A couple days ago I was chatting on the phone with former Alibi food critic Jennifer Wohletz. As we filled each other in on what we've been up to, the conversation drifted to how people form their worldview. She described her biological family's impression of this great, big planet thusly: “They really think that there's a big country called Red China that incorporates Japan, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia—basically any place Asian.”
More than half a century ago, American appetites were whetted by a tidal wave of Chinese restaurants. A few decades later, it was Japanese restaurants that blossomed all over. Other Asian cuisines began making appearances outside their ethnic enclaves, and soon even small cities were fed by Thai and Vietnamese restaurateurs. Then something strange happened. Perhaps due to the mercury-like fluidity of the food service workforce, sushi, a Japanese standard, found its way into other Asian restaurants. Shortly thereafter, Asian restaurants became “Pacific Rim” eateries, dishing up several cuisines under one roof. With so much transnational cuisine, it's indeed possible to see how an average diner might assume Asia is one big country. As for it all being Red China, I'll refrain from offering a theory.
Sakura Sushi serves sushi (duh), as well as dishes from Thailand and Laos out of a small strip mall on northeast Wyoming. The restaurant lists plenty of Thai and Japanese dishes, but there are only six or seven Lao entrées. The sushi choices are expected, so I won't go into too much detail: The fish was fresh and cut generously.
Starting with the appetizers (natch), I tried monkey balls, soft-shell crab and spring rolls. The spring rolls, two per order, were enormous, transparent and fragrant. Fresh herbs—basil and mint—lent their powerful aromas to the rest of the contents, a mixture of various greens and meats such as pork and shrimp. Deep-fried soft-shell crap came chopped into bite-size hunks atop paper-thin cucumber slices. Crisp on the outside with firm meat inside, it was mostly delicious (with the exception of one or two fishy bites).
Monkey balls--a misnomer if I've ever heard one--are actually fried lumps of chopped tuna drizzled with a spicy mayonnaise. They were fun to eat, warm and velvety. Also delivered on a bed of cukes, the extra dressing went just as well with the garnish.
For main dishes, I ordered masaman chicken curry, drunken spicy noodles and beef udon. Each portion was ample--most notably the udon soup. Served in a huge bowl, a sweet broth formed a moat around an island of beef, cabbage, bean sprouts and noodles. I found the beef a little dry, but all the veggies retained both texture and flavor. Firm, dense noodles held up well to the broth. As much as I loved it, I could only finish about a quarter of the bowl; it could easily be split between two or three people.
Masaman curry, thick and spicy, sent wafts of coconut milk across the table. Tender chicken and potatoes gave the dish fortifying bulk (though the chicken-to-potato ratio weighed heavily in favor of the potatoes). Spicy drunken noodles, also with beef, had an equal blend of beef (again somewhat dry), mushrooms, broccoli, bell peppers, basil and yellow onions. An abundance of spice was nicely countered by the basil.
Patrons will find that Sakura's dining room is small but mostly comfortable. Its most memorable decorative accents are a tiny sushi bar and a TV that's always set to Thai music videos. Each video provides the lyrics in Thai along with phonetic pronunciations--just in case diners feel like singing along. I only wish they had included the English translations so I could follow the plot. Nearly every video features someone in tears. What's the big tragedy? Nothing, I hope, a big bowl of udon couldn't fix.
The Alibi recommends:
Drunken spicy noodles
Attempting to sing along to Thai music while munching on soft-shell crab
Sakura Sushi, 4200 Wyoming NE, Suite C2, 294-9696. Hours: Mon-Thu 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m.; Fri-Sat 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m.; Sun noon-9 p.m. Price range: $7.95 (teriyaki chicken bowl) to $18.95 (unagi with pickled daikon). Ambience: Asian-American café. Credit cards, booze, Thai music videos.