Downtown Little Rock finally has a place to eat fresh sushi, and Hanaroo Sushi Bar presents its specialty in a way that distinguishes itself from its local competitors.
Owner and chef Dong Lee, who moved to Little Rock from Austin, serves up a generous maki roll, with ingredients ladled along the top rather than inside the roll itself. So the spicy tuna roll and the (extra!) spicy crab roll resemble rice logs doused in the tuna and crab concoctions. The menu includes some daringly conceived and named offerings, like the Mexican Orgasm, a roll topped with a fiery hot orange sauce.
Yes, we know not everyone in Little Rock has caught on to sushi yet. We were a relatively late arriver to the concept ourselves, before we allowed the popular West Little Rock eatery Sekisui to carry us away into the sushi fantasy land of raw tuna, smoked salmon, cooked shrimp and crab, some of it in pieces on rice, some of it rolled within seaweed, and finished with the inspiration for our own, now-perfected wasabi and soy sauce blend.
We tried to drag one of our wary co-workers down to Hanaroo, wryly noting that not all fish in Arkansas has to be battered and deep fried. He wouldn’t go for it.
Maybe you wouldn’t venture to Hanaroo either if you’re squeamish about sushi. Note, though, that it’s not all about hand rolls and maki rolls. Hanaroo serves up some of the tastiest Ramen noodles and beef (or chicken, seafood or veggie, if you prefer) we’ve had. The bento boxes that are available at lunch are a ridiculous bargain at $6.95 to $9.95. The shrimp tempura bento box, for example, has three lightly fried shrimp, several fried vegetables, rice, two California rolls and a ginger-dressed salad, all for $7.75. And the menu, which doubles as a placemat, goes so far as to indicate which fish are served raw and which are cooked, so you don’t have to pretend to be an expert in Japanese cuisine when you order.
Another co-worker who wasn’t so squeamish went with us on our second visit and she filled up on a grilled salmon bento box. The grilled salmon was good, though nothing out of the ordinary.
We started our meal with steamed edamame (good) and gyoza. The identical creases in the dumplings hinted at factory frozen origins, and they were served quickly (microwaved?) and on the crispy side.
Frankly, we’re guessing here, but a lot of the non-sushi items are probably pre-packaged to get out quickly. Lee has enough to do devoting his time to making sushi right in front of your eyes. There’s a sushi bar with five or so seats in the back of bright rows of blond wood tables in a nicely done-over Capitol Avenue storefront.
The Mexican Orgasm ($7.95) turned us on to eel for the first time. We’ve tried it elsewhere, but we were enjoying it so much more here that we momentarily worried what was up. The fiery orange sauce on top and the avocado mixed with eel inside the sticky rice startled our taste buds. The spicy tuna roll, while not orgiastic, was OK. The spicy crab roll ($6.95) was a hot delight, with Lee’s version of crab salad (as best as we can describe it) topping the roll.
As for nigiri (fish hunks atop rice), the raw tuna ($4.25 for two pieces) was melt-in-your-mouth good. Our smoked salmon, however, looked and tasted like it had sat out some.
Sushi lunch specials are $7.95 to $9.95 and get you a basic roll (California, tuna, salmon, etc.) with five pieces and a salad or miso soup. Rolls run from a $3 cucumber roll and a $3.95 California roll to an $11.95 Big Dragon (tuna, salmon, shrimp, gourd, masago and eel on top).
The dinner menu includes three Deop Bop offerings (tofu, fish or eel salad with rice) and Bool Go Ki (stir fry), as well as tempura, noodles and the like. Dinner business, Lee has acknowledged, has been spotty so far. Hanaroo is open until 9 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, when downtown can be awfully deserted. The exception is 2nd Friday Art Night, when Oval Gallery next door is hopping until 8 p.m. or so.
Lee could have joined the rest of the sushi nation in West Little Rock. We’re glad he chose downtown. It’s worth a visit.
205 W. Capitol Ave.
The bento box lunch is plenty of food at a nice low price. But, for sushi lovers, at least once, sit at the sushi bar and let the owner show his stuff.
10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. weekdays and 4:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.
Inexpensive lunch specials, moderate sushi prices. Credit cards accepted. Beer and wine permit pending. Take-out available.