Lori Hashimoto wants you to know that her family restaurant is not just a sushi bar. Instead, she says, it’s a Japanese restaurant that also serves sushi.
But sushi is how I was introduced to Hana Japanese Eatery, which opened nine years ago in a strip mall that also houses Sylvia’s, a longtime Mexican food favorite in uptown Phoenix.
Hana’s nigiri and sashimi are simply heavenly—some of the best I’ve had in the Valley, or anywhere, for that matter. The fish is pristine, deftly handled and cut, and served on perfectly textured rice. I especially like the toro, the fatty portion of tuna, silky and glistening with oil. The lightly seared albacore with garlic chips, ginger tataki sauce and scallions is another favorite.
The scallops, which come from Hokkaido, are almost sweet, with a creamy texture, wonderful paired with Kizame, wasabi cured in water and salt and finely chopped. If you have only tried wasabi made from powder, you’re missing something wonderful if you don’t try this subtler version.
I’m not a big fan of rolls, but the Hana Pecha roll could win me over. It’s a combination of tempura shrimp, asparagus, cucumber slices and kampio (a type of gourd). Very tasty.
Order a lot of sushi and it may be served in an elegant wooden boat rather than the traditional small trays. Great for a large party.
Enjoy the sushi, but don’t pass up the cooked side of the menu, including traditional noodle dishes such as Yasai Suki, with vegetables, tofu and noodles in a killer broth; tempura seafood and vegetables; and the luscious yakibuta—pork slices in yet another delicious broth.
Broth really matters in Japanese cookery. Check out the wonderful movie Tampopo (hard to find but worth the search) to see just how important this is.
And don’t miss the Hamachi Kama, or grilled yellowtail collar. It’s the part of the fish just below the head. Chef Kazuto Kishino, Lori’s stepfather, simply salts it and grills it to a nice char. There’s a surprising amount of meat on those bones, succulent and flavorful dipped in ponzu sauce and dotted with a bit of finely grated daikon. It’s not always available, because Hana only uses collars from yellowtail, salmon, striped bass and other varieties that they’ve bought whole, so ask for it when you make a reservation.
While Lori’s family has a long history in farming and restaurants, she began her career in the pharmaceutical industry. Her friend, Lynn Becker, was working in production at Channel 3. Together with members of Lori’s family, they opened Hana nine years ago.
Lori’s brother Rick worked in Southern California, then moved home to the Valley, where he worked at several Japanese restaurants. “My brother was taught by the old-school Japanese chefs here,” she says. “He learned how to prepare dishes the traditional ways.”
Lori’s mother worked for a doctor in Southern California though she had professional culinary training in Tokyo. Her culinary school was all-female, Lori says, because back then, there were no female chefs in the country. Her stepfather also has formal culinary training.
They moved to Arizona several years ago, and the impetus to open her own restaurant came when Lori would visit her stepdad at work. “I could see he was very unhappy cooking for someone else,” she says. “He had been an executive chef in California, but wasn’t here. I looked at Lynn and said, ‘Let’s open a restaurant.’ Lynn and I both had good lives and jobs, but we said ‘Why not?’”
The decision may have been a sudden awakening, but the idea of owning and operating a restaurant didn’t come out of the blue. In addition to her family’s restaurant experience, the Hashimoto family has deep roots—literally—in the food scene here. “My father is a farmer here in the Valley, and had a restaurant of his own for a while,” Lori says, “so we’ve always had food in our lives in some way.”
Lori also worked in restaurants as a teen, so she understood the business from the kitchen sink up.
They found the location by accident. It is across the street from Lynn’s then-office. She saw a for lease sign in a former coffee shop, and Lori and Lynn, along with family and friends, transformed it into the low-key eatery it is.
“When we started out it was a huge family affair,” Lori says. “Lynn would come in and do service, and when we closed, my mom would do dishes. Without every one of us brining things to the table, I don’t think it would have worked out as well as it has.
“My stepfather doesn’t let anyone else cook the rice,” Lori adds. “It’s not just about the washing and the straining and the cooking. The essence of cooking is you really have to be happy when you make the food. When we started out, my mom would wash the rice and she would sing to it.”
That spirit imbues the low-key, friendly atmosphere of this neighborhood favorite. And Lori and Lynn plan to keep it that way, even as they consider expanding Hana a few years down the road.
One thing that won’t change is Hana’s BYO policy. The restaurant doesn’t have a liquor license, and has no plans to apply for one, so if you want beer, wine or sake (no hard spirits) with your meal, you have to bring it yourself. There’s no corkage or service charge. Now that’s friendly.
Hana Japanese Eatery
5524 N. Seventh Avenue, Phoenix
– Marjorie Rice, Phoenix.org