All photos by Elise Thompson for the Los Angeles Beat.
Sushi Roku in Pasadena is renowned for its innovative preparations using classic techniques. Chef Tyson Wong’s new spring menu definitely shows off his playful side. When biting into a chunk of sticky rice topped by guacamole and a razor-thin slice of jalapeno, it’s obvious that east and west are not at war here; the Roku chefs are trying to offer an experience that celebrates its location while remaining true to the things that make a great sushi restaurant.
Blue crab tartare arrives topped with sea urchin and a dusting of caviar, adding a gentle, salty unctuousness to some truly brilliant raw crab. One person at our table remarked, “Why do we ever eat this cooked?” Fluke sashimi topped with kumquat is subtle and mildly sweet, and their crudo of ahi, or jack mackerel, is revelatory, both milder in flavor and denser in texture than any mackerel I’ve ever tasted. Several dishes include the chiles of the Southwest, like the enticing tuna jalapeno. Thin slices of tuna sashimi rest over spicy tuna, kicked up with a razor thin slice of chile. And like every hip California place must, they have a dish with a sunny-side-up egg on top — their spicy pork belly “Kakuni” fried rice. It’s at moments like this, where traditional cooking methods are blended with local ingredients, that Roku shines brightest.
They also have some of the most irresistible bar food of any joint in Pasadena; their Nori Senbei, essentially dorito-size strips of seaweed friend in tempura batter, are highly addictive, as is the popcorn shrimp, which can be served with a spicy creamy sauce, if you know to ask for it. And you should! Even the truffle edamame starter are just about perfect.
A few dishes still need work; the idea of a caesar salad with smoked salmon in place of anchovy is inspired, but this attempt was overdressed and too salty. Uni udon in the style of fettucine alfredo was another clever idea that, conversely, seemed under-seasoned.
But overall, our evening at Roku left us satiated and contemplating our return. Their dedication to the craft is obvious, as is the desire to be authentic to their surroundings.