At Sakura Yakitori and Sushi, the new Happy Valley Japanese restaurant from the team behind Wasabi Sushi, a giant faux cherry blossom tree draws the attention of diners as they wait for a table. Sitting down at long banquettes, they order appetizers like tempura and gyoza, followed by donburi topped with barbecued eel, miso-glazed salmon, or thinly shaved beef. But as the name of the restaurant declares, the bulk of the menu is devoted to two sections: sushi and yakitori, the latter of which literally translates to grilled chicken, but also refers to the style of cooking that involves skewered and grilled foods.
The new restaurant, which opened within Happy Valley’s Crossroads East development, is the first sit-down restaurant from owners Alex Naung and Phyu Aye, who started Wasabi Sushi in 2015. The couple, who reside in Happy Valley with their family, wanted to bring a sophisticated-but-family friendly dining option to the suburb. But it’s not just about opening something in their community: For Naung and Aye, Sakura is the next level, compared to the fast-casual and cart-based Wasabi Sushi locations across the city.
Sakura’s interior design and menu stems from Aye’s vision, the payoff of a long journey that began when Aye and her husband, Burmese immigrants, arrived in the U.S. nearly two decades ago. One of Aye’s first jobs in Oregon was working at the sushi counter at Fred Meyer; it took the better part of a decade to open the first Wasabi Sushi restaurant. Aye and Naung now operate four Wasabi locations in Multnomah County, including carts in Troutdale and Happy Valley; the chain also has an outpost in Seattle’s Pike/Pine neighborhood.
Sakura, however, explores territory rarely seen at Wasabi restaurants. On the sushi menu, executed by chef Wesley Mantia, diners will find the usual suspects in terms of nigiri and sashimi, in addition to classic rolls like spicy tuna, oshinko, and futomaki; however, the list of specialty rolls is where Sakura gets inventive, leaning into themes. Rolls inspired by the seasons reflect them by mimicking their color palettes, using ingredients known to peak during those periods. For example, the refreshing Spring roll has crunchy textures and bright flavors, bolstered by a yuzu dressing. By contrast, the Winter roll contains snow crab and scallop; the cold-water seafood is accented with lime zest and orange marmalade, and the roll is finished with a touch of sea salt in a visual nod to snow. Fans of fried food can try a selection of tempura rolls, which come stuffed with either shrimp, soft-shell crab, or lobster. There are also rolls rooted in a sense of place, with the Plains roll utilizing wagyu two ways, and the vegetarian Valley roll incorporating grilled shishito peppers and zucchini, avocado, and micro leek.
Instead of offering ramen as a counterpart to the restaurant’s sushi, a common move at Japanese restaurants in Portland, Naung and Aye opted for a facet of the cuisine that is highly popular in its country of origin but not commonly found in Portland. Chicken and beef are both offered in several variations that are commonly in yakitori restaurants: there’s chicken thigh (momo) and chicken breast with spring onion (negima), but also gizzard (sunagimo) and heart (hatsu). Beef comes in rib-eye and wagyu or a house-made meatball called tsukune. The star proteins are supplemented with other skewers, such as pork belly and tiger prawn, and a variety of vegetables.
Naung and Aye enlisted some Portland talent to help get the restaurant off the ground: Former Mitate owner Nino Ortiz consulted on the restaurant and assisted with marketing, and bartender and beverage writer Jacob Grier concocted the restaurant’s cocktail menu. In addition to a selection of sake, verdant cocktails like the Cherry Blossom (vodka, St. Germain, maraschino liqueur, Campari) and a Matcha Daiquiri (rum, cachaça, yuzu sake, matcha syrup) complement the yakitori and sushi dishes — it’s all enjoyed in the shadow of the restaurant’s sakura tree, a bright spot even when Oregon’s weather is at its most overcast.
Sakura Yakitori and Sushi is located at 13200 SE 172nd Avenue, Suite 158.