I remember deciding, years ago, that sushi was the most perfect food on the planet.
Bear in mind that this was long before I'd actually eaten my first piece of sushi. And that this was coming from a kid who'd grown up in a blue-collar neighborhood in a blue-collar city where the only two acceptable options for the public consumption of fish were fried on a Friday and served with chips (a ritual of eating entered into like insurance — a tradition passed down through generations that protected against the eternal damnation of accidentally eating a cheeseburger on the day after Thursday), or charred to carbon on someone's backyard grill following someone else's (ostensibly) successful weekend fishing trip. This second presentation generally involved a very optimistic slice of lemon, when what it needed was last rites and a Christian burial.
Sushi was just not something you ate in Rochester, New York, even if you could find it. It may have been available (I honestly don't recall), but it certainly wasn't accepted. I mean, come on. Raw fish and rice?
3940 East Exposition Avenue
Hours: 11 a.m.-3 p.m., 3:30-10 p.m. daily
Maguro sushi: $4.25
Maguro tataki: $4.75
Ama-ebi, uni, king crab and toro: Market
Miso soup: $2.95
Osaka roll: $10.95
Yellowtail and scallion roll: $4.95
But I'd seen sushi in a movie, maybe, or on the cover of a magazine at the grocery store: a plate holding a plain maguro hand roll with a single, tiny slip of chile set on the glistening pinky-purple raw flesh, a lonely slice of tekka maki that looked like a meat ruby held in a wadding of snow and wrapped in scaled paper, and a simple piece of ebi sushi, the pink shrimp's tail hanging limply over the back end of the perfect, smooth-edged rectangle of rice. I found everything about this plate to be both winsomely subtle and aesthetically intense at the same time: a thing of powerful beauty and limitless possibility of the sort I hadn't experienced since my desperate wanting for the Star Wars Death Star playset with working trash compactor a few years before and wouldn't know again until I discovered girls a couple of years later and started wondering what they looked like underneath their clothes.
It was years before I finally tasted sushi — or what passed for it at the local grocery store — and although my first experience was disappointing, I kept eating it, searching for the ideal iteration of my fantasy in towns across across the country. And then five years ago I landed in Denver, where people have been eating sushi not just for years, but for generations.
Osaka Sushi is not an easy place to find. It's tucked into an odd strip mall off Exposition Avenue, invisible from Colorado Boulevard, invisible from almost any angle of approach until you're right up on top of it. Osaka has occupied this strange spot since 2000, when it was founded by Jessie Son and Young Joe Kwon. And in a city where sushi bars sometimes open, flourish, fade and close all in the space of a single season, their empty husks filled by dollar-scoop Chinese operations or payday loan outfits or even other sushi bars before the echoes of the previous inhabitants have died away, it's close to miraculous that the two of them ran it successfully for so long. But last October, after completing a slow transition of ownership, they gave the place over to Jay Chong and moved on.
Chong has made few changes at Osaka. It's still a sushi bar with a kitchen attached that focuses on sushi but also offers a small menu of other Japanese convenience foods — gyoza and donburi, yaki soba and bowls of multi-colored fish eggs for those who just can't get enough tobiko and ikura. The decor is simple — not as viciously spartan as at some sushi bars, but not a jumble of import-store knickknackery, either. Thanks to the fishbowl-style covered patio, it's bright, uncrowded and comfortable, even if it's beginning to show its age a little in the scuffs and dings and scratches of long service. There are piles of paper sushi menus and brightly colored fliers near the register, bonsai trees behind the bar and personal sake boxes, each made of blond wood and covered with doodles and the names of regulars, stacked like a child's blocks.
On the surface, Osaka could be any one of the dozens of neighborhood sushi bars in this town. It doesn't have a gimmick. There are no giant anime robots on the menu. The sushi rollers behind the bar don't scream when people walk in the door, do shots or tricks where they pull maki out of their ears or hide octopus in their hats. But its excellence reveals itself in small ways, in little moves and quiet moments, in the crowds that it draws.
