Multi Culti Sushi
Kawa rolls cultures together with imagination.
Thursday, September 14, 2006
Quick cuisine quiz—Which of these things doesn’t belong?: 1) Avocado; 2) cilantro; 3) jalapeño; 4) eel.
In the evermore-creative sushi universe, they all belong. In fact, they co-habitate quite happily in the Cabo Wabo Roll ($8.75) at Kawa Japanese Cuisine and Sushi Bar on Alvarado Street.
With the sizeable Wabo, three-month-old Kawa offers the most recent evidence that the sushi game has changed. No longer is it enough to simply wrap fresh fish and rice neatly. Colliding cultures and new ingredients—plus the increasingly popular status of sushi—have inspired chefs here to get inventive in an effort to impress palates and differentiate themselves from the competition. For the rising tide of sushi junkies, this is a good thing.
Five solid sushi spots sit within a few blocks in downtown Monterey: Koto, Benihana, Jugem, Ocean Sushi and, now, Kawa. Kawa’s good values, welcoming atmosphere and splash of sushingenuity demonstrate that it deserves a spot in the local lineup and is likely to earn its own band of loyalists.
Kawa’s menu has plenty of facets—tempuras and teriyakis, combinations and bento boxes, salads and sashimis. But in the spirit of modern-day creativity, I was naturally drawn to the most stylish rice-wrapped creations.
When Baltazar Rodriguez, who runs the shop with his brother and fellow Oaxaqueño-cum-sushi-master Teo, pointed out the shop’s most popular dishes, it revealed that here the popular tendency is also toward the imaginative.
The most popular rolls include the Monterey Roll ($10.50), a long and multilayered double-roll wonderland: tempura shrimp, avocado, cream cheese topped with tuna, barbecued eel, salmon and shrimp; the Tokonata ($12.75), with its tempura shrimp, basil and macadamia nuts with salmon, unagi and toasted coconut on top; and 3) the Kani Ten ($12)—softshell crab tempura and avocado topped with unagi.
On my first visit, colleagues Buck, Twiggy and I settled into the simple room, mellowed by peaceful blue walls and big decorative fans of Eastern design, and tabbed the special of the day to start (a six-piece California roll, six-piece spicy tuna, four-piece nigiri, $9.95). We also decided on the Crunch Roll (tempura shrimp plus avocado and cucumber, lathered in crunchy lil’ bits of tempura, $9.95), the Monterey Roll, and another spicy tuna roll.
The special was a straightforward and sturdy value. The double-sized Crunch Roll was an indulgent treat designed for tempura devotees, with its layers of light crispiness and a sweet teriyaki sauce on top. The Monterey Roll stood no chance against the chopsticks, thanks to its very satisfying and shifting of pattern of flavors and textures. The spicy tuna and its sprout of daikon radish made us officially stuffed for about 40 bucks.
Local government stalwart Gee and I took to the VIP-feeling four-seat sushi bar on my next visit and enjoyed the hometown hospitality of Teo behind the bar and “Balta” bringing the beers ($4.75/22 oz. Asahi, Kirin or Sapporo). Through a moment of miscommunication, Teo prepared the rolls I told him I enjoyed so much the last time I visited. I would’ve gone for the Cabo Wabo, Stuffed Shitake Mushrooms ($8.25) and an adapted Sunomono Salad (marinated cucumbers, surimi, and shrimp with salmon or tuna subbed for octopus, $5.75). Instead it was the Monterey, the Crunch, and a perfect spicy tuna roll. Miscommunication could be worse. It was way more than enough good grub. Gee swore to return.
I was back to swoop up a Cabo Wabo for my next lunch.
The tiny-diced jalapeño and cilantro gave the roll a kick of flavor that clicked with wasabi and teamed magically with the ripe avocado and tender barbecued eel. The sweet sauce and tempura bits on top gave it added tasty complexity.
As I wabo’ed away, the awareness that an only-in-California sushi experience was happening wasn’t lost on me: While Argentine rock played in my office, I ate a Japanese-style bite prepared by a Oaxaqueño transplant—a roll named after Baja club owned by an American rocker who once fronted Van Halen. Yes, the sushi game has changed. I’ll keep playing.
KAWA JAPANESE CUISINE
481 Alvarado St., Monterey • 11am-10pm daily. • 373-0234.