By: Jason Perlow
When I first moved to South Florida seven years ago, I was in for a bit of a shock when searching for restaurants serving two of my favorite Asian cuisines, Thai and Japanese.
Apparently, neither culinary tradition is strong enough in the region to hold their own and keep customers entirely happy. In response, local restaurateurs (of mostly Thai extraction) created the concept of “ThaiSushi”, where diners can find highly-Americanized versions of sushi creations alongside their pad thai and spring rolls. This attempt at pleasing everyone created a template for generic “Asian” restaurants in South Florida, where dozens of independent establishments serve almost-identical menus, most with mediocre results.
While some dedicated sushi restaurants do exist in South Florida, particularly ones that are Japanese-owned and managed, many of them are seen as high-end, special occasion sorts of places.
If you want inexpensive, basic and budget-style sushi, most working-class people pick up pre-packaged nigiri and rolls from cold cases, run by companies under contract in local supermarkets, often staffed by Burmese immigrants.
While these kiosks operate under very strict cleanliness and consistency guidelines, the resulting products are often tasteless and generic. Frankly, they don’t compare to freshly made sushi by experienced and traditionally-trained Japanese sushi masters.
In Japan, sushi is not just a luxury item, it is a cuisine even working class people can afford. But this more humble form, that originated in street food stalls in the city of Edo (now Tokyo) in the early 1820s, is virtually unknown in the United States, let alone South Florida.
Mido Kiyoyaki, the chef and owner of Sushi Raku in Tamarac, is trying to change that.
Mido-san came to South Florida 36 years ago from his home in Nagasaki, Japan, a port city well-known for its seafood and sushi. For twelve years, from 1994 to 2006, he owned Mido’s Japanese restaurant, in the Mizner Boulevard section of Boca Raton.
But the economy changed with the times, and Boca Raton’s loss is Tamarac’s gain. Here, in an unassuming storefront in a strip mall shared by a Subway and a sign shop, surrounded by offices and warehouses, Mido-san opened Sushi Raku — which is derived from the Japanese word for “Easy” or “Comfort” — to introduce a purer, simpler, and more accessible Japanese cuisine.
With six tables and seating for about eighteen people, Sushi Raku serves their food over the counter style, their majority of the business being take-out orders. The tables are of the mica and plywood fast food variety, and table service is best-effort — the kitchen staff, who are Japanese, also double as your servers. But they are efficient and friendly, which is what counts.
Although the atmosphere is simple and lacks many of the frills you will find at a more expensive sushi place — like porcelain plates or even a sushi bar you can sit and watch Mido-san work and have the usual chef to customer banter — there is a certain Zen simplicity here, evident from the small aesthetic touches such as flowers and the traditional Japanese prints hung on the green painted walls. And it is spotless.
The simple menu has four categories: Hot Appetizers, Cold Appetizers, Sushi, and Donburi, which are rice bowls topped with cooked proteins that include a Japanese-style curry. That’s it.
It’s highly curated but Mido-san plans to add more varieties of fish and other traditional Japanese items to the menu as the business grows and he can get a better idea about what his customers want. Japanese expats who have been dying for a place like this are already getting word that he’s moved into town, and have made their requests known.
While Raku’s selection of fish doesn’t compare to some of the more expensive places in Broward County, everything that I had was very good and fresh tasting, including, tuna, salmon, yellowtail, shrimp, and eel. Mido-san has a great eye for quality ingredients and takes tremendous pride in his work.
This pride is particularly evident from the sushi rice he serves, which is imported from Japan, then cooked and seasoned with a traditional rice vinegar-based “Su”. Properly-cooked and seasoned sushi rice takes at least 10 years to learn how to make properly, and it’s the most important component in sushi besides the fish itself if you want it to taste right. The texture and seasoning of Mido-san’s rice are perfect.
Sushi combo lunch plates range from $7.95 to $10.95. Combo #4, which is composed of four assorted nigiri (rice fingers topped with a slice of raw fish) including tuna, salmon, shrimp, white fish, and a hamachi (yellowtail) roll, was $8.95. The white fish he normally uses is escolar, which I am personally not fond of due to its oily texture, but he is happy to swap it out for additional hamachi if you ask.
A 40-piece sushi platter is $29.95. A 66-piece large catering platter is $49.95, which averages out at 76 cents per piece. That’s insanely cheap for sushi made by a traditionally-trained Japanese sushi chef and is practically a no-brainer if you’ve got company stopping by on fairly short notice.
Most of the basic rolls, such as the 6-piece seaweed-wrapped hosomaki, are under $5. His most expensive item is the Sushi Raku roll, which is $14.95, and is composed of surimi fish cake (aka “Krab”), avocado, seaweed salad, and asparagus and is topped with baked lobster in a masago (fish roe) and mayonnaise “dynamite” sauce.
Should you desire something more explosive than dynamite, the Hamachi Jalapeno roll ($5.75) is a simple combination of yellowtail and fresh Jalapeno pepper. I’m not sure where Mido-san selected these chile specimens from, but they were remarkably hot.
The Tuna Lover, the second most expensive roll, is $9.95. It is made of tuna and avocado, topped with more tuna, scallions, tempura flakes, spicy mayo and has a sweet “eel sauce” on the side. All three of these were very good and I’ve had much more expensive and less skillfully-prepared versions of these elsewhere.
Befitting the no-frills nature of the restaurant, the food is served on disposable styrofoam plates. Mido-san is very pragmatic about the whole thing. “You get a clean plate every time! No dishwashing!” he told me, quite emphatically. I have suggested that perhaps recycled paper is more in line with the local desire for improving the environment, and he has taken note.
Although sushi is the primary focus here, a notable item is the tonkotsu ramen noodle soup, a simmered overnight pork bone broth that has origins that can be traced to the Fukuoka prefecture on Kyushu island in Japan.
While most ramen places in Florida serve it in large bowls, Sushi Raku’s is served in a large styrofoam coffee cup, and it only costs $4.95 — a miniature version which still leaves plenty of room to order more items. It has a few slices of Yaki Buta (BBQ Pork), ramen noodles, scallions, and fried garlic in a rich, cloudy and savory white broth. This is Japanese comfort food, the very definition of raku.
It’s as serious as ramen broth gets, in as no-frills a serving vessel you can possibly get it in, and it is a must. The fatty and rich BBQ pork in the soup can also be ordered as a small appetizer, for $5.50.
We also enjoyed the sukiyaki, which is a traditional Japanese nabemono dish (stew) made from sliced beef, onions, tofu, and enoki mushrooms, simmered in a sweet soy broth. Like the ramen, it comes in a large styrofoam coffee cup and costs $5.95.
Chicken Karaage, effectively the Japanese version of nuggets, are made with juicy dark meat and taste fantastic. As were the Takoyaki, which can only be described as small spheres of griddled savory pancake batter stuffed with pieces of octopus tentacle and drizzled with Japanese-style mayonnaise and eel sauce.
You have to consume both of these delectable orbs as soon as they are served, or else they can become gummy, so eat these while you’re picking up food for takeout. It can be your special treat, nobody else needs to know.
While Sushi Raku does not currently have an alcohol license, Mido-san plans to add beer and sake to his menu shortly. For now, I suggest you stick with his selection of soft drinks or do as the Japanese do, which is order cold or hot matcha — gunpowder green tea.
10135 W Commercial Blvd, Tamarac, FL 33351
Open 7 days, Monday-Sunday 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.