Salinas’ KoKoRo Sushi wins with its specialty rolls, magnetic hosts and homemade sauces.
Thursday, February 28, 2008
Mr. Pinch loves sushi. Mr. Pinch also loves sauces. Mr. Pinch would love this new place called KoKoRo Sushi in Salinas – and the seriously saucy signature sushi rolls that stand out there.
Mr. Pinch, an old friend of mine from college, feels sushi is “the perfect food” and won’t eat a meal without sauce. I saw him wield more sauces on waffles, corndogs and sandwiches in a semester than most folks can apply in a lifetime.
KoKoRo enjoys a sizeable menu – teriyaki, katsu, tempura, udon, donburi, sashimi nigiri, hand rolls and a bunch of appetizers – but the character of the place can be found tableside on an 8-by-11-inch sushi menu aptly laminated against drooling. On its two sides, stretched out in luxurious color, are around 20 specialty rolls that each bring some kind of sauce to the flavor equation. Besides sauce, they prioritize crab and creativity, arrive with eight heaping pieces and run between $8.95 and $12.95.
The Lion King (crab, avocado, salmon, green onion, tobiko, baked and sauced, $10.95) occupies a bottom corner of the card, but it’s the KoKoRo Special Roll that has reigned as most popular since the place opened last summer. The cream cheese and fresh spicy crab – real upon request – complement soft shell crab tempura whose smoky flavor is note perfect. The wasabi cream sauce only helps.
For the purist, there’s way too much going on. For members of the future of sushi movement like my sister and I, these flavors, bookended by the opening splash of popping tobiko (flying fish roe) and the closing crunch of macadamia nuts, were flat-out excellent. I could see Mr. Pinch driving up from L.A. for something like this.
We also had BJ’s roll ($11.95), another popular play named after co-owner B.J. Eom, with yellowtail, salmon, eel and avocado. It was tasty and spicy – with two different sauces supplying high-temperature tastes.
After those two rolls, a bowl of miso soup, small salad and a baked mussels appetizer ($5.95) – where the mussels are cooked up in shell with a cheesy garlic treatment – we were stuffed.
On another visit I tried the Salinas roll ($12.95) and, out of both loyalty and curiosity, the 49ers’ roll ($10.95). Like the others, both were excellently prepped and presented, with tiny scallions and jewel-like tobiko providing great accents. The Salinas roll is an indulgent experience, with salmon, avocado, cream cheese, and what BJ calls his “orange sauce” (Sriracha and a complicated mix of BJ’s own ingredients), all deep-fried. The Niner is a delicious symphony of shrimp, crab, tuna, avocado, macadamia, and, yes, a homemade white sauce. (In the Raider roll, also $10.95, salmon supplants the tuna.)
On my final visit I tore myself away from the rolls long enough to try the Nabeaki Udon ($10.95), a Japanese-style noodle soup with chicken, egg and vegetables. If it’s possible to be both super robust and rather boring, this soup is it – so stuffed with big torn pieces of light and dark chicken, long soft noodles, onions, mushrooms and seaweed that my spoon stood up in it, but plain overall. It comes with a bare-bones iceberg salad and a pair of buttery coconut-flavored shrimp tempura pieces.
My Salinas foodie friends agree that, despite three booths and the sushi bar, the ambiance here leaves plenty to be desired, but they also assure me it’s a significant upgrade from Michi’s, the past tenant. Nevertheless, the atmosphere is decidedly welcoming – and the young and energized BJ and Priscilla deserve credit for that. From the eight-seat sushi bar, the hostess stand and the wall, where personalized Polaroids of them posing with happy customers hang by the dozen, they smile the smile of people who love what they’re doing. “KoKoRo means ‘heart’ in Japanese,” BJ says. “We serve our food with heart.”
The community clearly digs their energy – while BJ is getting dabs from a group of three college students as they sit down at the sushi bar, Priscilla moves throughout the high-ceilinged space like a breath of fresh air that won’t stop blowing as she flits from table to table, checking in, giggling and generally looking as cute as the precisely presented special rolls.
I called Mr. Pinch after we went and told him about what we’d found. A happy sort of envy came quickly. “Whaaaa?” he asked. “Really. Oh ho ho ho. I’ll go to Salinas.”