HOT SPRINGS — We remember it not being all that long ago that we’d regularly be sitting next to folks from Saline or Garland counties taking in what was the only Japanese hibachi service in Little Rock. Folks from all over Central Arkansas came to this one spot for the show put on by the hibachi chefs.
Now, Little Rock abounds with hibachi and sushi joints. But we’ve actually found a Japanese restaurant in Garland County that’s worth the drive from Little Rock: Osaka Japanese Steakhouse.
Amy Huang is the manager and Chen Qian is the owner of this gorgeous, spacious restaurant with eight hibachi tables, a section of tatami tables (where you sit without shoes on pillows), regular tables and a full-scale sushi bar with seafood that tastes as fresh as any we’ve found.
We suggest taking in a meal in the separate hibachi section and select from an assortment of sushi rolls and sashimi.
And, when you want to know what to choose in rolls, Huang — she worked at the first Osaka, opened by Thomas Le on Highway 10 in West Little Rock, before getting the Hot Springs restaurant started — or any of her able wait staff will steer you in the right direction. But the first one they’ll suggest is the “Oh My God” roll. Get it. Get two if you have a decent-sized party, and pass them around.
Thomas Le unveiled the “Oh My God” roll to us at the original Osaka in Little Rock — the first Osaka doesn’t have hibachi, but rather the Mongolian grill that Le brought to Central Arkansas first at a couple of Chinese buffet restaurants. The roll comes by the name naturally. Even the expert sushi lover we carried with us to the Spa City Osaka, a critical sushi eater, uttered “oh my God” after tasting one of the eight pieces of the roll.
Our companion also offered that description, or something close, for just about every aspect of Osaka. He convinced us to get over our squeamishness about eel and try a sushi piece that was, indeed, heavenly. Eel no longer seemed like a turnoff to us after our visit to Osaka. He pronounced the eel, as well as sashimi pieces of snapper, tuna and fresh salmon, as the best he’d had, and this was a sushi sampler who has tried it from coast to coast.
The “Oh My God” roll is $7.95 because it takes a lot of work to produce: fried spicy tuna and green onion rolled in seaweed and sticky rice, then tempura fried and topped with a spicy orange-red sauce. It provides both a delicious first bite of seafood freshness and a nice after-burn from the heat.
We also tried a variety of less-expensive rolls that were all outstanding, such as the Santa Fe roll (avocado and eel on top and spicy tuna inside) and Smokey Mountain roll (tempura-fried salmon, cream cheese green onions and more).
Hibachi seafood and beef dishes seemed equally fresh. Usually, unless you go with a hibachi restaurant’s top-of-the-line steak, our experi-ence has been that you get a rather chewy sirloin cut. That’s not what we found at Osaka; it was tender and cooked perfectly.
Shrimp and scallops seemed ocean fresh and were grilled just right.
Huang told us later that Osaka gets its seafood and beef supplied from three destinations — Chicago, Dallas and Houston — and that the seafood is flown into Little Rock twice a week. The Osaka in Little Rock shares in the shipments.
The hibachi prices are reasonable: $19-$20 for a combination of beef and shrimp, $27 for a combination of lobster, shrimp and filet; and $15-$18 for one meat or seafood. That includes a hot cup of broth and a salad with Osaka’s own twist on the ginger-garlic dressing. Add on fried rice, as nearly everyone does, for $2.50. The restaurant offers lunch portions of the hibachi menu at even nicer prices.
A party of five of us had enough sushi and hibachi to fill us and then some, carting out a few to-go boxes as well, and our bill ran $150 total.
We tried Osaka on another visit for its Japanese specialties other than the hibachi and sushi, and found the shrimp tempura with vegetables very good. They also have basic Japanese dessert offerings such as red bean or green tea ice cream and fried banana tempura ice cream.
An average wine list still has such winners as Sonoma-Cutrer chardonnay by the glass ($7.75), as well as the typical Asian beers and saki.
This Osaka is on busy Central Avenue, south of the bustling Cornerstone business area and the U.S. 270 bypass. It’s in a strip shopping cen-ter far enough off the road that it can be missed if you’re not watching closely enough. Don’t miss it.
Osaka Japanese Steakhouse
Even sushi beginners will be entranced by Osaka’s “Oh My God” roll and will wonder why they never tried sushi before.
11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. (10:30 p.m. on weekends) Monday through Sunday.
Moderate to expensive prices. Credit cards accepted. Full bar and sushi bar.