By Bill Citara
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Sasha Issenberg, in his new book The Sushi Economy, implies that to eat raw fish on rice is to become an assiduous participant in 21st-century global capitalism. By way of illustrating sushi's cultural adaptability, the author cites the California roll of avocado and crab -- invented in Los Angeles during the 1960s, modified to a mango/crab roll in Brazil, to a mango/crab/avocado roll in Singapore, and so forth, around the planet. He also references burrito rolls and hamburger rolls, and notes that Hawaiians make sushi with Spam.
This came to mind while I was sitting in Sakura at Doral, contemplating a "Philly cheese steak roll" stuffed with grilled meat, melted mozzarella cheese, tomato, lettuce, avocado, and mayo, and assembled behind the counter by a Peruvian sushi chef. That would just be for starters, though. We'd choose our entr'es from the Korean menu. Oh, it's a crazy, mixed-up, sushi-loving world all right, and one in which not all municipalities are equal. Rome, for example, founded in 735 B.C., was named for the great conqueror Romulus. Doral, incorporated as a city four years ago this month, gets its name from Doris and Al Kaskel, the money behind the similarly self-monikered golf and spa resort located within its boundaries. Be that as it may, it is only proper that when in Doral, to do as the Doralites do, which for the past decade has been to dine at Sakura. The Doral Boulevard branch is the second Japanese dining venue for Korean owner Bok H. An. The original South Dixie Highway location, still going strong, debuted 25 years ago as Coral Gables' first sushi restaurant. Like the Gables, Doral has a large Hispanic presence (per capita the most Venezuelan city in the United States), which helps to explain the Latin flavor of Sakura's sushi chefs and clientele. But about three years ago, Bok took a good look around the neighborhood and noted his own ethnicity's numbers growing as well. That's when he added about 20 Korean specialties to the bill of fare.
It's not as if more items were needed. Sushi selections alone filibuster the first four or five pages of the voluminous menu. About two dozen fish and shellfish are offered per piece as sushi or sashimi (all $2.50 or less, excepting sea urchin, Alaskan king crab, yellowtail, and toro tuna). There are small rolls ($5 to $8), medium rolls ($7 to $11), large rolls ($11 to $15), and hand rolls ($4 to $6.50). The last are more common in the States than Japan, probably because the cone shape can accommodate an oversize diet's worth of wacky ingredients.
440 S. Dixie Highway
Coral Gables, FL 33146
Region: Coral Gables/South Miami
I couldn't quite bring myself to try that silly Philly steak roll, my reluctance owing more to a sense of gastronomic anti-fusionism than economic anti-globalism. I also passed on spicy tuna roll, an invention of American sushi chefs to unload old scraps of fish by masking them with mayonnaise and chili. I did, though, sample two sashimi slices of toro, the fatty belly of the bluefin, which lacked a melt-on-the-tongue quality usually evident in even the lower-grade cuts. Hamachi's taste was seductively smoky, and its buttery texture turned out richer than that of the toro. Our final selection was eel, an apt finishing fish because of its sweet tang.
Starters slung from the sushi bar are mostly raw fish in other configurations, like tuna carpaccio, tuna tataki, and salmon tartar stimulatingly mingled with sesame oil, masago, scallion, and mayo. We enjoyed kani-su, too -- surimi crab and pastel avocado pieces rolled in cucumber and pooled in rice wine vinegar. Sakura offers an inordinate number of sushi-style rolls that do not contain any raw fish, including at least a dozen vegetable-only options.
Cooked Japanese items brought mixed results. A juicy Katsu chicken cutlet in crisp panko breading was exemplary, as were textbook tempura half-moons of zucchini, onions, sweet potato, and a broccoli floret. Slices of seared beef tataki tasted flat, and yaki soba, a bowl of bland noodles tossed with carrots, onions, and mushrooms, was the sort of dish you might expect to suffer through at a disreputable Chinese joint. la carte pricing is fair, but dinner combos represent a better deal: teriyakis, tempuras, and sushi rolls plated together, with soup or salad, for $21.95 to $23.95. Tuesday nights bring a twofer of Maine lobsters for $27.95. Daily box lunch specials are a steal, a ten-spot or less for chicken teriyaki (or salmon teriyaki, or shrimp tempura) with California roll, salad, and beef dumplings. A few dollars more upgrades the meal to a grilled skirt steak matched with sushi rolls, or to an all-sushi medley.
Do not, under any circumstances, order the tempura ice cream for dessert. It is a prefabricated, prefried, preposterous ball of cheap vanilla ice cream wrapped in lukewarm, malodorous dough.
Sakura's sushi and Japanese cuisine are decent enough, but there are surely superior spots for such. Korean chow, though, is much more difficult to come by in these parts (not just Doral, but South Florida). Those seeking a kim chee fix are therefore apt to be far less picayune in their appraisal of Sakura's efforts -- meaning this most likely will not be the best hae mool pajun you'll ever have, but it is this way or the highway. I've sampled the eggy pan-fried seafood pancake in places that piled it with all manner of sparkling shellfish. Here it comes studded with scallion stalks and stumpy pieces of shrimp and squid -- tasty, not textbook. I've had better bulgogi, too, although there is nothing inherently wrong with the wispy shreds of rib eye beef sweetly marinated in sugar, wine, sesame, and soy, and stir-fried with garlic, carrots, scallions, and mushrooms. Only the tangy, salty, and spicy kimchi jaeyook bokeum, papery snippets of pork and rectangles of tofu seeped in incendiary kim chee cabbage, compared favorably with renditions rendered elsewhere.
Dolsot bibimbob is a classic Korean rice meal cooked and served in a hot stoneware bowl (dolsot). The initial part of the preparation process calls for the bowl to be coated with sesame oil, which lends the layer of rice touching the hot bottom a crisp brown crust. Lean, slender slices of beef covered the rice, along with a fried egg on top that was too well done to run, and a series of neatly sectioned vegetables: bean sprouts, mushrooms, scallions, carrots, and gosari (brown fern stems). A side sauce of gochujang looks like ketchup but is piquant chili pepper paste. The idea is to stir all of the ingredients together, goose it with gochujang, and dig in.
Korean entrées come with soup, steamed short-grain rice, and the traditional side dishes known as banchan -- here translated to petite white dishes of kim chee cabbage, kim chee cubes of white radish, sweetly pickled zucchini, and boiled soybean sprouts. Prices run $14 to $26, which might have seemed a better deal had we actually been served the soup. Waiters were friendly and accommodating but not sufficiently trained, effectively managed, or especially observant.
Maybe they were too distracted by the six flat-screen TV sets placed around the otherwise minimally adorned, 70-seat room (plus eight stools at the sushi bar toward the rear of the rectangular space). Chances are you've been in dozens of Japanese restaurants that look just like this, and serve food just like this, too. Except Sakura provides its patrons with a wider range of dining options than most, as well as a means to think globally and dine locally -- as in a Florida roll of conch, avocado, lettuce, cucumber, masago, scallion, and spicy mayo. Or a Doral roll of banana tempura, cream cheese, and eel. Banana tempura, cream cheese, and eel? Well, I suppose it might be worse. We could be living in Hawaii.