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Making the grade

Sakura sneaks fresh fish into the west side

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Try a colorful chefs specialty at Sakura, and go home - happy. - 2006 BRUCE ELLIOTT

Sakura is one of those joints that you don't expect to find where you find it, and once you do, you still don't know exactly where you are. Hidden inside the generic west side Safeway plaza at 31st and West Colorado, it's a Japanese family restaurant with gaudy tropical overtones. But with a laid-back attitude and warm congeniality, it feels more like a neighborhood diner one that just happens to serve good sushi, sake and Japanese beer.

Right inside the door is the ubiquitous fish tank, flanked by a cluttered cash register counter and a tidy bar with five or six stools a classic sushi bar that might be more at home on a quaint Waikiki alleyway.

Beyond the bar lies a spacious dining room with booth-lined walls. Here, we tried some of the menu's heartier combinations, teriyaki with sashimi ($13.95) and teriyaki with sushi ($12.95), both great values.

The salmon teriyaki, a large filet still rare in the middle, was nicely glazed, moist, and tender enough to eat with a fork or chopsticks. Four hefty cubes of silky-smooth maguro sashimi (the most common cut of sushi-grade tuna) came on a separate plate, alongside a pot of sticky rice.

The side vegetables and salad, with pink dressing to match the napkins and walls, were forgettable diners would be better off asking for a crunchy cucumber salad with soy vinegar dressing, like those served at the sushi bar.

The chicken teriyaki came with four pieces of nigiri sushi, hand-formed rice ovals topped with slices of tender raw yellowtail tuna, maguro, sweet butterflied shrimp and sake (salmon, not rice wine).

The Firecracker Roll ($6.95), ordered on a whim, proved somewhat disappointing. The deep-fried green chili, avocado, cucumber and rice combo might be OK for someone who doesn't eat fish, but the sushi chef's other creations are far superior.

Take, for example, a special roll enjoyed by the couple next to us during one visit: tender shrimp tempura with avocado, rolled in sweet, vinegary sticky rice, then wrapped with thin slices of unagi (eel). This large dish easily fed two diners.

We watched enviously as we packed away compact spicy tuna rolls, awaiting our chef's special roll, called Monkey Brains. Shredded imitation crabmeat is mixed with cream cheese and patted around a center of spicy tuna, then rolled in sticky rice and nori (thin sheets of seaweed). The whole thing is lightly fried for a crisp outer shell, then drizzled with a spicy sauce. The result has lots of heat and sent us away feeling mighty happy.

Beyond Monkey Brains and the chef's other inventive special rolls are just about any standard sushi, made either maki style (fish or veggies in the center, nori on the outside, rolled and cut) or nigiri, with toppings and fillings ranging from salmon skin to smelt egg. All the fish we've tried has been fresh and tender, prepared with great care by the pro behind the counter. With a Japanese beer, you're good to go in this unpretentious little haven.

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Sakura

3117 W. Colorado Ave., 632-7866 or sakurasushi.us

Open Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., 5-9 p.m.; Friday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., 5-10 p.m.; Saturday, noon to 10 p.m.; Sunday, 4-9 p.m.

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