When Masahiro Endo opened his downtown Tacoma Japanese restaurant Fujiya in 1984, sushi barely registered with Tacomans. Diners requested only the most familiar dishes in the Japanese repertoire, teriyaki and tempura.
Today, sushi is so prolific, even grocery stores employ sushi chefs. Accordingly, sushi accounts for 70 percent of Fujiya’s sales today.
Dining trends and palate evolution are simply part of the changing fabric for the longtime chef who grew up an hour away from Tokyo and settled in Tacoma for his first restaurant after moving to Seattle to be closer to his sister.
Endo has even started a few of his own local fads. A few years ago, seeing no ramen in the area and knowing the national ramen trend was percolating, the chef added two versions of ramen — shoyo and tonkotsu — to Fujiya’s lunch menu. Tacoma still doesn’t have its own ramen shop (so odd considering the dozens in Seattle), but Endo has made sure Tacomans can slurp the latest trend.
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For large parts of its history, Fujiya operated as the sole full-service sushi and Japanese restaurant in downtown Tacoma. In recent years, that’s changed. One of Endo’s employees opened the sushi fusion restaurant TwoKoi in 2006 in downtown Tacoma. (That restaurant closed due to construction in November, but will reopen in June.)
After four anonymous dining visits in the past year, I recommend Fujiya for any occasion, whether dining for work or pleasure, to celebrate or relax, to have a communal sushi experience with friends or a quiet evening with a spouse. It’s an all purpose, come-as-you-are restaurant with a dining room that’s simple and attractive. Tall windows wash the long, narrow dining room with light. At night, the room glows from the hanging orbs resembling a modern take on Japanese lanterns. A series of stained glass windows portray a tranquil scene of a flowering tree snaking around Mount Fuji. An L-shaped sushi bar seats 15; window booths yield a bustling view of Broadway.
The entree menu covers the range of Japanese specialties, including rice and noodle bowls, savory soups and grilled dishes, but sushi is what drives the restaurant. More on that in a moment.
Diners will find one Japanese specialty tough to find in Tacoma — the one-pot dish sukiyaki. Fujiya’s version was a single-serving iron pot with glassy noodles, scallions, broadly sliced tofu and see-through tendrils of thinly shaved beef. The sweetened soy broth tasted rich, with a deliciously briny thump ($13.95 lunch/$19.95 dinner).
Shiyogayaki ($12.95 lunch/$15.95 dinner) was a savory tangle of fork-tender pork, redolent with ginger, alongside rice and a green salad. Lunchtime donburi bowls stayed simple and satisfying, the tori ($7.95) was smoky grilled chicken over rice. Ramen soup ($9.95 lunch/$12.95 dinner) choices include shoyu, miso and the pork bone-based soup called tonkotsu. Ramen at Fujiya was beauty in a bowl, with carefully layered seaweed, halved eggs with still-creamy yolks and a raft of fish cake, sliced pork and scallions in a deeply flavored bone-based broth.
The sushi menu is a must-explore for experts or neophytes. Diners won’t find amped-up Guy Fieri monster-mondo-giganto rolls with muddy flavors and squiggles of day-glo sauces. Rather, Endo’s style appeared finely in tune with Japanese culinary tenets — simple, muted, beautiful, delicious.
Vegetable-themed maki were tightly-woven masterpieces. Kanpiyo maki ($3.95), slow-cooked shaved gourd, tasted sweet and looked jewel-toned like tuna. Pickled burdock snatched my attention with its pungent snap against crunchy early spring asparagus in a seasonal vegetable maki ($5.95). Neon yellow oshinko ($3.25) carried the assertive sourness of pickled radish.
Tuna here was a must-order experience. Ask for toro (market price) and you’ll be rewarded with the melt-in-your-mouth fatty tuna that I always use as a sushi restaurant litmus test. Fujiya passed every time. Chef’s choice sashimi samplers are an ideal way to sample the raw fish selection ($14.95 lunch/$17.95 dinner).
The maki (sushi rolls) menu is short, but well-conceived. Negihama maki ($13.95) was brimming with broadly sliced yellowtail nudged with chopped scallions and fish roe. Albacore maki ($9.95) was spicy with garlic-chili sauce.
The most elaborate of the rolls were still simple in flavor and appearance. Spider maki ($12.95) held sweet soft-shell crab, fried whole, that yielded a pleasing snap. Spicy scallop salad topped shrimp tempura in the 69 maki ($13.95). A dragon roll ($13.95) was stacked with sweetly-dressed eel (unagi), the one dish that Endo recommends all newcomers to Fujiya try. Fujiya maki ($6.95) combined slippery wisps of smoke-punched salmon with crisp asparagus and shrimp.
The most popular items are those that don’t appear on the menu at all. Be sure to sit at the counter and ask Juan Del Moral, head sushi chef and a 13-year employee, what’s fresh. Endo might have mackerel or another fish special. He’s also happy to customize dishes, such as adding a raw egg to sukiyaki to transform the dish into what a diner would eat in Japan.
And, one thing to note about something I don’t see much of in Tacoma: Whether dining for lunch or dinner, every diner is sent a gratis nibble by Del Moral or Endo. On one visit, it was a snappy jalapeño stuffed with creamy spicy tuna and deep fried. On another visit, it was more spicy tuna tucked into a shiso leaf. On another it was a cucumber maki.
Hospitable service remained a solid theme on all four visits. Glasses remained full, the table check-ins were frequent, servers were friendly and accommodating. High-quality service is one of Fujiya’s greatest assets.