For 15 years, Sapporo was the ace-in-the-hole for downtown workers and residents in search of a fresh alternative to gut-busting burgers, subs and slices. The unassuming Japanese restaurant on E. 6th Street proved a consistent, reliable choice for quick, healthy and appetizing meals built around sushi, noodle bowls and teriyaki dishes.
For just as long, Ohashi in North Olmsted has served as a destination for more adventurous Asian food fans. The spacious suburban setting provides a larger and more robust sushi bar experience featuring a lengthy roster of fish and seafood. But Ohashi’s menu goes well beyond raw fish and rice.
On August 11, those two sushi-powers joined forces to open Hako in Lakewood. The union proved a fortuitous and mutually beneficial arrangement given that Sapporo was on its way out of downtown, while Ohashi owner Jackie Kim was looking to retool her Lakewood restaurant Aji Noodle Bar. Aji opened in the former Yuzu space in June of last year, but closed its doors at the start of the local Covid crisis in March.
Kim did much of the heavy lifting in terms of physical improvements, freshening up the former Yuzu interior with improved seating, lighting and décor before opening Aji. That contemporary, functional, Asian-inspired design remains, of course, joined by a more run-of-the-mill rear patio space.
In terms of offerings, I’d describe the lineup as being closer in composition to Sapporo than Ohashi. Whereas that admired N. Olmsted eatery offers diners a broad range of appetizers, noodle bowls, tempura dinners, and donburi bowls capped with various toppings – not to mention an exhaustive catalogue of sashimi, nigiri and dozens of traditional and eclectic rolls sushi – Hako largely sticks to sushi. Granted, my last meal at Ohashi was pre-Covid and it is likely that their offerings have been scaled back.
Exceptions arrive in the form of a handful of appetizers, noodle bowls and teriyaki dinners. Dumpling lovers can select from three different fillings (pork, chicken, veggie) and two different preparations (steamed, fried). The deep-fried (as opposed to pan-fried) pork dumplings ($7.50) arrive four to an order and sport a crackly, golden-brown exterior, hand-crimped edge and moist, flavorful filling. A nice alternative to the tried-and-true gyoza are the shumai ($6.50/6), delicately steamed wrappers filled with ground shrimp.
In terms of fish, both raw and cooked, the options range from unembellished sashimi to wild and colorful rolls filled and draped with assorted ingredients. In between lie straightforward nigiri sushi, classic maki rolls and slightly more inventive constructions. It’s hard to top the simple satisfaction of a hamachi roll ($6.95), a tightly twisted cylinder of jet-black nori, ivory sushi rice and raw yellowtail. A step up in complexity and crunch is the tempura California roll ($7.95), which is just like it sounds. A whole roll is battered, fried and sliced into crispy-coated wheels of nori-wrapped faux crab, cucumber, avocado and rice.
A work of edible art, the futomaki ($13) roll is easily identified by its size. These characteristically fat, wide slices are like miniature stained glass portholes, with vivid pops of yellow, green and red. Unlike many specialty rolls that go overboard with fish, these tend to rely more on vegetables like spinach, avocado, carrot and kanpyo (gourd) and tender egg omelet. For those who love to pile it on, there are rolls like the Hurricane ($17), a force of nature with four types of fish, asparagus and spicy mayo. For an extra two bucks, the kitchen will dip the whole affair in tempura batter and deep fry it.
While far from comprehensive, Hako offers enough noodle bowls to satisfy most tastes. Choices include dishes starring thick and chewy udon, thin soba and springy, kinky ramen. A large ramen ($11) with shrimp arrives cloudy from egg, which is mixed into the broth as opposed to soft-cooked and arranged on top. There are plenty of gently cooked tail-on shrimp, vegetables and noodles.
The few remaining menu items are teriyaki dinners comprised of chicken, beef or salmon, and a lone pork tonkatsu (breaded cutlet) with rice and salad.
Initially, management had included on the menu a selection of "pan sushi."
Popular in Hawaii, pan sushi is a more carefree style of preparation that features layers of rice, fish, roe and sauces, which are pressed and then cut into tidy squares. Apparently, those did not make the final cut.
What did make the cut was a spare list of Japanese beers, wines and cocktails.
13603 Madison Ave., Lakewood