one of my temples of Asian-American junk food, and when, long after dark, I suddenly get a craving for tekka maki or yaki soba, Go Fish is the place I go.