Sea Change

Saga Sails Onto The Sushi Scene Waving The Banners Of Japan And Mexico.

NOW THAT WE'VE crossed the threshold into a new millennium, we might expect some changes, subtle or otherwise, to manifest on the culinary horizon. Every age has its fads and innovations, ranging in my lifetime from the convenience of frozen TV dinners to low-fat frozen yogurt and endless fields of alfalfa sprouts.

Sushi, the craze of the last two decades, beloved by Hollywood hipsters and beautiful people everywhere, should just about have exhausted its time in the limelight by now. If Tucson is any indication, however, this doesn't appear to be the case. In fact, sushi seems to be enjoying a revitalized run, thanks in large part to some regional touches that continue to make these morsels as unusual as they are tasty.

Saga, the new restaurant to go into the East Speedway location formerly occupied by Pronto, is the latest installment on the sushi scene. What sets the place apart is an unabashed embracing of the elements of Southwestern cuisine, in particular chile peppers and gulf shrimp as well as seafood. While not every combination is a complete success, it certainly gets your attention and encourages a thoughtful exploration of the possibilities.

It all begins with a name. Many sushi bars in town have customized a Tucson or Las Vegas roll, but how about trying a Yaqui, chiles toreados, jalapeño or San Carlos roll? Obviously, some explanation will be in order, and the owners of Saga provide a detailed listing of the various items and their ingredients. It's hard to say which is the greater enjoyment, perusing the unusual menu or tasting the results.

If you're not in the mood for sushi, the regular lunch and dinner menus provide some intriguing alternatives. The Viagra cocktail ($15) comes to mind, a melange of shrimp, scallops, octopus, clams, oysters and fresh crab meat. There's also a crab tostada ($4.50) and shrimp-stuffed yellow chiles ($4.50). Saga also offers the typical sashimi, yakitori, tempura and teriyaki starters, but challenge yourself to sample some authentic Japanese-Mexican fusion. You won't find that anywhere else.

As most devotees will tell you, when it comes to fresh seafood, great sushi bars have few rivals. It should come as no surprise, then, that a seafood cocktail or crab tostada comes off without a hitch at Saga, prepared simply and served in their prime. Some of the dishes may be unexpected, but they work beautifully.

And if it's good, traditional sushi you crave, Saga won't disappoint. Prices are fairly standard; no bargains here, but you won't feel cheated on the portions, which tend to be large to the point of unwieldy.

The nigiri, which are the strips of fresh fish resting atop mounds of sticky rice with a bit of Japanese horseradish tucked in between, is a monstrous experience at Saga. The fish used could easily be halved, but what would be the fun in that? Just be aware that if you normally order three or four orders of this stuff, you may find that one or two will suffice at Saga. We tried the salmon ($4), tuna ($4), shrimp ($3.50) and yellow tail ($4.50) and found each to be exquisite, in particular the tuna and yellow tail, which both exuded a buttery sweetness found only in the very freshest ocean fare.

The aforementioned Yaqui roll ($7) is composed of avocado, slivered cucumber and cream cheese with sections of shrimp laid decorously over the sliced coil. The jalapeño special ($5.50) consists of chopped, pickled peppers, smoked salmon, avocado and green onion; and the volcano roll ($8) is filled with tuna, yellow tail, salmon and cream cheese spread with a fiery red chile sauce. Each of these proved undeniably delicious, with the latter two spicy enough to shock even the seasoned regional palate.

The addition of cream cheese made the rolls a bit rich, but this saved us from eating as much as usual, which was a bonus for our waistlines as well as our wallets.

Not wishing to ignore tradition completely, we put in an order for beef teriyaki ($10) and were pleasantly surprised by a tender platter of grilled sirloin strips tossed in a sublime sauce that was neither too sweet nor salty. Sprinkled lightly with toasted sesame seeds, this teriyaki managed a skillful balance of flavor, including a delightfully impertinent grate of fresh ginger. Stir-fried bok choy and a heaping bowl of rice completed the entrée ensemble (for an additional $2.50, five pieces of nigiri can also accompany your order).

Service at Saga is the least developed of its charms, mostly inattentive and consisting of servers who are far more interested in relating their latest dating exploits than they are in making sure your iced-tea glass is refilled. On both of the occasions we were there, the sushi chef was the one who alerted the young and apparently inexperienced staff to the needs of the clientele throughout the dining room. Thank goodness someone was keeping an eye on things.

Maybe it's the start of a whole new dining trend. Maybe it's just the frugal use of available ingredients. Maybe it's supposed to be funny. Whatever the inspiration for Saga's Pacific Coast meets Pacific Rim menu, it gets top marks for originality, a good sense of humor and taste. Tucson's first Japanese-Mexican restaurant is a hit.

Saga. 2955 E. Speedway Blvd. 320-0535. Open Monday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., and 4 to 10 p.m. daily. Beer and wine. V, MC. Menu items: $1.00-$15.95.