Any U.S. resident readers longing for real sushi, the kind you ate while living in Japan, can visit Columbia, South Carolina for a plate or two of the real thing. Yes, that’s “Columbia, South Carolina”!
Our family found a few such restaurants when we lived in Washington, D.C. But the good ones were enormously expensive, and usually packed to the eaves with the expense account crowd. So, most of our sushi eating was done during frequent trips to Japan.
When we moved to Columbia in 1986 we didn’t even think about finding a sushi restaurant. Who could imagine going to Columbia, South Carolina for real sushi? I mean!
Well, we were wrong. Not long after our arrival, a USC colleague invited me to a newly opened Japanese restaurant he said was the real thing. He was right. Sakura served sushi every bit as good as that served by the best restaurants in Washington, D.C., or in Tokyo, for that matter. And at a fraction of the price. What a deal! Tokyo sushi at Columbia, South Carolina prices. Now, you can’t beat that with a stick.
Sakura is centrally located, right across from the Forest Acres shopping center, with its Starbucks, Fresh Market, Chipotle, and so on. But not so easy to find since it’s back behind the First Citizens Bank and Coplon’s. Here’s a short video that may help.
Once inside, you’ll find a relatively small and inviting restaurant. In fact, here’s a “maneki neko,” or beckoning cat, welcoming you from the counter.
Seating is either at the counter or at one of the dozen or so tables.
The quality of sushi at any Japanese restaurant depends on the skill and dedication of the master chef. Genuine sushi chefs, traditionally trained, are increasingly scarce even in Japan, let alone in the United States. So we’re fortunate here in Columbia to have Mr. Norio Saito. Here’s a short video that introduces him.
As he explains in the video, Mr. Saito has unusual training. He began making sushi at a “kaiten zushi” restaurant in the early 1980s. “Kaiten” here means literally “conveyor belt.” And that’s how sushi is served in such restaurants. Servings are prepared quickly, put on individual plates, and sent to customers along a constantly moving conveyor belt. Customers select what they want and pay according to the number of plates stacked beside them at the end of their meal. You can imagine the pressure to produce acceptable servings quickly.
After several years’ training at “kaiten zushi,” Mr. Saito moved to New York to study under a traditional master sushi chef for two years. There he learned to make what he calls “more serious” sushi before coming to Columbia in 1986.
The benefit of this intensive training and more than thirty years’ experience is what we get when we order sushi today at Sakura. It’s incredible!
During the interview I asked Mr. Saito how many kinds of fish he offers as sushi. He thought a moment, said it all depends on the season and freshness, and then replied that there are so many he couldn’t tell. Keep in mind, each kind of fish has its own selection criteria and preparation method. No wonder it takes so long to become a real sushi chef!
So there you have it. The Sakura Restaurant in Columbia, South Carolina. Open every day of the week but Sunday for lunch and dinner. You can’t do better than this without traveling to Japan!