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When Joe Doherty first looked at the cavernous restaurant space in the historic Hotel Arcata — a pair of joined rooms that dwarfed Tomo's previous Eureka location — he told founder Fukiko Marshall it was too big. "I'll fill it," she replied.

Then-manager Doherty was skeptical. "I said, 'You'll never fill this place.' It's funny, I was wrong. I've been wrong for 25 years."

The Japanese restaurant and sushi bar is an institution on the Arcata Plaza that indeed fills up nightly, as it has in its various incarnations since Marshall opened it in 1984. The kanji for tomo on the sign means "friendship," and its following is loyal. There's a crowd of Humboldt diners that judge the depth of someone's local roots by how long they've been going to Tomo.

Doherty himself has been working there for 28 years, starting out as a dishwasher when he was 21 and working his way up to rolling sushi, managing and eventually buying the business from Marshall a decade ago. "Fukiko was amazing to work with ... it was just inspiring," he says. The restaurant has carved out a niche for itself with a warm, casual vibe and a steady, unpretentious menu to which its clientele remains devoted. "We have people who eat there four days a week," says Doherty, adding with a chuckle, "Some people just don't like to cook."

click to enlarge Chirashi sushi with local tuna and octopus. - AMY KUMLER
  • Amy Kumler
  • Chirashi sushi with local tuna and octopus.

Tomo's menu retains much of what Marshall, who also founded and later sold Sushi Spot down the street, established. It takes full advantage of the fresh catches available from Humboldt's waters, like ling cod, octopus, salmon, tuna and oysters. Likewise, the smoked albacore and tofu come from local producers Fish Brothers and the Tofu Shop, respectively. The nigiri sampler is a showcase for local maguro, albacore and lemon-cured salmon, as well as imported hamachi ($13.95). The bouquet sashimi presentation of the chirashi bowl features the day's selection, which recently included uni, a rose of maguro and unusually tender octopus ($19.95).

Among the makizushi specialty rolls is the modestly named No. 4, with lemon-cured salmon, avocado, green onion and the smoky crunch of spicy salmon skin ($7.95). The classic Spider roll with tempura fried softshell crab, tobiko and avocado is well executed, as is the inside-out house Paradise roll, stuffed with tempura prawn and cucumber, and blanketed in shiso leaves, tobiko and hamachi slices dipped in lemon ($13.95). If you came to Humboldt in search of oysters, there is the raw shooter ($2.75) and a panko-fried basket ($12.95), but if you prefer grilled, ask about the off-menu ones with tobiko and spicy cilantro cream sauce that won Tomo honors at the Oyster Festival in years past ($2.75).

click to enlarge Sushi and sake and Tomo’s bar. - AMY KUMLER
  • Amy Kumler
  • Sushi and sake and Tomo’s bar.

The salmon teriyaki ($23.95) is a crowd favorite but keep an eye out for grilled salmon and Hamachi collars, and more experimental dishes among the specials, where head chef Matt Folalo stretches out a bit more. Happy hour specials from 4 to 5:30 p.m. are worth showing up early for, as well, and might include panko-crusted scallops or hamachi sashimi with a boost of lime and jalapeño.

Over at the bar, there are a bevy of sakes — organic, unfiltered, chilled and warm — the staff will help you navigate to your tastes. The requisite Sapporo and Asahi beers are here, as are a selection of Humboldt wines, including Briceland, Fieldbrook, Flor D'Luna, Heart's Leap and Moonstone Crossing.

If the soy-wrapped Strawberry Dream with almond butter and tempura yam ($8.95) raises your eyebrows, it's there for the kids (mostly), who, as Doherty points out, often determine where the family goes out to eat. "I think we're a real family restaurant," he says. "I just want to keep it really casual and fun." The approach is a far cry from the formal minimalism that can sometimes make Japanese restaurants elsewhere feel a little cold, and has yielded a multi-generational following. "We're just such a tight-knit little family up here. You just have to treat people right. ... I've watched so many children grow up from babies to asking for a job."

Tomo itself is a family, after all, with staff like floor manager Mimi Wagner on board for 22 years and former staff leaving the nest to start their own ventures around town. Fortunately, most of the staff was able to come back after a fire and resulting smoke damage closed the restaurant for three and a half months last year. It was a long enough closure to spell death for the average restaurant but customer loyalty prevailed. "We were busy again right off the bat," says Doherty.

Whether on a weeknight or a busy Arts! Arcata evening, you'll find regulars of all ages filling the room as Marshall predicted. "It's like hosting a party every night," says Doherty, "and we just never know who's going to come."

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About The Author

Jennifer Fumiko Cahill

Jennifer Fumiko Cahill

Bio:
Jennifer Fumiko Cahill is the arts and features editor of the North Coast Journal.

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