With more than a handful of Japanese restaurants in Santa Cruz, it would almost seem ludicrous for someone to even consider opening another fancy sushi place that for less adventurous Americans means an expensive menu and finger foods.
However, sushi chefs Greyson Lanzarotta, 27, and Dustin Murata, 31, overlooked the competitors and pursued their lifetime dream of rolling the distinguishable sticky white rice and raw fish inside sheets of nori from a kitchen of their own and serving it at good prices.
They have distinguished Akira with great food, a neighborhood feel and sports specials.
“We just wanted good music, good sports playing on the TV, and quality food at a better price.” said Lanzarotta.
Lanzarotta and Murata opened up the doors to Akira at 1222 Soquel Ave., just across from the Rio Theatre, six weeks ago and they decorated the place with a big screen TV above the chefs' table and a fresh cool look. The end result is in fact a delightful joint for people to enjoy a contemporary, yet, elegant dining experience.
Murata is from Boulder Creek and he learned his sushi techniques from being around it most of his life — he is half Japanese, half American — and he also picked up some of his tricks from the west side of Santa Cruz.
Lanzarotta is from Grass Valley and he migrated to the area not too long ago. He mentions where he picked up his rolling skills along before his short journey of business ownership.
“I actually learned locally in town and I’ve learned through about six or seven different chefs,” said Lanzarotta. “I learned in Sacramento as well.
“Pretty much everybody that you work with you can learn something, from whether it be a 15 year chef to a first time chef.”
The two met four years ago when they worked at Sushi Garden in Capitola and always chatted about how nice it would be to be their own bosses.
And with a little over 15 years of experience of sushi rolling between the two of them, Lanzarotta and Murata took a chance and started off in the game with a catering company called Akira as well.
“We’ve been really pushing for it,” said Lanzarotta. “We really wanted to make something different in this community that was also what people wanted.
“It’s all support from the locals man. We can’t do it without the people, our employees, and our friends.”
Akira is also home to something Murata and Lanzarotta made up a special treat for Bay Area baseball fans called Giants Specials. For every San Francisco Giants game televised, the restaurant will have food and drink specials for certain innings that include beer pints ($3) in the 1st and 7th, onion rings ($3) in the 3rd and a “deep fried spicy tuna dog” ($3) for the 9th.
A buddy of mine, Jimmy Morimoto, was my guest for Thursday night and I was amazed at the fast and friendly service we received right when we walked through the doors of the back entrance. As soon as we sat down, our waitress Ann-Elyse brought to the table a pair of menus.
As I took a gander at the menu, Jimmy ordered a carafe of Nigori sake ($8) and two 33 ounce cans of Asahi beer ($9), a perfect way to warm up before dinner.
On their Starters menu, Akira offers an array of delicious appetizers like Wakame ($4), Chiba Salad ($9), the intriguing Firecracker ($9), and of course shrimp, veggie or combo tempura ($7).
The Firecracker is spicy tuna with chopped ginger and basil, then wrapped with hamachi, a bony fish called Japanese amberjack or yellowtail, and topped with Akira’s house sauces, jalapeño, masago, an orange colored popular type of roe from the capelin fish, and green onion.
But Jimmy and I bypassed the taste testers and we placed our dinner orders right off the bat.
My friend ordered a dinner entrée with two items ($17) along with an Eternal Sunshine makizushi ($9) from the special roll section. In the dinner entrée, you can choose between one, two, or three items from a selection of chicken teriyaki, skirt steak teriyaki, salmon teriyaki, tofu teriyaki, gyoza (pork or veggie), tempura, chicken katsu, Cali roll (6 pieces), spicy tuna roll (6 pieces), sashimi (7 pieces chef’s choice), nigiri (4 pieces chef’s choice).
The main course came with a bowl of warm miso soup, a leafy green house salad, lightly fluffed up white rice, and Jimmy picked the perfectly glazed strips of chicken teriyaki topped with sesame seeds, and sliced up crispy pieces of chicken katsu.
The chicken katsu in Japan is usually called Tonkatsu and it was first introduced by the Portuguese. The dish is a piece of cutlet that is salted, peppered, dredged lightly in flour, dipped into beaten egg, and then coated with panko (bread crumbs) before they’re deep fried and served with shredded cabbage and miso soup.
As for the sushi roll, the Eternal Sunshine was packed with ebi (cooked shrimp) tempura, cucumber, and avocado topped with sake, lemon and unagi (BBQ eel).
I had a little bit of the miso soup that came with Jimmy’s dinner and it was excellent. The broth was not too thick and the pieces of tofu had a good texture unlike some of the other places I’ve been to in the past. My friend on the other had a slightly different opinion of the soup.
“Miso soup is good,” said Morimoto. “Too strong for my liking, but it’s good.”
My order was simple and I went with two nice slabs of maguro (tuna) nigiri-zushi ($5) and the White Dragon makizushi ($12) also from the special roll section.
This bad boy had ebi tempura, spicy tuna, and crispy cucumbers topped with shiro maguro (albacore tuna), creamy avocado, zesty garlic, chopped green onion, a delicious unagi sauce, and some spicy mayo add a little kick to the flavor.
I dipped the first piece of my roll into the usual mixture of soy sauce and wasabi and devoured that little sucker like there was no tomorrow. The flavors were so on point and it was a concoction of salty fish, fresh veggies and velvety sauces that took center stage on my tongue like one of Prince’s illustrious rock concerts.
It wasn’t until Jimmy and I started to chow down when we realized how much food was on our table and simply agreed to split what we had just ordered. So I dug into the dinner entrée and I tried a little bit of everything on the plate.
Without a doubt the immaculate grill-marked juicy tender pieces of teriyaki chicken were sublime and the chicken katsu was fried to perfection topped with a thick Japanese Worcestershire sauce. The katsu was like a giant chicken patty but with real meat, not that pink slime gooey meat filler from McDonalds. The house salad was also good as was the white rice.
My overall experience at Akira was delightful and satisfying to say the least. And with outstanding and brisk service as well as a neighborly staff group, it’s safe to say my return as well as other Asian cuisine lovers is in all likelihood.