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Review: Saga Restaurant

Saga serves Japanese fare with a distinctive Mexican twist.

Saga serves Japanese fare with a distinctive Mexican twist.

This midtown sushi bar is friendly, casual and more than a little unpredictable.

With a menu that leans heavily on rolls as opposed to nigiri and sashimi and which draws a considerable bit of its signature from its marriage of Japan and Mexico, Saga is nothing if not distinct.

Though the spartan ambiance essentially is fast-food furniture personalized with original paintings covering the otherwise bare, white walls, there’s something pleasing about its humble simplicity.

More often than not, one server handles all the restaurant’s diners. That’s one of the significant wild cards with Saga. While the servers are proficient, they’re not overly attentive.

The rest of Saga’s unpredictable nature stems from its sushi, which ranged from average to somewhat-below-average on three recent visits. That Saga offers less than a dozen nigiri selections but more than 100 different rolls speaks volumes. This is a serviceable sushi purveyor that emphasizes the teaming of flavors and textures in creative combinations over the showcasing of individual cuts of fresh seafood, not unlike a band that sounds good when everybody is playing but not so good when somebody takes a solo.

We started a recent dinner with a great example of what I like about Saga, a blend of Mexican and Japanese cuisines in the form of a Jalapeño with Crab appetizer ($3). The plump jalapeño had a near-perfectly fried batter that had a nice sizzle, a clean crispy texture free of doughiness but not overly fried. The jalapeño had been skillfully seeded, which left enough head room to enjoy the nonspicy earthiness and acidity of the pepper. The stuffing was real crab (not Krab), and it was generously portioned and excellently showcased by the pepper, breading and the topping of mild chipotle sauce.

Not nearly as impressive was the Shrimp Tempura starter. ($7). The five skewers of shrimp and their tempura shells struck us as underfried, as the tempura was a little mushy. The white skewers of shrimp beneath the tempura were striped with black, as none of them had been deveined. For those unfamiliar with the subject, “deveining” is a euphemism, as these are not veins, but rather, um, digestive tracts. Suffice it to say, I’m not overly fond of digestive tracts.

The pairs of sushi we encountered that evening were subpar, as they were skimpy portions and a little less than pristine. The Maguro Tuna ($3.50) was sliced rather thin and was largely devoid of flavor. The Salmon ($4) crossed the line from buttery to slimy and fatty. The Hamachi ($4), though it came in much more generous portions, was notably stiff, spongy and overly fishy-smelling. The Red Snapper ($3.30) was the best of the bunch – supple and fresh tasting – though a tiny garnish of onions and peppers were a little heavy on the spicy heat.

All of the sushi struck us as somewhat awkward to eat, owing to somewhat cavalier slicing and sushi rice that although sufficiently moist, seem to crumble and clump into disarray.

The Mexico Roll ($10) was much more to our liking. The interior contained a nicely balanced grouping of avocado, crab and shrimp, and the roll was topped with avocado, cream cheese dotted with sesame seeds and thin slices of Maguro tuna. The crab and sushi at the core of the roll were notably good – moist and sweet – and the section topped with cream cheese made for an appealing counterpoint of pungency.

As with seemingly 90 percent of the eateries that promote it on their menus, the “3 Leches” cake ($4.50) was unavailable, as was the Chocoflan ($4.50). We went with regular Flan ($3), which came as a decidedly large wedge of well-made flan of the custard-leaning variety that was laden with plenty of burnt caramel.

The Red Bean Tempura Ice Cream ($4.50) was dominated by the bed of tempura pastry and a topping of whipped cream. The small amount of red bean ice cream between the pastry and the whipped cream was devoid of bits of red bean, and the shell of pastry was a little on the gummy side.

On a subsequent lunch visit, I opted for a lunch combination of Beef Teriyaki and a trio of Nigiri ($8.50). The teriyaki plate was nicely put together. The paper-thin sliced beef was outfitted with carefully julienned carrots and onions, and the teriyaki sauce was sweet and light, indicative of authentic versions made with roughly equal parts Sake, Mirin and dark soy. The Nigiri – salmon, tuna, and red snapper – showed a marked improvement over my last visit. Though the salmon offering was unspectacular, the tuna was amply portioned, glistened in freshness and had that buttery rich payoff of good Maguro. The snapper was also portioned more favorably than our previous visit and the garnish was kept to more pleasing, less overwhelming level.

While we didn’t exactly go gaga over the sushi at Saga, there is enough originality in the Mexican/Japanese offerings here to make it worth a visit. I recommend the rolls over nigiri and sashimi, as most of the customers – and Saga draws in respectable numbers – seem to. Or go with the teriyaki entrees.



Address and phone: 2955 E. Speedway, 320-0535

Hours: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 to 10 p.m. weekdays; noon to 10 p.m. Saturdays.

Prices: Appetizers $1.50 to $9, sushi and sashimi $2.50 to $10, entrees $7.25 to $9.75, rolls $4.50 to $10, desserts $3 to $4.50.

Bar: Beer and sake

Vegetarian options: Many, including Avocado Roll ($3), Cucumber Roll ($3), Healthy Roll ($6), Vegetable Fried Rice ($6.50), and Vegetable Yakisoba Noodles ($7.25)

Desserts: Ice Cream ($3), Tempura Ice Cream ($4.50), Flan ($3), Chocoflan ($4.50), 3 Leches cake ($4.50).

Latest health inspection: A “good” rating Nov. 20. A critical violation was reported for food contact surfaces and equipment not cleaned frequently and properly to prevent food contamination.

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