Like many urban areas, Central Arkansas sees an upswing in certain dining options from time to time. The buffet became popular in the mid-'90s (with chains such as Ryan's and Golden Corral coming in). Ten years later, Chinese restaurants flooded the area.
In the mid-oughts, it's Japanese restaurants, where you can get sushi and teriyaki and even teppanyaki (where the chef prepares dishes in front of you on a big griddle).
We've been working hard these past several months to identify the best of the local sushi chains. We were surprised by the variety of the offerings, and how hard it was to choose a champion. We decided to simply give you the best half-dozen we have found. We ended up limiting ourselves to Little Rock (since sushi has spread so fast that there are even sushi bars in such far-flung places as Cabot and Bryant) and to locally-owned eateries only.
Of all the places we have gone, we were most taken with the charm of little Hanaroo in downtown Little Rock. The restaurant, on Capitol Avenue between Louisiana and Center, is humble inside and out. Lunch boxes are ample, with an entree and a host of other sides, including the usual salad and miso soup, fried or white rice, edamame and a rather unusual accompaniment of horseradish potato salad. The sashimi is, in our experience, always cut to order, and the rolls are varied and ample. We enjoy the firmness and lack of scent in sashimi pieces, and our maki recommendation is the Double Punch roll, with its crunchy shrimp and veggie interior under a pile of tenkasu.
We also dig on the “exotic and fresh” sashimi brought in by Sushi Cafe. Fresh fish from Hawaii form the basis of this chic eatery's eclectic bar offerings. Sashimi and nigiri are striking portions of photo-perfect fish, while rolls are interesting and sometimes complicated fusions. We recommend the Cowboy roll, a California roll with mango included, wrapped in a New York strip steak before it's sliced and topped with a little house steak sauce. A meal in itself.
We were surprised by flavors that seemed rather Americanized in the delicious offerings of Gina's Chinese Kitchen and Sushi Bar, such as the touch of Cajun flavor in the crawfish roll, or the creamy instead of tangy sauce in the Hawaiian roll. Many items on the menu cry out to accompany your beautiful plate of maki. We suggest choosing the mushroom soup over the miso, and grabbing an order of crab Rangoon while you're at it.
Mount Fuji is the granddaddy of all Arkansas sushi bars. Its more formal atmosphere is often clogged with businessmen, perhaps making deals as they crowd tables upstairs in the canopy section. Boats are flooded with nigiri, and rolls are elegant and thick. We enjoy the Monday night special of two special rolls for $10.95. We'd suggest the hamachi (yellow tuna) sashimi and the fantastic Razorback roll with eel, cucumber, and tempura shrimp. Scrumptious.
When it comes to quiet pleasures, we choose Eastern Flames, the least heralded of the bunch. For lunch, it offers something none of the other restaurants have: half maki rolls. For $2-$3, you get a four-piece roll instead of eight. Maki lovers can enjoy the Japa-mayo doused flaked crab pile on top of a spicy crab roll (chopsticks are a must unless you want to lick your fingers constantly). We found that the addition of toasted sesame seeds to the house fried rice was a pleasant and happy surprise, and also appreciated the reasonably-priced sake available.
Can't leave out Igibon Japanese Food House and its intelligent and creative sushi options. We enjoyed octopus and a tasty variety of rolls. The sushi lunch is one of the best deals in the area, with three rolls (California, tuna, cucumber) and a few pieces of house roll for $6.95. We also find the beef maki incredible — ribeye steak sliced thin and rolled around scallions and carrots, covered in a hoisin-and-soy-based sauce and sprinkled with sesame seeds, served hot. It's like a fusion of pot roast and sushi.
The city has a lot of good offerings in the sushi realm and apparently enough sushi lovers to keep them alive. Now, what's the next food wave coming (Thai, anyone)?
205 W. Capitol Ave.
11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, 5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
5823 Kavanaugh Blvd.
11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Saturday; 5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday.
Gina's Chinese Kitchen & Sushi Bar
14524 Cantrell Road
11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.
10301 N. Rodney Parham Road
11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Saturday, noon-3 p.m. Sunday, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 5 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
7710 Cantrell Road
11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, 5p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Igibon Japanese Food House
11121 N. Rodney Parham Road (Market Place Shopping Center)
11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday.