Landlocked Lincoln joins sushi trend

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Story, video and photos by Erinn Wakeman, NewsNetNebraska

Just a decade ago, sushi was considered a delicacy in landlocked Lincoln, smack in the middle of the beef industry. Lincolnites often raved about the great steaks they could eat because of their Midwestern location.

Nebraskans who did eat sushi would often have to travel to Omaha, which offered a wider variety of upscale sushi bars.

In the past decade, the number of sushi restaurants in the Midwest has almost tripled. Sushi is now served at weddings, offered in cafeterias, even sold in plastic containers in convenience stores. Hundreds of different kinds of sushi rolls are made.

And Lincoln has a variety of sushi restaurants, mirroring national trends that show sushi is surging in popularity everywhere, including the Midwest.

“It’s always been kind of a rule that the Midwest is around five to 10 years behind the big cities and the coasts when it comes to food and drink trends,” said Kelley Rawlings, sushi chef at Dozo, Lincoln’s newest sushi restaurant. “Right now, especially with the focus on healthier, more organic food, I’m excited to see sushi finally catching on as a food option that’s delicious but also healthy.”

A 2006 study by Japan’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries put the number of Japanese restaurants in North America at over 10,000. The study found the total number of Japanese restaurants in the United States had increased by 250 percent in the previous 10 years.

Of the current eight sushi restaurants in Lincoln, only two, Wasabi and Shogun, were open as early as 2007. Teppanyaki and Dozo opened just this year, Kinja opened in 2010, Fuji and Tokyo opened in 2009 and O Yummy opened in 2008.

Food trend experts say the growth in popularity of Japanese food is evidenced not only by the increase in Japanese restaurants but an increase in food imports from Japan. As the focus on healthy eating continues to grow across the country, Japanese food is being recognized as healthier fare that still tastes great.

Sake, sesame oil, miso, soy sauce, vinegar, tea and dried scallops all nearly doubled in U.S. sales in the past decade, according to a report by the Japan Ministry of Finance.

“A lot of restaurants in Lincoln that have been popular in the past offered comfort food, and they emphasized the home-cooking angle,” said Mike Vandenberg, a grill chef at Dozo. “But what are regarded as comfort foods in Japan, like miso soup, are actually healthy.”

Although people of all ages are catching on to the sushi trend, Rawlings said the crowd at Dozo consists mostly of young professionals. “We get a little business from every kind of crowd, but I’d say it’s mostly 30-somethings and surprisingly, a lot of college students.”

Melissa Kepler is typical of Dozo’s customer base.

“I think the atmosphere is part of why I like sushi. It’s presented in a very attractive, stylish way, and it makes you feel a little more adventurous,” said Melissa Kepler, 23, a Haymarket spa owner who has dined at Dozo many times. “The lounge vibe makes the restaurant and the food seem hip and trying the different flavors is fun.”

Rawlings said that lounge atmosphere is part of what helped make sushi more mainstream in the Midwest. The trend started with fusion restaurants, which meld traditional Japanese sushi dishes and presentation with aspects of other Asian foods and a lounge atmosphere.

When the California roll was invented in the ’70s, it really sparked a new trend toward fusion sushi, Vandenberg said. “The California roll is made from crab, avocado and cucumber, so it’s a great start for people unfamiliar to raw fish.”

Rawlings brought a Hawaiian influence to Dozo. “When we created the menu for Dozo, we incorporated a good deal of Hawaiian style fare because I had a lot of experience with Hawaiian style dishes,” he said. “We also offer steak and more American dishes. Most of the new sushi restaurants are fusion restaurants like ours. It just makes sushi seem more accessible, less intimidating.”

Many of the sushi restaurants in Lincoln offer other meal options, such as teppanyaki, which is a Japanese style of cooking that involves quickly frying the food on a hotplate. Shogun and Teppanyaki Grill are two popular teppanyaki restaurants in Lincoln.

In part because of fusion restaurants, more sushi chefs have reinvented traditional sushi dishes to create American-style sushi. This style of sushi has become so popular, Japan now has American sushi bars.

Keo Sisavanh, a sushi chef at Dozo, said he thinks sushi is here to stay in the Midwest. “We’re just one of hundreds of sushi restaurants to open in the past few years. We recognize the new demand for sushi and think it’s going to be around for a long time. Hopefully, we can all be a part of the movement toward healthier eating and a new, exciting way to look at food.”

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Ready to be a part of the sushi trend? Here’s a list of some of the popular sushi restaurants in Lincoln:

Tokyo Steakhouse & Sushi Bar
4200 S 27th St. # 200. 68502-5858
(402) 420-3004 ‎

Wasabi! International Grill & Sushi Bar

114 S 14th St.
(402) 476-0006

Shogun Japanese Steak and Seafood
3700 South 9th St.
(402) 421-7100

Teppanyaki Grill Sushi Buffet

5130 North 27th St.
(402) 742-3333

O Yummy
5571 S. 48th St.
(402) 421-9221

Kinja Japanese Restaurant

4141 Pioneer Woods Dr.
(402) 488-7800

Dozo Sushi Grill and Lounge

151 N 8th St.
(402) 904-4190

Fuji Sushi and Grill

(402) 328-0688
1501 Pine Lake Road #5


10 Ways to Eat Healthy in Sushi Restaurants:

Interested in the trend toward healthier food choices? Here’s how to eat even healthier in sushi restaurants:

  1. Avoid ordering too many fried foods such as tempura, which can be vegetables or seafood dipped in batter and fried.
  2. Use soy sauce sparingly in your food, since soy sauce contains huge amounts of sodium. Just put a drop of soy sauce on just the fish section of your sushi, which will not only provide much flavor, but will keep the sushi from falling apart from putting sauce on the rice section.
  3. If you are sticking with cooked meats, order grilled meats, such as yakitori. Grilling the meat melts away most fat, making it healthier for you.
  4. Limit the amount of sushi rice you eat when dining at Japanese restaurants, because it is made with salt, vinegar and a large quantity of sugar. Much of the health benefits of sushi come from the fish itself, which is high in omega-3 fatty acids, promoting heart health.
  5. Avoid eating sushi containing shellfish, such as shrimp and clams, which can cause food related illnesses from parasites. The fish used in sushi is flash-frozen to destroy all parasites it contains, making the fish safe when eaten raw in sushi.
  6. Order steamed food, such as steamed rice and vegetables, which retains more of its vitamins, compared to other cooking processes, such as frying or boiling.
  7. Order sea vegetables, also known as seaweed, such as nori, kombu and hijiki, which may be served with other vegetables or in your salads. Sea vegetables provide everything your body needs for health, including minerals, vitamins, protein, omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids and more.
  8. Order miso soup. Miso is a soybean paste used to flavor soups and other dishes. Miso can help reduce heart disease risks and lower your cholesterol.
  9. Try to avoid sushi rolls with duck, cheese or other high-fat foods. Popular eel sauce is also high in calories.
  10. Try ordering mackerel sashimi, which is full of omega-3 acids and low in mercury.