Sushi Bop

Teng Thao, known to his cult followers as Tengo, works the lunch crowd at Sushi Tango
Craig Lassig
3001 Hennepin Ave. S., Minneapolis

Sushi Tango--where even to begin? Sushi Tango has been an idea that's been floating around, watched for, talked about, waiting to be realized for years. Ever since Teng "Tengo" Thao, a Hmong native with an impish, contagious sense of fun, began making the counter at Origami not just a place for great food, but a place for bar-pounding fun. Purple kamikazes, half-understood in-jokes, great sushi with scrupulously sourced fish, a few more purple kamikazes, and the seeds of what can only be called the Cult of Tengo developed.

Next stop, Fuji Ya. Then Café Della Vita. Everywhere Tengo went, the cult was sure to follow. And, um, me. I was sure to follow. Once you've spent a few nights under the spell of Tengo and sideman Xao "Sefu" Yang, it's hard to resist. They're not just extraordinary sushi chefs; they're a good time.

The extraordinary-sushi-chef part is easy enough to explain. There is topnotch fish. Topnotch, eyes dart left, eyes dart right, breathing stops, conversation stops, fish. It starts in the ocean, with a fisherman catching the holy grail of all tunas, holding an international auction by cell phone while still standing on deck. Then you, the Diamond Jim Brady of whatever you're the Diamond Jim Brady of, order a slice of that fish at the sushi bar, and the conversation stops. (While, um, you know, titled European concubines wash your car with Cristal and hummingbird wings in the Calhoun Square ramp.) Along with that perfect fish, there's the perfect rice: room- temperature, vinegared, not too dense. I got a couple of pieces of toro at Tengo sushi that were that fish: slices of rosy tuna belly chewy enough to draw your attention, buttery enough to take your breath away, full of oceanic subtlety, like a little rainstorm in the back of your mouth and--oooooh. That's living. (At nine bucks per piece, you'd best have that reaction.)

Before I went to his new restaurant, I talked to Tengo on the phone: "You ever have my office toro?" he asked.

"Um, no. What's office toro?"

"Office toro? You never have office toro? What do you do with yourself all winter?"

"Um, I, I don't know, I don't--"

"Oh, office toro is so good, I have to hide it in the office. Or people get it who don't get it."

I had a couple of other pieces of fish that ought to have been stored in the office for safekeeping. Hotate, raw sea scallops with that inimitable buttery, sweet, slightly milky taste, were $4.75 for two pieces of nigiri. Salmon sashimi was as sweet and melting as any dessert, interleaved with razor-thin slices of lemon that acidified the barest outer molecules of the fish, leading to a subtle and engrossing texture in the mouth: $10 for a serving for two.

But it's not just the fish that makes Tengo's sushi bars compelling; it's all the other stuff that comes with it. Tengo and Sefu intuitively understand their way around the flashy, fusiony rolls that make sushi purists cringe and make the rest of us clap happily. The staff here uses masago--those little fish eggs that decorate the outside of a California roll--like paint. The eggs are commonly orange but can become a variety of colors, depending on what's done to them; bright green ones result from a soaking in wasabi powder, but they can also be brown or black. The red dragon roll is gorgeous: an inside-out roll filled with sweet grilled eel, avocado, and cucumber, the outside covered with masago painted with eel sauce so it varies in color from mahogany brown to rich red.

Tengo and Sefu made their name at Café Della Vita by improvising a line of interesting tempura-based rolls they called their "Idon'tknow" rolls. Here the concept has come into full flower as the scorpion roll: shrimp tempura, asparagus, and deep-fried soft-shell crab fitted together with spicy mayonnaise and wrapped in rice, the outside covered with masago and pretty seaweed powder. All for a mere $18! But what's such genius about that roll is that the flavors--sweet, fried, bland, spicy, salty, a touch of green--are exactly the same ones you'd find in a platter of buffalo wings with celery. The corollary of the unsolvable dining puzzle of the Vegetarian Girlfriend is the Sushi-Phobic Boyfriend...and here is the answer.

This solution is not unintentional: "Probably 99 percent of my customers are Caucasians," Tengo told me (perhaps not realizing he was stating the condition of 98 out of 100 local restaurants). "I don't try to make everything traditional Japanese, I try to make it fun. Most Japanese people go to Sakura or Kikugawa, but here we just try to be friendly, be nice, have fun, eat good sushi, and have more fun."

In a roundabout way, that's the same logic that inspired the name of his place. "I don't know why I called it that. People mostly think it's 'Sushi Tengo.' But I thought: Tango, the dance--that's more lively than just my name."

I couldn't disagree more: The very name Tengo means lively to me. One night I sat exiled from the sushi bar, trying a lot of hot appetizers (they were fine, nothing spectacular-- though interestingly, the tempura squid seemed exactly like the calamari I had at P.F. Chang's a few weeks ago), and as I sat in exile, I felt acute envy for the party slamming oyster-sake shooters with Sefu, Tengo, and the third chef, Tengo's brother Jeffrey "Pao" Thao, at the bar. "Oh, you saw that?" Tengo said when I told him. "Demon Releaser! It's a Demon Releaser!"

Sake with a raw oyster floating in the glass. And me with all my demons still inside. Sigh.

I can think of a couple of things to quibble with about the restaurant: The room itself--a second-story, back-by-the-parking- garage space in Calhoun Square--seems a little mall-generic. The music can get unbearable. (Is it just me, or are Hall and Oates constantly watching you, watching you, watching you too?) The hot food is nothing spectacular, and the gyoza and shu mai are the same frozen ones you see at practically every other restaurant in town. And yet the combo meals are pretty commendable. The $21.50 sushi dinner consists of ten pieces of nigiri, another six pieces of various rolls, plus tamago, that sweet omelet, and a bowl of miso soup. Nice.

But the very nicest thing about Tengo's sushi bars is that they're always a fun party, and you're always invited. I've been to the new place three times, and I've only seen a wait at the sushi bar during those demon hours from 7:00 to 9:00 on Fridays and Saturdays; otherwise you can just sit on down and have a good time. It's like a neighborhood bar where there's always someone fun to drink with. And that someone just happens to have an office full of toro.

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Sushi Tango

3001 Hennepin Ave. S.
Minneapolis, MN 55408


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