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Since Hanaroo Sushi Bar opened downtown on Capitol Avenue, in late 2005, we’ve been reluctant to give it much of a chance. Maybe, in part, because of the residual effects of the previous tenant, a dingy Chinese buffet memorable only because it advertised “fried catfish” in big letters on its window. And maybe even more because of Hanaroo’s initial continuation of bizarre cultural mash-ups. The original sushi chef/owner, a Mr. Lee, came from Texas with a fetish for sauces, especially some concoction that tasted not far removed from Tabasco, used liberally, we particularly remember, on an eel with avocado roll called the Mexican Orgasm.
In late February, Hanaroo changed hands. New owner Yu Chang has expanded and rejiggered the menu, while, at least in a reduced fashion, continuing the tradition of Southernizing sushi. Take the Po Boy Maki (maki is synonymous with roll), for instance. It’s veggies, hot mayo sauce and fried oyster. We skipped that one at a recent lunch, but felt obligated to try Little Rock’s namesake, which our waitress told us was one of the restaurant’s most popular. The roll combined cream cheese, a crab stick, avocado, asparagus and (gulp) potato salad. If the potato salad wasn’t enough to give it a Little Rock flavor, it came with its edges fried, tempura-style.
Despite our collective trepidation, the verdict from the table, from three slightly adventurous types and one who’s typically meat and potatoes, was pretty favorable. No one could even taste the feared potato salad, and the tempura crust, a style we’ve noticed is becoming increasingly popular at sushi spots around town, gave it a novel kick.
But it’s traditional Japanese fare that Hanaroo does best. For lunch, the restaurant offers almost two dozen bento box options. Five categories roughly divide the options: teriyaki and tempura, tataki (seared, thinly sliced meat in garlic sauce), maki with nigiri (i.e. an oblong rice clump topped with fresh fish, or sashimi), maki only and fried rice. Each category comes with miso soup and a different array of sides, though it’s not obvious from the menu which sides come with which category.
Our meat-and-potatoes friend got the chicken teriyaki box, which came with rice, an iceberg lettuce and tomato salad topped with a creamy, tangy ginger dressing, two spring rolls, a grilled chicken wing and a big lump of the aforementioned potato salad, which wasn’t bad after all. It tasted like cold garlic mashed potatoes, with a dollop of mayonnaise.
The teriyaki box came quickly, nearly 10 minutes before the rest of the entrees. It’s been our experience elsewhere that teriyaki and tempura dishes take far less time to prepare than sushi, and the chef and wait staff rarely give consideration for timing. That leaves the non-sushi-eaters faced with either letting their food go cold out of politeness or having the sushi-eaters pick off their plate. Despite a few handslaps, we sampled the lightly fried, not too oily, well-seasoned spring rolls and the chicken, which was tender and not at all overpowering or swimming in teriyaki sauce as we often find.
Another of our companions tried the beef tataki, billed on the menu as “A Favorite Among Regulars!” His box came with four pieces of sushi, a pile of edamame, salad and the tataki, cardboard-paper-thin beef seared lightly and swimming in a tangy, garlic Ponzu sauce. The beef was so rare it was nearly raw, but delicious with the sauce and over rice.
Along with our third friend, we opted for the maki plus nigiri box. Our friend got the LA roll, a cream-cheese variation on the California roll, while we stuck with the tuna roll. Each box came with five pieces of nigiri, tuna, salmon, crab, shrimp and snapper. All tasted fresh.
Our waitress was friendly and solicitous, but one of our party’s side of seaweed salad did get somehow lost in the mix and didn’t arrive until late in the meal. Still, for a large, diverse order and on a busy day, we were pleased and a little surprised to be in and out of the restaurant in just under an hour.
If we had our druthers, we’d eat sushi eight days a week, but aside from the price that it usually takes for us to get our fill, we’ve been deterred by the fact that most of Little Rock’s notable sushi spots have been way out in West Little Rock. We’re thrilled to have a nearby, downtown option, especially in the after-dark dining wasteland of downtown beyond the River Market. Thank the sushi gods that Hanaroo soldiered on.
Hanaroo Sushi Bar & Japanese Restaurant
205 W. Capitol Ave.
The new owner does traditional Japanese fare right. With a dizzyingly extensive menu, with almost 60 different types of rolls and nearly 30 kinds of nigiri and probably 50 cooked entrees, there are options to suit just about anyone.
11 a.m to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, 5 p.m to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
Wine and beer, credit cards accepted. $$-$$$