chef's table

KEEPING THE FAITH

Mikuni Japanese Restaurant & Sushi Bar celebrates a milestone anniversary.

WRITTEN BY CATHERINE ENFIELD
PHOTOS BY RAOUL ORTEGA

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It all started with a dream. Literally. More than 30 years ago, Koki Arai had a prophetic dream that the man of faith truly believed in. He was told that his family should open a restaurant and that they would find great success.

The Arai family had arrived in Sacramento in 1985, and Arai took a preaching position at a local church. The pay was low, so opening a restaurant was a way to make ends meet for his family of five. It was another moment of faith when a generous benefactor, one the family hardly knew, gave them the money to open a restaurant in May 1987. All of this divine providence led to the name of Mikuni, which means kingdom of God in Japanese.

Building the kingdom

Back then, it was just his wife cooking Japanese dishes and the family working long hours, struggling to keep afloat. They were close to failure and even tried to sell the restaurant. It wasn’t until 1989, when Arai decided to build a sushi bar and told Taro, his eldest son, “You need to learn to make sushi,” that success came.

“I had no traditional training,” Taro says. “My first sushi experience had been a cucumber roll — not even any fish in that!”

Taro began learning by reading books, watching other sushi chefs, and trial and error.

“My philosophy has always been to try things together, and if they work, great!” he says.

Mikuni became known for its unconventional rolls just as sushi was becoming mainstream and Americanized in the ’80s and ’90s. At the time, the other sushi restaurants in town were serving traditional-style sushi, yet customers were attracted to the Mikuni combo rolls. Taro was happy to experiment and make rolls based on customers’ ideas.

“Many of the names you see on the menu are for the people who actually suggested the rolls,” Taro says, “like the Spicy Johnny.”

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Growing an empire

Taro is now the face of the company with other family members holding strategic positions, including his grown children. This gives him the ability to handle the social events, public appearances, and travel for research and business. Lately, he’s been visiting fish farms around the world, trying to find the best-quality farmed fish as he considers seafood sustainability.

“We want Mikuni to be the most loved restaurant in the world — by God, our employees, our customers, and the earth. I have to do my best to do whatever we can to be sustainable and good for the earth and God. We have to look at quality and cost, and we are trying fish from Croatia, Alaska, and other places,” Taro says. “That’s why the one restaurant in Roseville is called Kaizen — continuous improvement.

Today there are eight Mikuni restaurants throughout the Greater Sacramento area. The next one will be built in a new movie theater complex in Concord.

“We have a goal of 50 in 50,” Taro says. “Fifty locations by our 50th anniversary.”

The Arais continue spreading the kingdom of God.

Catherine Enfield began eating sushi 10 years ago, using combo rolls as her gateway to traditional sushi fare. She writes the 10-year-old food blog, Munchie Musings.

Mikuni Locations

Original

4323 Hazel Ave., Fair Oaks • 916-961-2112

Roseville

1565 Eureka Road, Roseville • 916-797-2112

Midtown

1530 J St., Sacramento • 916-447-2112

Elk Grove

8525 Bond Road, Elk Grove • 916-714-2112

Folsom

185 Placerville Road, Ste. 100, Folsom • 916-934-5250

Davis

500 1st St., Ste. 11, Davis • 530-756-2111

Taro’s

1735 Arden Way, Sacramento • 916-564-2114

Mikuni’s Kaizen

1017 Galleria Blvd., Ste. 160, Roseville • 916-780-2119

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