There's nothing not to like at Fat Salmon Sushi, save lack of a liquor license (note the beer cooler at EuroMart next door, which closes at 6). Owner Jea Lim brings affordable raw fish to the masses, who were filling the place up within a month of his Feb. 9 opening. On a recent Saturday it was heartening to hear the hostess's repeated trill "Table for two?" as the door opened on successive customers.
Opening a Japanese-Korean restaurant was Lim's long-held dream after he immigrated here from South Korea 30 years ago; he's still running his first business, a dry cleaners, across the street. (An aside: In our current national "conversation" about immigration, how could a restaurant reviewer take any side other than "Yes!"? I can remember the days, sonny, when restaurants of ethnic interest in Detroit were limited to Polish, Middle Eastern, and Tex-Mex.)
Fat Salmon is bare bones in its décor, with particle board on two walls and partially uncovered brick on another (Rock City Eatery was previously housed here). Floor-to-ceiling windows front on Joseph Campau, and TV is tuned to cooking shows or K-pop.
The menu is ambitious for a small place, with not only a long list of sushi rolls but also soups, salads, gyoza, and other appetizers, four kinds of fried rice, udon in several incarnations, ramen, bulgogi (beef barbecue), and bibimbab, teriyaki, and katsu (deep-fried cutlets), with mochi for dessert.
And all so light on the wallet. Two people, one of them me, got out of there for $42 one night and $35 another, including tip and leftovers to take home. "Special rolls" are $10, the cheapest vegetable ones (avocado, asparagus, pickled radish) $3, and the least expensive fish rolls are $4.
The "kitchen dishes" on the menu, like most entrées, come with soup and salad. The iceberg is missable, and the miso is not the best I've had. A better starter is ika (squid) salad, appropriately chewy with cucumbers, seaweed, and a vinegar dressing.
One night bibimbab looked to be popular at a number of tables ("Don't touch the bowl," warned the server). The sizzling melange of zucchini, carrots, radishes, spinach, cucumbers, rice and beef in a stone bowl, topped with a perfectly round fried egg, whispered invitingly, crackling out the message that "I am a perfect dish for a cold night," which was true.
It was equally true of bulgogi ("fire meat"), pungent-sweet slices of marinated beef that come in a hot cast-iron frying pan, embellished with mushrooms, carrot shreds, and scallions, and rice on the side. For bibimbab, you're supposed to use your chopsticks to break the egg and swirl everything together. For bulgogi, the beef is more the star of the show.
On the noodle list, Lim offers udon soups, fried udon, and ramen. In his seafood udon, there's no skimping: shrimp, mussels, kamaboko, and tiny scallops are all there.
As to the rolls: There's a lot of avocado and cream cheese in Lim's 34 suggestions, so you know the chef is not skimping on our need for fat. The Sunday Morning roll is salmon and cream cheese, deep fried, and seven other rolls are tempura too. It's a crowd-pleasing list, with Mexican, Salmon Pizza, and Firecracker among the hometown favorites.
But the usual California and Philadelphia rolls share space with less-seen examples like the vegetarian osinko, made with pickled radish. The Easter roll incorporates kampyo, strips of dried gourd or calabash. A Snow Com roll is made with crab, avocado, cream cheese and egg, but no rice.
Drinks include Ramuné, a Japanese fizzy drink that is worth ordering just to see if you can figure out how to open it. A diagram comes with the bottle, which is stoppered with a marble and gives off a Champagne-like pop. The melon flavor was OK; our waitress said the original tastes like Sprite.
For dessert, mochi (soft, pounded sticky rice) is formed around ice cream balls, in green tea, mango, or strawberry. This is a great East-West fusion, but I could have done without the whipped topping.
I appreciated the way Lim makes a point of presentation, even for a simple octopus sashimi. It comes with a frizz of dark green kale and a tangle of red/purple radish, along with ginger and lemon slices on a pretty blue plate. And if you order more than 10 rolls, they'll arrive displayed on a big wooden boat. Servers wear kimonos patterned after Captain America and Iron Man.
As you struggle to get your mouth around a chili shrimp roll, or as you slurp Lim's sturdy udon and the broth splashes your philtrum, be happy that Hamtramck's waves of immigration have persisted through generations — and thrived.