Although sushi is strongly associated with Japan, most accounts of its origins trace the fish-and-rice combination to China or southeast Asia, where it began as a means of preserving fish by combining it with rice and vinegar. With sushi having become so popular outside of Japan in recent decades, it’s sometimes unclear if the elaborate rolls being served in American restaurants are really Japanese at all. Trapper’s Sushi in downtown Phoenix is the type of sushi place that embraces an Americanized approach without any shame and with some success.
Trapper’s location at CityScape is within walking distance of multiple light rail platforms, including a new one being built just outside its doors. The restaurant is a branch of a small chain based in Seattle, one of its first locations outside Washington State. Like most of CityScape, Trapper’s has a confusing street address on Jefferson Street, but the actual entrance is located on Central Avenue just north of Jefferson. Look for a big vertical sign proclaiming the restaurant’s name hanging over a purple awning. The door is at the end of the patio it covers.
Inside, there is a sushi bar right behind the host station, an indoor/outdoor bar bridging the gap between the dining room and the patio, and rows of tables extending throughout the restaurant’s interior. The space was home to another sushi place before Trapper’s, so the decor has been changed only with a fresh coat of paint that includes light blue walls with the restaurant’s mission statement and images of fish as decoration. The sushi bar is the only place where an all-you-can-eat deal is offered; otherwise, the menu is identical no matter where one is seated.
Although purists may be displeased with Trapper’s unabashedly Americanized approach to sushi, they might be relieved to see that the restaurant doesn’t try to be all things to all people. Many local Japanese restaurants feel they not only have to serve sushi, but also devote entire sections of their menus for ramen and yakitori, even if they find their kitchens stretched to master all of those facets of Japanese cuisine. Trapper’s, on the other hand, goes all out on the sushi, with exceptions only for some appetizers and a selection of teriyaki and tempura entrees.
While Trapper’s doesn’t tout itself as a Japanese restaurant, some of the starters on the menu are standard offerings like gyoza, miso soup, and seaweed salad. A few are more original. A plate of tempura shishito peppers is served with “Warrior Sauce,” a concoction that seems like a spicy aioli and reappears throughout the Trapper’s menu. A “Shrooman” appetizer involves a mix of portobellos, tuna, and cream cheese fried within a coating of tempura batter. More straightforward plates of vegetable and shrimp tempura with dipping sauce are also available.
The largest portion of the menu by far is devoted to sushi with a little corner for nigiri and two entire pages of intricate rolls with names that reflect various Seattle suburbs and landmarks such as Covington, Tukwila, and Mt. Rainier, as well as sports teams and maybe even political humor with “Release the Kraken” and the Trump roll. The last item’s name may be inspired at least in part by the orange sauce on top of its gloppy excess of cream cheese and crystal shrimp, a variety of crustacean that seems nearly omnipresent on the Trapper’s sushi list.
While Trapper’s tends to rely excessively on a few species of shrimp, tuna, and salmon, it can be more successful when it branches out. That approach works even better when the sauces are applied with restraint. When it comes to scallops, for example, the Jaysin hand roll goes overboard when bits of the mollusks are diced and then drowned in too much of a ponzu-like sauce. On the other hand, scallops shine in the Heaven nigiri in which lightly grilled scallops are placed over rice and then topped lightly with spicy sauce, masago, and slivers of green onion.
Trapper’s also does a good job with an even simpler preparation like mackerel nigiri in which both the fatty fish and the cohesive grains of rice beneath it are allowed to speak for themselves. Among the rolls that exhibit some restraint, the locally named Phoenix is an effective assemblage of grilled salmon, cucumber, and avocado with appropriate use of ponzu sauce and a light application of pepper on top. Vegetable rolls made with fillings like asparagus, cucumber, or avocado also make effective use of a simple approach to meatless sushi.
Trapper’s has monthly special rolls which are often creative in their approach and are typically included in pre-formatted combination platters in which they are featured alongside the chef’s choice of nigiri. In terms of cooked food, the restaurant sticks to combinations of teriyaki and tempura. Marinated and grilled salmon, steak, or chicken is served on a long rectangular plate with a scoop of white rice, some tempura vegetables or shrimp, and sides of miso soup and a plain green salad. It’s a simple but effective approach for the sushi-averse customer.
Trapper’s has a small dessert selection with a mochi flight being the most impressive choice. Four balls stuffed with ice cream flavors like mango, strawberry, mint chocolate chip, and cookies and cream are split and served with whipped cream. In terms of beverages, Trapper’s has wine, beer, and a limited selection of sake and cocktails. With its over-the-top and overtly Americanized approach to sushi, the restaurant does not pretend to be a Japanese restaurant per se. Despite that, the food, if chosen judiciously, can be successful on its own terms.
2 E. Jefferson St. #108, Phoenix AZ 85004
Jefferson / 1st Avenue or Jefferson / 3rd Street stations (eastbound)
Washington / 3rd Street or Washington / Central stations (westbound)