By: Jason Perlow
There are plenty of sushi joints in South Florida, especially in Broward County, where “Thai-Sushi” hybrid restaurants dominate the genre. Designed with acres of glass and wide open spaces, these establishments exude an ultra-modern aesthetic informed by feng shui and other Asian cultural influences. Food is usually served by young, attractive, but inexperienced waitstaff. The “modern luxury” ambiance is reinforced by a pulsating soundtrack, which often distracts from the Zen-like dining experience that it was supposed to evoke.
In Coral Springs and Parkland, we are blessed with several good sushi restaurants — most of which are of the “Thai-Sushi” variety, where diners can find highly-Americanized versions of sushi creations alongside standard Thai-American offerings. Over the last twenty years, this attempt at crowd-pleasing created a template for generic “Asian” restaurants in South Florida, where dozens of independent establishments serve almost identical menus, often with mediocre results.
But not all sushi restaurants are mid-priced temples for California Rolls and Pad-Thai. In Coral Springs, Sakura Sushi, now in its second decade of business, has continuously bucked the trend. Opened in 1998 by Ming Tran, a veteran Chinese-Vietnamese sushi chef, the restaurant serves an almost exclusive menu of sushi offerings, with a limited selection of cooked dishes which include teriyaki, katsu, stir-frys, yaki-udon and yes, a variety of Pad Thai noodles. They are all excellent, especially the shrimp and scallop tempura.
Despite having been in business for what seems like an eternity, Sakura has only been on my dining radar for the last year. I have been a Coral Springs resident for nearly seven years, but I was blissfully unaware of one of the best sushi restaurants in the city, partly because it was hidden in an older shopping plaza that was in a state of aesthetic decline.
Celebrating 20 years in business should be a joyous occasion for any restaurant, but it was not to be for Sakura. Starting in March 2018, the plaza in which the restaurant exists began a significant renovation project.
Undoubtedly, while this was a positive development for the long term prospects of the businesses in that plaza, it created a temporary yet untenable situation. It was difficult to approach the restaurant because it was set behind a prominent construction barrier, and the only way to get to it was on a circuitous plywood-lined path. To most Coral Springs residents, it might as well have been closed.
After more than a year, the construction is finally finished. There has been an uptick in business, but it’s still much slower than the other notable sushi restaurants in the immediate area, including Hamachi, Moon Thai, Shibuya, and Bluefin Parkland. Even on weeknights, these more popular spots are often full.
While the plaza itself is newly renovated, everything about Sakura Sushi exudes vintage charm. The wood-paneled sushi bar is topped with a couple of gold maneki-neko good luck cats; their waving paws meant to beckon customers to enter. There are screened-in tatami rooms with matted platforms to provide a traditional private dining experience, something that is now rarely seen outside of Japan. Framed pictures of sushi adorn the walls. There’s no pulsating trance soundtrack, just a few muted flat-screen televisions by the bar on which you can quietly watch some sports while having your beer or sake. It is very traditional and very Japanese.
The staff is old-school as well. There are no recent high-school grads and aspiring models waiting for their call, staring at smartphones while waiting tables. Instead, we have Ms. Yan, who has been with the restaurant since its opening in 1998, dutifully and attentively stands guard and knows the preferences of her repeat customers. Chef Sam has also been with the restaurant for almost as long as it has been in business, going on fifteen years now as Chef Ming’s majordomo.
Sakura’s menu is quite extensive, serving every manner of maki rolls that you can imagine. The style of sushi is Americanized, replete with cream cheese as well as crunchy tempura flake topped offerings that have now become the signature of American sushi. But they are meticulously made and delicious, and you would be hard-pressed to find a similar sushi place in Broward County that takes their craft as seriously as they do.
Other than their Americanized sushi selections, you can also find some traditional Japanese offerings on the menu. The Toro Appetizer, a tartare made with fatty tuna belly, asparagus, spicy dressing, and eel sauce, is one of my absolute favorite tuna preparations from sushi restaurants in the area. The Spicy Tuna salad is made in a similar style, using a leaner cut of the fish. It is served over cucumber slices with added scallions for texture, and it is equally good. I also recommend the Crispy Rico Toro, which is suitable for sharing. Spicy minced fatty tuna is spooned upon four crispy discs of rice, topped with slices of jalapeno, a drizzle of honey, and wasabi sauce. It’s not a traditional dish by any measure, but it’s mighty tasty.
One of the things I appreciate about Sakura is its dedicated selection of riceless rolls for those of us looking to reduce our carb intake. There are nine different ones to choose from such as the Spider-Girls, a take on the ever-popular Spider Roll, made with deep-fried soft shell crab, but is wrapped in cucumber instead of rice.
Another stand out is the South Beach, which is composed of tuna, salmon, white fish, surimi, fish roe, avocado, and scallions rolled in seaweed. It is quickly flash fried and is drizzled with spicy mayo and eel sauce. It’s a sinful but still mostly carb-free dish that many folks seeking more creative rice-free options will appreciate. If you don’t want anything fried, I would check out the Chickashi Roll, which is a similar combination of fish to the South Beach, that is rolled in seaweed and is served with ponzu instead of mayonnaise and eel sauce. It’s a very delicious way to get your protein.
If you want to go for Japanese classics, be sure to check out the Yellowtail Heaven, which is four pieces of first-grade hamachi, served sashimi style, with jalapeno spicy ponzu sauce. I also recommend the Uzuzukuri, which is traditional thin-sliced sashimi with spicy mayo and wasabi sauce drizzled on top.- It can be had with tuna, hamachi, salmon, or as a combination of all three. It’s a beautiful presentation, a burst of color fanned out on the plate.
Sakura may not be the hippest of sushi places in the city. But it is by far the most laid-back and the most “Japanese” of all the restaurants in the immediate area. If you want sushi made and served by an experienced staff, you cannot possibly go wrong — and you’ll be giving an independently owned, long time Coral Springs business the renewed attention it richly deserves.
1750 N. University Drive, Coral Springs FL 33071
Mon-Thurs 11:30 a.m. – 10 p.m., Fri-Sat 11:30 a.m. – 10:30 p.m., Sun 4:30-10 p.m.
Jason Perlow is a long-time foodie who spent 20 years in the New York City and New Jersey metro areas reviewing restaurants for The New York Times and his personal food blog, Off The Broiler, which he started in 2006 and ran for ten years. He is also the founder of eGullet, a popular food discussion site and not-for-profit organization that was formed in 2001, which was featured on Tony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” cable television program.
As a technologist by profession, he writes the Tech Broiler blog for CBS’s ZDNet web site. He has been a Coral Springs resident since moving to South Florida in 2012.
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