We’ve been coming to Totoro even before it was Totoro, and always enjoy the beach neighborhood ambiance—casual Santa Cruz funque—in a welcoming space. Tiny Sushi Totoro, recently spiffed up with playful chalk artwork by Sarah Terakura, sleek new tables, and a brilliant vermillion paint job, offers sushi classics for a multi-national westside clientele.
Classic 70s and 80s rock, like Steppenwolf’s Magic Carpet Ride, wailed away in the background as we took a favorite table with a view of vibrant chalk wall graphics surrounded by diners from all over the world, and a very friendly, very diverse staff to match.
I can never pass up the maguro-filled tekka maki, especially now that Totoro stocks the delicious, peppery shiso leaf. Just ask for tekka maki with shiso and you’ll receive small nori-wrapped slices of sticky rice surrounding a crimson heart of bluefin tuna and an emerald spike of shiso ($9.45).
Jack’s all-time favorite Spicy Tuna handroll ($12) is pretty much bullet-proof. The cone of nori, a seaweed wrapper with the addictive flavor of the sea, arrives filled with a paste of creamy pink tuna and a micro-dice of cucumber. And some very hot pepper sauce. Once your lips have gotten acclimatized, you can’t stop.
To cool things off, we split an order of New York roll ($10), a creation of ebi shrimp, avocado, and ribbons of cucumber, all packed into a jacket of rice, wrapped up in nori. Of course every bite comes to full flower when dipped into a bath of wasabi and soy sauce.
The minute our order arrives we scoop up a nugget of wasabi, place in a small dish and then add soy, stirring into a thick paste with chopsticks. This becomes the fiery foundation of each bite and can be altered in firepower by adding more or less, soy.
Even a few drops of hot sake adds textural and flavor variation, although like most sushi bars these days, Totoro doesn’t stock top flight hot sake.
Like many Totoro patrons, we tend to circle ’round our favorite rolls and seldom color outside the lines. But last week we decided to try one of the “Special” sushi rolls, the charmingly-named Pink Dragon.
A serious entree for $18, this gorgeous creation arrived in a long line of plump cross-sections, each slice topped with a transparent wedge of fresh lemon. Almost too pretty to eat, it was as satisfying to the taste as it was to the eyes.
The interior of this roll was a rich heart of unagi (the grilled freshwater eel we both love), and avocado, a fruit/vegetable through years of California tinkering has made its way into the sushi hall of fame. Rightly so, since avocado tends to flatter every other ingredient it touches.
Okay, so the unagi and avocado are wrapped in a thin blanket of sticky rice. Over the top of each round section lay alternating bands of orange salmon, and pink maguro. A delicious journey through A list seafood.
The thin triangles of lemon on top could either be eaten along with everything else, or removed and squeezed (my method) so that fresh lemon blended with the inevitable dip into wasabi-enhanced soy sauce. The Pink Dragon was a major hit and definitely the discovery of our latest dinner at Sushi Totoro.
As we left, an extended family from South America was busy helping their small children enjoy their Santa Cruz sushi experience. Out in the parking lot on an SUV tailgate a happy baby, freshly nude from the beach, was being dressed by its tie-dyed mother. A slice of the real Santa Cruz.
Sushi Totoro – 1701 Mission St., SC, Daily 11:30AM – 2PM; 5:00PM – 9:00PM (’til 9:30PM Fri&Sat) sushitotorosc.com