This is the third of seven choices for the Best New Restaurants in Santa Cruz in 2014. To see the full list, click here.
Kaito opened in May in the former location of Pink Godzilla. The fact that the web site includes the word smile should tell you a lot: it makes chef/owner Koji Goto very happy to provide customers with first-rate, reasonably priced food.
It feels like a very authentic Japanese restaurant – I think it’s the friendly face of Goto smiling from behind the sushi bar, combined with the extensive “Japanese-style tapas” menu and ramen menu that are different from anything else in Santa Cruz.
First, the tapas. The idea is that customers share these dishes, which are smaller portions than a full entrée, and get to try a bunch of flavors and ingredients. Highlights include ebi shumai (steamed shrimp dumplings topped with aioli — this is my favorite tapas so far), kimchee (spicy Napa cabbage — a very generous portion for the price), seaweed salad, tofu poke, chicken yaki-gyoza (steamed chicken potstickers), and tempura.
Next, the ramen: tonkotsu ramen is their signature ramen and the most popular, with pork flavor broth and black mushrooms. When ordering ramen, you start with basic, select, or special. There are several varieties in each category, and ‘basic’ and ‘select’ always include green onion, corn, BBQ pork, and bamboo shoots. With all three categories, you can add toppings for an extra charge. I recently enjoyed the spicy garlic ramen with an added soft boiled egg topping (I asked Goto for a suggested addition and was grateful for this recommendation). Vegetarian broth is available upon request.
Kaito also features udon, soba, Japanese curry, sushi (including vegetarian), sashimi, tataki and poke. One interesting offering is “sushi tapas” where you can order a half order of various rolls, to try different things. On the menu, the sashimi sampler says “eight pieces with dressing” but my order contained ten: two pieces each of four kinds of raw fish, each with sauce, plus two pieces of hamachi tataki. The tataki is a must-try with seared fresh raw fish, sliced onion, minced garlic, and wasabi ponzu sauce.
This might sound like a lot of options, but don’t be intimidated if you’re not familiar with certain terms or dishes. Kaito has an unassuming, welcoming, and warm environment, and Goto and his staff welcome your questions and exploration. One last note: Goto’s wife Junko runs Sushi Sprouts Market on 7th Ave., a small take-out store that opened in 2013. I haven’t been there yet but I hear it has good fresh sushi and a few other Japanese food items.