Monday, October 14, 2019     Volume: 20, Issue: 32
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Santa Maria Sun / Eats

Atari-ya owner Keiko Hongo celebrates 35 years of serving the Central Coast's most authentic Japanese food

NICK POWELL

As soon as I opened the door, I knew my search was finally over: I’d found my new go-to sushi place. 


Soosh McGoosh
My weird family has always called—and will always call—sushi “Soosh McGoosh,” out of love, because it’s our favorite. Try Atari-ya, our new favorite spot for fishy dishies, from 1130 a.m. to 2 p.m. for lunch and 5 to 9 p.m. for dinner, located in the Stowell Center Plaza off Broadway in Santa Maria. Call (805) 922-0025 for reservations or for take-out.

THE RAW DEAL
This here is my ideal sushi roll mostly raw fish with a little bit of green for flavor. At Atari-ya, they call it the “Construction Roll,” but I call it bomb diggity.
PHOTO BY NICK POWELL

Atari-ya doesn’t look like much from the outside. The place sits sandwiched between shops among the rows of assorted strip mall businesses that make up the Stowell Center Plaza. The windows are too dark for passersby to see anything except a shelf full of tea pots and some flourishes of Japanese woodwork. 

But inside, new customers like me are instantly greeted with shouts of “Irasshaimase (welcome!)” from behind a bar that looks like it was teleported directly from Tokyo. There are colorful paper lanterns dangling from rice-paper-paneled soffits, Hello Kitty statues, and rows and rows of various sake bottles. 

I’ve never been to Japan, but I’ve been to a lot of Japanese restaurants, and Atari-ya somehow felt miles more authentic than any of those other places. Perhaps it was the decor that seemed homey rather than gimmicky, or perhaps it was the actual Japanese sushi chef and serving staff. Either way, I knew I was in for a damn good meal.

While we waited for a spot, the head sushi chef, Yuki, led a table near the bar in a round of sake shots.

Kampai (cheers!)” he yelled as the group downed glasses of warm rice wine. It looked like everyone on the staff knows how to make sure patrons have a good time. 

My wife and I only ordered an appetizer and some sushi rolls, but the sashimi, ramen, and beef noodle plates whizzing past us to other tables looked fantastic.

For our appetizer, we sampled Atari-ya’s take on jalapeño poppers. With tempura batter, cooked tuna, sweet eel sauce, and cream cheese, these peppers were unlike any I’ve ever had. I liked the changes and can highly recommend giving them a try.

Even though the rolls were more expensive than at other places, my wife and I opted to get our usual amount and split three. That was a mistake. These rolls were huge! From behind the bar, Chef Yuki laughed teasingly as he stacked each heavy plate on our table.


FAR EAST POPPERS
Atari-ya puts a Japanese twist on the classic jalapeño popper with these tempura-battered, eel sauce-drizzled wonders, which are stuffed with tuna and cream cheese—and it works. It works real good.
PHOTO BY NICK POWELL

I like my rolls fishy, so the fat “Construction Roll” with tuna inside and salmon on top seemed custom built for me. The fish was excellent and fresh, and the rice was perfectly soft with a touch of sweetness from its rice wine vinegar rinse. 

I’ve tried to make sushi rice at home three times and failed miserably despite the internet’s best advice. It’s harder than it seems to make it right, and Atari-ya’s rice was expertly crafted.

Sushi is tricky. I’d say most Americans are still sort of uncomfortable with the idea of eating raw fish, but for coastal folk and foodies, it’s always a special treat. Still, a good chunk of the people who love sushi don’t really know how mediocre most of America’s sushi joints are. It’s impossible to know how good rice and fish can be until you try some served by a master. 

I had my eyes opened by a sushi chef working a tiny 12-person dining room in Oregon. He didn’t have a menu but instead served daily special rolls and nigiri morsels made from whatever was exceptional at the fish market that morning. Every bite was heavenly, and I’ve been chasing that dragon ever since I moved to the Central Coast. 

Nothing in Lompoc came close. San Luis Obispo and Pismo have some good spots, but nothing really fantastic. I thought I’d never have an authentically amazing sushi experience again, until I tried the rolls at Atari-ya. I don’t know if it’s the exquisite rice, or the careful selection of fish, or some secret slicing technique, or an invisible marinade/sauce/oil brushed gently over the surface, or a combination of all of the above that elevates Yuki’s work above his competitors. All I know is that he makes some truly top-notch soosh.

We ended up paying about $100 for a meal for two, but we could have easily ordered more sensibly and knocked $30 off the bill. We ended up taking home about as much food as we had at the restaurant. 


KEEPING IT CRISPY
The “Crispy Calamari Roll” came with spirals of calamari fried in a manner my wife described as “freaking delicious, and surprisingly light and not oily.” I have to take her at her word because the stuff disappeared when I blinked.
PHOTO BY NICK POWELL

I talked to owner Keiko Hongo a few days after my meal, and I found her as delightfully charming as her restaurant.

She said that she would be celebrating her 35th anniversary of being in business this October and attributed her success to her loyal employees who all strive to make every customer feel welcome.

“I have had a lot of laughing here, and some sad times also,” Hongo said. “But the people of Santa Maria have really supported me. I have so much appreciation for the customers.”

When Atari-ya first opened in 1984, there were only two other Japanese restaurants in Santa Maria, but now there are 10 by Hongo’s count. With its dedication to a welcoming environment, exceptional flavors, and an authentic Japanese experience, Atari-ya remains the best of the bunch. 

Roll contributing writer Nick Powell in some seaweed with some rice and cucumber because he’s feeling a little fishy at npowell@santamariasun.com

Powell’s Picks

• Reading about food is nice; eating food is better; making fat stacks of cash from a career in the food industry (and snacking along the way) is best of all! Attend Allan Hancock’s Farm to Table Week of Welcome Aug. 12 through 14 for three days of course/degree introductions, industry field trips, hands-on activities, and faculty networking to get your foot in the door of the agriculture/wine industry. The event is free. Visit hancockcollege.edu for more information. 

• I had breakfast at Kay’s Country Kitchen in Old Orcutt over the weekend, and it knocked the socks right off my tootsies. I got the El Paso Benedict with corn beef hash and hollandaise sauce, and my wife ordered a mean country fried steak. Best breakfast we’ve had in a hot minute. Get your grub on at 135 E. Clark Ave.

• Get pickling with a class by Grandma Ingrid on kimchi and sauerkraut in Arroyo Grande on Aug. 10 from 9 a.m. to noon. Bring two resealable containers and you’ll leave with enough sauerkraut to drown a whole pack of wild sausages. The class costs $50 and will include lunch. Reserve a spot online at eventbrite.com.

• That sneaky Chef Rick went ahead and started serving dinner at his new location on 135 E. Foster Road when I wasn’t paying attention. The place is now open for lunch from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and for dinner from 5 to 9 p.m., Monday through Saturday. The plates pictured at chefricks.com look so good, I’m going to have to make my way over there for a proper review. 

Contributing writer Nick Powell could not find a lot of food events happening this weekend. Y’all on break or just forgetting to send invites to npowell@santamariasun.com?




Weekly Poll
Should Santa Maria implement rent control for residents living in mobile home parks?

Yes. Residents in mobile home parks need some sort of protection.
No. The city shouldn't interfere with lease negotiations.
All housing within the city should under rent control.
Rent control hasn't worked in other cities.

| Poll Results