Taro Arai is used to working with maki, the Far East edibles better known as sushi rolls.
But right now, the star sushi-maker from Sacramento's popular raw-fish restaurant, Mikuni, is on a roll himself.
Effortlessly and expertly, Arai is slicing seafood, palming pats of rice, shaping dried seaweed and cracking charming jokes in slightly chopped English (all sushi-chef
standards) from behind the bar in the back of the Mikuni Sushi Bus, which is rolling down a random backroad somewhere between Loomis and Roseville.
And no, that's not a misprint:
There now exists such a thing as a sushi bus in Sacramento.
"Can you believe it?" Arai asks excitedly while handing a plate of tuna-and-cucumber temaki (hand rolls) to Hector Marquez, who is celebrating his 31st birthday with a meal-on-wheels party for seven that will eventually evolve into a larger soiree at the Mikuni restaurant in Roseville.
"I called Japan - all over," Arai says. "Nobody has heard of something like this. I think we're the first one in the world. It's crazy, huh?"
Pass the wasabi and beware the potholes:
Mikuni - which is threatening to become a bona fide raw-fish empire, with two local eateries and an Arco Arena concession - has introduced one of the first truly radical restaurant ideas of the new millennium, converting a used 1994 Goshen Century Bus into an art-deco sushi bar that's capable of doing 0 to, um, 30 about as quickly as you can say "another order of uni, Taro-san."
The Mikuni Sushi Bus officially opened for business this month. For $150 an hour, plus food and beverage costs, it will take you around town and beyond while keeping you stuffed with unagi and saba and such. Rides can be of any duration and for any occasion - already Mikuni has been approached about renting the 10-person-capacity bus for everything from business meetings and wine-country trips to senior proms and Super Bowl parties.
All of which suggests that it's not where you're going but how you get there ... and what you eat along the way.
Of course, while the arrival of the bus may speak to sushi's exploding popularity (the number of traditional sushi bars across the United States has quintupled over the past 10 years, and sushi is even surfacing in supermarkets and all-you-can-eat buffets), it may have more to do with the wandering minds of American diners, for whom mere food often isn't enough.
"From the beginning of American food service, there was always a gimmick," says John Mariani, a New York-based food writer whose book "America Eats Out" covers the history of America's dining habits outside the home.
"When we started getting restaurants in the 19th century, we copied the Parisian models, but something always had to be 'better.' It was bigger or more ornate, or there were girls on velvet swings.
"Restaurants always had to have this allure, this novelty. Even now, theme restaurants are back with a bang, and you have these huge Asian-fusion restaurants with 50-foot gold Buddhas. Americans love these places."
That said, Mariani, who eats his way around the world under the guise of research, says he'd never before heard of a sushi bus like Mikuni's.
"But it doesn't surprise me," he says.
Arai, though, still seems amazed by its existence.
"It's out-of-the-box thinking," he says. He smiles.
Though at first he thought the crazy concept smelled, well, fishy, Arai is now going along for the ride and loving it.
"This is not work," he says, chopping a section of salmon carefully so that he doesn't filet a finger with his razor-sharp knife. "This is play."
It hasn't always been so fun for the Arai family, which started in the restaurant business in 1987 when Taro's parents - mother Komichi and the Rev. Koki Arai - used a loan from an acquaintance to open a small sushi shop in Fair Oaks.
The Rev. Arai moved his family from Japan to Sacramento in 1985 to become pastor at First Japanese Baptist Church. He named the restaurant Mikuni, which translates as "kingdom of God."
Mikuni was largely a family affair that featured Komichi doing much of the cooking, with Taro and his younger brother, Nao, helping out as chefs, and their younger sister, Keiko, cashiering.
At first, it was also a money-losing affair. But as Mikuni's reputation for superb sushi and charming chefs spread, business began to boom.
In 1999, the Arais opened a second restaurant, in Roseville. And just last year, the family sold Sacramento on the notion of eating raw fish at NBA games, opening a concession at Arco Arena. On the night the Kings season began in November, Mikuni sold out of its entire stock a half-hour before tipoff.
Plans are now under way to open another Mikuni in midtown.
So when Derek Fong - a partner in Mikuni - first floated the idea of a customized bus with a sushi bar, Taro Arai thought he was crazy, what with all these other gastronomical goings-on.
"I was against it," Arai says. "I thought we were too busy. But the next thing I know, we have a bus."
Of course, Arai is hardly complaining now.
After all, the outside of the 30-foot bus features an outrageous, head-turning wrap that's adorned with colorful ads, a few photos of sushi and a couple of cartoon images of Arai himself, who, at just 31 years old, is a lot like the Emeril Lagase of the capital city cheffing core.
"People recognize him all over the place," says Audrey Wells, Mikuni's marketing maven and sometime bus driver.
"He's like a Teletubby or something. People want to take pictures with him and hug him."
And this is more than mere hyperbole. When Sacramento hosted the Phoenix Suns for an NBA playoff game earlier this month, Arai was spotted sitting several rows behind the visitors bench, with a steady stream of his own visitors paying homage to the celebrated and charismatic chef, who has become the face of the family business.
Such celebrity chatter makes Arai nervous - in large part because sushi-chef culture calls for humility.
Still, he can't help but giggle as the bus glides down the freeway, and passengers in adjacent cars point and gawk at the anime image of a towering Taro dressed in samurai garb. (Those images, by the way, will make regular trips past the Hewlett-Packard and Intel plants in Folsom, all the better to spread the gospel of
"It's funny seeing people stare," Arai says, glancing out the window.
He hands some sushi to the birthday boy, Hector Marquez.
"Ice cream," Arai says, noting the cone shape of the rolls.
Marquez takes a bite. "Hey, Taro - this is awwwwwwwwwwwwesome," he gushes.
Arai attempts a bow, but the bus suddenly jerks just enough to make him look like a human bobble-head doll.
"All I need is a seat - and a seatbelt," he says.
In front of the sushi bar, scattered across two pleather, canary-yellow banquettes, Marquez and six friends are slurping Asahi beers and poking fun at one of their own (Britainy Williams) for eating the rice and dumping the fish. And they are talking loudly about Pamela Anderson and Kid Rock as a celebrity couple and, every now and again, stopping to watch a key scene from "Shanghai Noon,"
the Jackie Chan movie that's playing on a flat-screen TV connected to a DVD player, which itself is running through a high-end audio system. (Though the bus is wired with high-tech toys, it's missing one crucial feature:
There's no restroom.)
Through it all, Marquez can't seem to stop smiling.
"Dude, this is so much fun," he says. "This is awwwesome."
Marquez has a Woody Woodpecker tattoo on his arm and is wearing a funky, sleek-black bowling shirt with an Asian pattern on the front, and if five people didn't insist it's true, you'd wonder if he wasn't fibbing when he told you he is a Highway Patrol officer. He is also co-owner of Tobacco Republic, a cigar-and-pipe shop tucked away in a strip mall in Loomis.
Eventually, Marquez says that riding the Sushi Bus to his birthday bash at Mikuni was the best way to spend his 31st birthday, which leads somebody to wonder what he could possibly do for something big like, say, his 40th - to which he says:
"I guess it will be time for Mikuni to launch a sushi yacht!"
Fong, who thought up this crazy bus idea in the first place, nods his head and says, "You know, that's not a bad idea at all."
Arai only laughs.
Life is funny, after all, when your restaurant is on a roll.
For more information about the Mikuni Sushi Bus, call