Traditional tastes of sushi are riding a wave of island influence at Kai Lana Sushi and Seafood in Atascadero.
After spending 10 years as a software engineer, Kenji Kim found himself burned out and needing a reboot.
Because “I’d always had a passion for cooking,” he enrolled in a Japanese culinary school and found a new career, interning at several restaurants to hone his craft before opening a couple of his own sushi eateries in Orange County.
Fast forward about another decade and Kim and his wife, Jamie, decided they’d had enough of the big city.
They sold the restaurants and came to the San Luis Obispo area, where Kim worked for a few years at a couple of sushi spots throughout the county.
Over time, he began to realize that “a lot of the customers were from Atascadero, so that really sparked my interest. I figured if they’re driving to SLO or Paso or Pismo for sushi, they would come to a place in town.”
Banking on that, the Kims began refurbishing an existing restaurant space on a quiet stretch of El Camino Real. In December they opened Kai Lana Sushi and Seafood, where dishes such as tempura and spicy tuna are lined up next to Hawaiian-infused items like Banzai Pipeline and the Waikiki Roll.
With more than 20 starters, about a dozen salads, several noodle and rice bowls, enticing combination plates and more than 40 rolls to choose from, the menu takes a while to review, in part because of the appreciated descriptions for many of the items.
The wide-ranging menu can be a bit overwhelming, especially on your first visit, but that also ensures that you will find something for everyone here — regardless of whether you like raw fish.
If that’s not your dish, your options run the gamut of shrimp gyoza (pan-fried dumplings), spicy garlic chicken, chicken yakitori (chicken skewers), barbecued short ribs, yaki niku (marinated rib eye), a vegetable udon noodle bowl, pork katsu (akin to a breaded, pan-fried cutlet), and even grilled lobster.
However, the fresh raw seafood preparations are the star at Kai Lana, whether you go for sashimi (just the raw fish with no rice) or sushi (technically just the vinegared rice that’s used, but which has come to include the piece of fish and rice together).
The various rolls (fish wrapped with rice and other ingredients, usually within a sheet of seaweed), range from the familiar California roll — cooked crab, avocado and cucumber — to the Honolulu roll — spicy tuna and ono (a white fish) with pickled onions.
Kim has also put some other signature dishes on the Kai Lana menu, among them Polynesian ceviche — chunks of marinated fish stylishly served in a martini glass with a few crispy wontons — and a delicate Japanese spring roll — raw fish and lightly cooked vegetables rolled in rice paper. And the restaurant’s ponzu sauce (a citrusy soy sauce) is made from scratch.
One of his especially successful creations is “sushi pizza,” with a fried sheet of rice paper as the “crust” and “toppings” of spicy tuna, a couple kinds of roe, and teriyaki sauce.
If Kai Lana’s first several months are any indication, the Kims were right about their hunch to open a sushi/seafood restaurant where they did, and there are plans to expand the seating to a new outdoor deck.
“The response has been nothing but great,” Kim said. “We’ve gotten a lot of local support, and we’re very happy to be here.”