Sushi is served with a side of edible art at Spicy Tuna in West Milwaukee
If you've driven down National Avenue just south of the VA Hospital, you've likely passed Spicy Tuna, 4823 W. National Ave.
But, thanks to the usual speed of traffic – paired with a relatively low profile exterior – you may have just as easily overlooked the relatively new restaurant.
But there are numerous reasons why you might want to make it a point to stop in, and one is the particularly artful presentation of the sushi.
Spicy Tuna, which opened in February, is owned and operated by Kheskanya Sangkratok, Yui Srisuk, two friends who met through the Thai-American Association of Milwaukee and Chef Jeff "Jab" Phoochangthong, a sushi chef who spent the better part of ten years working in Chicago before moving to Milwaukee in 2016.
Sangkratok says the location in West Milwaukee was particularly appealing, since the area didn't have a sushi restaurant and the property, which was formerly a pub and grill, had a kitchen and layout that could easily accommodate a sushi bar.
"Right now our menu is very much focused on Japanese dishes," notes Srisuk. "All of our sauces are made from scratch and we use a variety of fresh ingredients. Our goal is to give our customers very high quality food that tastes delicious and is healthy, too."
Healthy options include a variety of vegan and vegetarian options, as well as dishes that can be modified to accommodate food allergies or gluten-free diets.
Spicy Tuna's menu includes a variety of appetizers (priced in the $5-8 range including spring rolls, gyoza, crab rangoon and shrimp shumai; soups and salads ($3-6), and rice and noodle dishes including yakisoba, teriyaki, fried rice and spicy tuna katsu, most priced in the $9-12 range. In addition, the restaurant offers a variety of ramen bowls, poke bowls and a full menu of sushi, from traditional nigiri and sashimi to maki.
"We offer traditional sushi made with raw fish" says Sangkratok, "But we also have a variety of rolls featuring vegetables and cooked fish. We're making it easy for people who aren't as familiar with sushi to feel comfortable trying it out."
Spicy Tuna also offers a variety of lunch specials on weekdays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. including a choice of two or three sushi rolls served with miso soup or house salad for $10 or $14 and bento boxes filled with California maki, gyoza, house salad and steamed rice for $10-12.
Artfully presented sushi
"Every sushi bar and restaurant across the city offers similar presentations," says Phoochangthong. "But I wanted to offer the customers something exciting. I want to give them happiness. I love to see them smile when they get their food .. and take a picture of it.
Most sushi platters are designed with images that match the theme of the roll; but Phoochangthong says he often customizes the designs based on input from waitstaff. A dish might be decorated with flowers, a whimsical animal drawing or an abstract design, depending on the mood or feeling he's trying to create.
But the drawings that accompany the sushi are more than just a beautiful garnish. They're created with sauces that complement the ingredients in the sushi, so diners are encouraged to view the art as a natural extension of the maki itself.
"For many rolls, we don't put the sauces on top of the sushi," says Phoochangthong. "Instead, they are on the plate, so you can dip their sushi into the sauce and add different flavor combinations to each piece."
Take for instance the Godzilla roll, which features shrimp tempura, avocado, cream cheese, masago mayo, yuzu, tobiko, unagi sauce and wasabi mayo with a crunchy tempura flake topping ($14).
"This roll is accessible to people who are new to sushi," he says. "It's sweet and not spicy, and the shrimp is cooked. The tempura gives it a bit of crunchiness. It's also a popular roll for children."
Part of the appeal might well be the whimsical image of Godzilla that Phoochangthong uses to decorate the sushi board; but it might also be the hint of chocolate he uses for the outline of the drawing.
"It tastes good with the sushi," he says. "It has a sweet flavor that's very unique."
Spicy Tuna's Dragon Roll includes shrimp tempura topped with eel, avocado, unagi sauce and masago mayo ($13).
"Every sushi bar serves a dragon roll; it's a must," says Phoochangthong. "But we set ours apart with the presentation."
In this case, he uses a combination of Sriracha, spicy mayo, unagi sauce and wasabi. So, guests can add a bit of sweetness, spiciness or boost the umami flavor in their roll, depending on which sauce they select to augment each bite.
And then there's the Miller Park roll, which is comprised of a combination of cooked soft shell crab and avocado topped with seared tuna, fried shallots and chef's special sauce ($14). The roll is presented in a circle to mimic the shape of the ballpark.
Today, Phoochangthong says, he was inspired to present the roll with a drawing of a Phoenix.
All sushi is made to order, says Phoochangthong, noting that he takes the time needed to make sure each roll has a balance of flavors and textures.
"Every plate, I do it myself. I check the quality, the ingredients and I also share my signature drawings."
Prefer a warm bowl of Japanese noodles and slow-cooked broth? Guests have a choice of five types of ramen including tonkotsu featuring pork bone broth, chashu pork, ajitama (seasoned ramen eggs), wood ear mushrooms and scallions ($12) and tonkotsu shoyu with pork broth, soy sauce blend, chashu, ajitama, menma (marinated bamboo shoots), scallion, nori and pepper ($12).
Vegetarian ramen is built on a base of soy mushroom broth and is served with tofu, Brussels sprouts, corn, menma, wood ear mushrooms and greens ($11). There's also seafood ramen featuring shrimp, scallops, fish cakes, crab stick, soft boiled egg and bok choy ($16) or beef ramen with miso broth, bbq beef, soft boiled eel and bok choy ($14).
Spicy Tuna also offers guests a small selection of desserts, including Japanese mochi ice cream, a texturally wild concoction made from sweet flavored sticky rice that's filled with ice cream (flavors include strawberry, mango, green tea, red bean, chocolate or vanilla, $4.50).
In the coming weeks, Srisuk says the restaurant will introduce a number of new menu items, including this beautifully presented tray featuring mango sticky rice accompanied by coconut and butterfly pea flower ice creams (the pea flower gives the ice cream its blue hue) and dabs of coconut cream with crushed peanuts.
Spicy Tuna offers dine-in, carry-out and delivery through its web site as well as GrubHub and Eat Street. It also offers a 15 percent discount for military veterans and first responders.
Spicy Tuna is currently open Monday through Wednesday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Thursday through Saturday 11-10. In the coming weeks, it also hopes to introduce a special late night menu which would be available after 10 p.m. on select days.
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