Two things made me want to review Hutong Sushi and Grill.
The first was the name. When I was in China a year ago, I walked through many hutongs, narrow alleys that run all over Beijing. Many have been destroyed during the city's construction boom, but at least a few have been restored and turned into hip, thriving districts where lots of young people meander into shops and restaurants.
The second was what I heard about the menu. One person told me it was her favorite sushi place in town. Another said Hutong's rolls are “better than the ones at Blue,” another popular Omaha sushi restaurant.
I tried some rolls at Hutong that were indeed some of the better ones I've had — simple, focused on fish, not slathered in mayo. And aside from a few strange fusion dishes, there was much to like inside this La Vista restaurant on both its sushi menu and cooked entree menu.
So first things first. I asked Lee Wei, the manager at Hutong, about the name. He said the owner also runs other Asian restaurants in different locations, including Chinese ones, under the name.
“In China, the best food comes from within the deepest of the hutong,” Wei said. “And you know, the hutong is also the community, or the neighborhood.”
Though most of the food on the menu at Hutong is sushi, Lee said the menu is really meant to be Asian fusion, and he's right — we tried Thai and Chinese dishes during our two visits.
The restaurant is in a nondescript strip mall near a Walmart. It's clean and modern, with booths and tables, neon-colored lights in the ceiling and a partially open kitchen fronted by a busy sushi bar. Both times we were seated in booths near the back of the restaurant, and service was prompt and friendly.
We focused our first visit on Hutong's sushi, which is divided into nigiri and sashimi, classic rolls and Hutong Signature rolls. We sampled from each section.
The Sweetheart Roll and the Make U Dancing Roll, both off the signature list, were hits. Neither one was drowned in sauce — one of my pet peeves — and instead had just enough sauce to complement the fish and keep the roll from being dry.
Both rolls also earned presentation points. Each piece of sushi in the Sweetheart Roll, filled with tuna, salmon and avocado and topped with honey dressing, came shaped like a teardrop, and the eight pieces were arranged on a plate in the shape of a flower, with a center of wasabi and pickled ginger. The roll had a subtle sweetness from the honey sauce and the fish was cool and fresh.
The Make U Dancing, our other favorite, came filled with crunchy spicy yellowtail, salmon and avocado topped with a fresh piece of white fish. A jalapeńo and spicy cilantro sauce added heat and flavor but didn't overwhelm the delicate fish.
We also tried a selection of classic rolls and all were good, including an eel and cucumber roll that had a deep smokiness; a tamago sashimi — egg custard served over sticky rice — that had a firm texture and subtle sweetness; and standard spicy tuna rolls and vegetarian rolls.
My husband said the restaurant's ability to make the sushi both original and tasty “without using 35 ingredients” impressed him. I agreed. The signature rolls especially were creative without being grandiose and lived up to what I'd heard.
Prices at Hutong are in line with other sushi places, and, in some cases, lower. The standard rolls ran around $6 each for eight pieces. The signature rolls run between $9 and $13 for anywhere from five to 10 pieces.
The restaurant has a wine-by-the-glass list; I had a glass on each visit for $6. There's also a selection of Asian beers. A large Kirin, a Japanese beer, will run you $7; a large Tsing Tao, a Chinese beer, is $4.
Wei said the restaurant aims to serve the highest ingredients and still keep the prices reasonable.
We tried two Mexican-Asian fusion dishes that I didn't love: tuna tacos and avocado egg rolls. We tried similar lost-in-translation American dishes when we were in China — one was sweet and sour chicken served with a side of french fries that we ate with chopsticks. I thought of those fries when I first saw both of Hutong's dishes. Even though I love both egg rolls and tacos, these missed the boat in the same way the fries did.
The inside of the tuna tacos we tried on the first visit was delicious: bright red, extremely fresh tuna sashimi flavored with spicy black pepper, a squirt of sour cream, ripe avocado squares and a topping of fresh tomato and red onion. The problem for me? It was served in a grocery store-bought taco shell. If the shell had been different — soft, homemade or with a less processed flavor — the tacos would have been a creative hit.
The same thing happened with the egg rolls, which we had on our second visit. In another twist of Asian meets Americanized Mexican, the inside of the crispy rolls contained yellow American cheese and hunks of avocado. It came with two dipping sauces: the expected bright red sweet and sour, and salsa that tasted like it was from a jar.
Wei said the restaurant serves the two Mexican-inspired dishes because they're popular and easy to prepare.
“Tacos are everywhere here,” Wei said. “We tried to use nice avocado and Japanese-style sushi inside those Asian fusion dishes.”
The rest of the second visit, when I dined with my husband and two friends, was smooth sailing.
The Elegant Tofu was our favorite of the appetizers we tried. The tofu was hot on the inside and covered with a thin, nearly transparent layer of crispy breading. One of my friends said he liked that it wasn't “fried to death” and I agreed. A sweet and spicy sauce covered the top of the appetizer, which we all would order again.
Wei said the tofu is made fresh in house.
My husband ordered the Patai noodles, which turned out to be Pad Thai with a different spelling. It was the classic Thai preparation, with noodles, cilantro, peanuts, garlic, chili and egg. He said he would have liked more sauce, though otherwise the dish was hearty and good.
We also tried the grilled pork loin and a dish called “Tofu Stewed” on the menu.
The pork came in two thin but large pieces and was served alongside a pile of rice with seared carrots and onion rounds and cold slices of cucumber. A pleasant brown sauce spiked with lemongrass was good, though I could have used a bit more of it. Part of me wished the components were mixed together in a stir-fry because I blended them myself in each bite.
The Tofu Stewed, in contrast, was really saucy — again, the tofu here was nicely cooked and blended with bits of peppers and mushrooms. The menu said the dish featured baby bok choi, but we didn't see any in our mix.
Prices on the entrees are also reasonable. The pork was the most expensive that we tried, at $10, while the Pad Thai was $9 and the tofu $8. Most entrees hover around the $13 mark; sushi platters that serve two or more and come with soup or salads range from $13 to $43 and are the most expensive dishes on the menu.
After visiting Hutong twice, I'd definitely go back. Prices are reasonable, staff is friendly, and the sushi is indeed some of the best I've had in town. If the best food does indeed come from deep within the hutong, as they say in China, then this off-the-beaten-path Omaha hutong is worth seeking out.
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