Northeast Broadway suffers from a dining identity crisis, as the street's not so much a neighborhood as a bipolar episode. There's the lunchtime crowd of Lloyd Center office trons versus tony Irvingtonians clinking cocktails as the sun sets. Blowfish, which recently opened at the corner of Northeast 9th Avenue and Broadway, defies simple categorization and, therefore, fits right in.
Further east, the Hollywood District feels slightly more Our Town, with its narrow, criss-crossed streets populated by small businesses and the proud Hollywood Theatre. Hama Sushi, the new restaurant of husband-and-wife team Kunio and Judy Kobayashi, is a family business that fits the neighborhood bill.
Blowfish owner Chris Kang's mission is admirable: spice up staid sushi by offering Japanese "fusion." This plays out in such dishes as "new style" sushi made with the fish of your choice--tuna, salmon, albacore, yellowtail or octopus--served as a roll and covered with jalapeño slices and sesame seeds, all resting in a tangy, soy-based sauce ($12.50).
A less triumphant dish is the lobster roll ($10.50), which begins life innocently enough as a basic, eight-piece roll, but the lobster comes to an unceremonious end beneath a cream sauce of mushrooms, onions and broccoli. Some flavors and textures just aren't meant to fuse. Given his goal of creating new and unexpected combinations, Kang serves "crab" in too many of his rolls, a disappointment for raw-flesh aficionados looking for more than California-roll knockoffs.
Portion size at Blowfish is a foreign concept. Diners might whisper "price performer" to themselves as they make like grizzly bears in a salmon run--the neta (pieces of raw fish) of the Salmon Killer roll ($8.50) are so large they must be artfully untangled from the logjam of lips, teeth and tongue. And give it up to Kang for going to the trouble of offering one of Japan's best microbrews, Hitachino Nest White Ale ($5.50). Japanese cutesy couldn't get much cuter in the form of the little white owl adorning the bottles, but don't mistake this Far East version of a Belgian Wit for anything less than traditional, with its hints of citrus against a wheat backdrop. Pair one with Kang's sunomono, a seaweed, cucumber and tako (octopus) salad ($6.95), for a light, refreshing meal.
Hama--which means "seashore" or "bay" in Japanese--shares a parking lot with the Trader Joe's on Northeast 42nd Avenue and Sandy Boulevard. Kunio and Judy Kobayashi owned Ichidai on Powell Boulevard for 20 years. After a three-year break from the restaurant business, the Kobayashis are back, now focusing primarily on sushi--and "not conveyor-belt style," according to Judy Kobayashi. "Anybody can open a sushi restaurant," she says, "but not everyone can serve it in the traditional way." She should know: Kunio trained as a sushi chef in Japan.
Friendly staff buzz around the 11-seat sushi bar and four-table dining room, serving such standards as salmon and tuna rolls (salmon $3.75, tuna $4), and yellowtail, scallop, or shrimp nigiri (raw fish packed onto a bed of pressed sticky rice and served in pairs, $2.50-$3.75).
Hama offers daily specials, including the recent hamachi-kama ($7), a yellowtail collar with delicate bits of fatty neck and gill flesh hidden beneath a layer of broiled skin. Another special, sea-bass salad ($6.50), featured slices of the ocean-sweet fish, each topped with a pinch of shredded daikon radish, chili spice and scallions.
Hama's menu is limited to a few sushi basics, plus Japanese-American restaurant standards such as tempura (shrimp and vegetable, $6.95), teriyaki ($6.50) and udon (chicken $6.25, shrimp and vegetables $7.50). Here, though, some basics aren't up to par: For example, neither the tempura, the hamachi-kama, nor the agedashi tofu ($4.25) were as crispy as they should be. The chicken teriyaki looked like marshmallows covered in brown gravy and didn't taste much better. Your best bet is to sit at the bar and stick with the sushi menu.
While you won't find show-stopping, stylized sushi chefs plying diners with edible curios of the live jellyfish variety at either Blowfish or Hama, each offers a relaxed, unpretentious meal. Where Blowfish succeeds in combining untraditional and unexpected ingredients, Hama offers just the opposite--a family-owned sushi bar serving up affordable standbys. Both are run by the kind of friendly, come-back-and-see-us-sometime folks that make great neighborhood restaurants.
914 NE Broadway, 288-5149.11:30 am-2:30 pm, 4:30-10 pm Monday-Thursday, 11:30 am-11 pm Friday, 3-11 pm Saturday, 3-9:30 pm Sunday. Credit cards accepted. Moderate $$
Hama Sushi4232 NE Sandy Blvd., 249-102111:30 am- 2pm Tuesday-Friday, 5-9:30 pm Tuesday-Thursday and Sunday, 5-10 pm Friday and Saturday (Closed Mondays). Credit cards accepted. Inexpensive-Moderate $-$$.
Picks: Blowfish: Salmon Killer, "new style" yellowtail sashimi. Hama: sea-bass salad, sea-scallop nigiri.