At the bar on my first night here, a man I would've pegged as the kind of guy who, back in Rochester, would've called me a fag to my face if he'd seen me eating yellowtail sashimi, ordered in gentle, whispering Japanese without even looking at a menu. Dressed in a drooping Budweiser tank top, baseball hat and flip-flops, his shoulders sunburned, mustache damp with tea, he almost seemed to bow over a black plate on which the chef (a young kid, Latino, with a shaved head beneath his round cap and a shy smile) had laid out a fan of tako and surf clam, pinkish tai and white-fish sashimi, sliced paper-thin and served with ponzu — all of it snugged up against a mountain of daikon threads, a fall of pickled ginger. Two children climbed up onto the seats beside him to look over the top of the cold cases, point and giggle. When their parents called them back to the table, they scrambled down obediently and threw themselves into their own chairs, snatching up chopsticks and using them to stab pieces of kappa maki and spicy tuna roll.
I ordered green tea, which was the best green tea I've had at any sushi restaurant in the city — strong and hot and somehow nutty, almost meaty in flavor — and followed it with miso soup so delicately assembled that the little bits of scallion each hit my tongue like tiny green sparks. As I finished my first cup of tea, my waitress was there ready to pour a second. As I pushed away my soup, my waitress was there with my first round of sushi.
I began with tamago — a cold egg omelette, folded and cut, tied onto its ball of rice with a ribbon of black nori. The tamago was sweet, stiff, perfect, and I followed it with the competing sweetness of fresh king crab, touched with wasabi, served in large, rough chunks, also tied in place with seaweed. I'd watched as the head chef — tall and dour, unsmiling, with a small gold bar clipped on his jacket like a badge of rank — assembled it, brushing his fingers through the box of nori strips on top of the bar, selecting just the right one to fit around each odd-sized piece of crab. Next I had maguro that was almost like my long-ago dream of maguro — meltingly delicate, fresh, odorless, and tasting, if not of the sea, then of the air just above it, still damp and dimly salty.
At Osaka, the rice is vaguely sweet, sticky, dosed with just enough rice vinegar that I taste it like a ghost on my tongue that vanishes the instant I notice it. Unfortunately, I don't love the way it's used — the haphazard arrangement of loosely packed grains, the balls that change size, one to the next. One night my raw, sweet shrimp (ama-ebi) were mounted over lovely, small, aerated but dense balls of sticky rice — the work of the head chef — but my maguro tataki hung limply over lopsided rectangles inexpertly shaped by one of his assistants.
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On my first visit to Osaka, business was slow and the employees were relaxing, folding disposable chopsticks into paper envelopes at one of the tables, watching Funniest Pets and People on the TV hung over the register and laughing at iteration after iteration of men getting hit in the groin and fat women falling down. On my second visit, the place was busy, and I perched attentively at the bar, ordering just a couple of house specials — the overkill Osaka roll with crab and avocado topped with shingles of tuna, and a lobster roll, the meat gummed together with mayonnaise and yet still delicious, its texture offset by batonnet-cut matchsticks of cucumber tucked inside the roll. I watched as Chong's crew ran out special order after special order — first the ankimo (monkfish liver), then the uni, bright orange, the final order scooped carefully into a roll as one of the assistants wrote "out" next to it on the whiteboard above.
The next afternoon, I went in for lunch. It was slow again, with the crew absently watching Atlanta Braves baseball between orders. But busy or not, Osaka always displays excellent timing on the floor, with service that's obsequious without being fawning, friendly without being intrusive. Hunched over a bowl of udon noodles in bonito broth swimming with mushrooms, slips of seaweed and impossibly pink slabs of seafood cake, I ate my yellowtail and scallion roll, my chewy bit of clam and loose, poorly wrapped (but nonetheless delicious) tekka maki and watched the waitress negotiate an order with a pissed-off elderly couple who wanted sides of rice to go with their sushi and more rice to go with their soup.
Behind the bar, the head chef was doing inventory, his eyes closed, gently prodding and sniffing every piece of fish laid out before him, tossing out a whole piece of hirame the size of a gold bar, a scraggly end bit of dark tuna. In all my meals at Osaka, the only time I've seen him smile is when one of his fish purveyors came in and told him, winking, that his special order had arrived — a certain cut of a certain fish that was nearly impossible to find but now had been.
At the front, Chong surveyed the dining room. Earlier, he'd handed out sets of chopsticks to everyone on the floor, saying, "Souvenir. Take 'em home with you. Eat more sushi." Now he just stood, hands clasped behind his back, smiling, knowing (I hope) that he'd bought into a good thing here — the kind of quietly excellent sushi bar I wish I'd found when I was much younger.