Even on a Sunday night, Tengu Sushi is packed. Diners select their fill of rolls, salmon, eel and tuna as plates wind around counters and tables. Add a little soy sauce and wasabi, along with ginger, and a taste of Japanese culture awaits.
The restaurant opened in late November 2009 at Thornton Place just south of Northgate Mall, and boasts a host of sushi and sashimi as well as hot entrees such as udon and mini-tempura. Beer and sake are also available, along with soda and hot tea.
As head chef and co-owner of Tengu, Kozo Sato is the man behind the sushi. He immigrated to the United States in his early 20s and has since prepared sushi at Takaka in downtown Seattle and Hana Sushi in Bothell.
The 57-year-old became a sushi chef soon after he arrived in the United States, according to his longtime friend Noriko Fujita. Sato knew he would need to find a job to get a green card and decided to pursue his passion for cooking.
Back when he was a Japanese language teacher in Japan, Sato prepared snacks and sushi for his students when they visited him.
“Kids in college would come to my home and play Mahjong, and they would say to me, ‘Teacher, I’m hungry’ and I had to cook,” he said, laughing.
Sato may be cooking for a larger crowd at his sushi restaurant, but the comfort he brings to patrons is similar to the hospitality he showed to his students.
“My dream is to prepare very good sushi and have customers eat as much as they can at a reasonable price,” Sato said. “Especially if you like sushi.”
The restaurant owner sticks to his word. Plates at Tengu range from $1 to $4, making a meal at the restaurant a steal.
On a recent day, a diner noted that the sushi was surprisingly fresh, considering the low cost. Nicole Kim compared Tengu to other sushi bars in Seattle such as Blue C and Marinepolis Sushi Land.
“It’s really high quality,” Kim said of the sushi. “There’s sustenance. Blue C [Sushi], for example, is good, but I like this place better because the quality of the fish is better.”
The sushi’s freshness was noticeable from first glance and first bite. The salmon is a bright pink, while the tuna is cut thick to show grooves in the meat. The eel shimmers against Tengu’s drop-down lighting, which is part of the restaurant’s modern, minimalist decor.
But even in the best of eateries, occasional glitches can occur. On a recent Saturday, two groups of diners felt there wasn’t enough sushi on the conveyor belt.
Jesson Mata went to Tengu with friends and their children after they heard about a 20 percent promotional discount at the restaurant. He returned with a friend on Sunday to give Tengu “another chance” because the sushi was good, but not enough was available.
“I was here with four kids and there was nothing coming around,” he said. “I just thought we were busy with the kids and were at the end of the line, so that’s why we didn’t get anything.”
On Sunday, labels – not plates – glided past Mata and his friend. They ordered ikageso (deep-fried squid legs) as they waited for spider rolls.
Hot food items such as ikageso, however, arrived promptly. Options such as mini-tempura udon, croquettes and the deep-fried squid legs range from $2.75 to $5.25.
There weren’t many selections on the conveyor, but sushi plates can also be made to order, diners Melissa Forgey and Jake Stumpf noted. They found out about Tengu after going to Regal Thornton Place for a movie.
“(The) prices didn’t seem high,” Stumpf said. “Service is pretty quick. People are great, very friendly.”
Tengu Sushi, Northgate 311 NE 103 St. Seattle, WA 98125. (206) 525-9999.