Even a sushi purist can't resist the tropical flavors of this roll at Kaizen downtown

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Nikki Buchanan
Special for The Arizona Republic

No one is ever on the fence about sushi. You either love or hate it, and you probably have strong views about what it should or shouldn’t be.

Purists, for example, think sushi rolls are for wimps. They confine themselves to sashimi and classic nigiri — raw fish served atop a pad of sushi rice — and they're horror-struck by people who drown their sushi in soy sauce, arguing it destroys the delicate flavors of the fish.

Sushi free wheelers, on the other hand, believe anything goes, including the addition of cooked ingredients and sweet, heavy sauces.

I have a conservative leaning on the sushi front (I did live in Japan, after all) and I draw the line at smoked salmon and cream cheese, which, to my possibly strait-laced mind, belong atop a bagel, not tucked in a sushi roll.

Despite that, I find myself in love with the sushi rolls at Kaizen, a Latin-inflected Japanese restaurant housed in The Lawrence building in downtown Phoenix.

Owners Kyu Utsunomiya and Troy Watkins offer a menu that walks the line between modernity and tradition, blending Latin ingredients and preparations with Japanese ingredients and preparations so seamlessly that the final products make delicious sense.

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The best sushi roll at Kaizen is a tropical triumph

I love many of the florid sushi rolls here, but my all-time favorite is the Caribbean King, which is the party in your mouth that its name suggests.

The colorful inside-out roll is composed of Ora King salmon, rice, nori, cucumber, panko-fried shrimp and spicy crab. The whole eight-piece affair is turned on its side, then drizzled with glistening brown eel sauce, spooned with bright yellow mango salsa and festooned with garlands of micro-cilantro.

Around the roll, the plate is dusted with Tajin, a Mexican seasoning salt composed of dried chiles, including chile de árbol, guajillo and pasilla.

Despite all the eye-catching bells and whistles, the brilliantly orange salmon is the beating heart of this dish.

Sushi chef Ezekiel Cortes makes the Caribbean King Roll at in Phoenix on May 24, 2022.

Fatty Ora King salmon is the star of the Caribbean King

Ora King salmon is a sustainable breed of New Zealand-farmed king salmon, a rare species of salmon that makes up less than 1% of the world's supply. It's raised humanely, fed a good diet and given a huge amount of pristine water in which to swim.

Ora King has an extremely high fat content, which means it's rich and deeply marbled. Its texture is so buttery and sumptuous that it's often called the wagyu beef of the seafood word. It very nearly melts in your mouth, and yet its flavor is clean and faintly sweet.

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General manger Jason Pohlman changes the dual restaurant over from The Larry to Kaizen in Phoenix.

This roll layers flavors and textures in unexpected ways

Panko-fried shrimp brings another layer of sweetness and crunch to this roll, while spicy crab mix, made with real crab — not Kani, the imitation crab sticks made of white fish that many sushi bars use — blends the heat of Sriracha with creamy, umami-laced hits of Japanese Kewpie mayonnaise. This is the real deal.

You'd think mango salsa — also sweet, also silky, also spicy — would be a bridge too far, but nope, it works, as does that subtle little snaking of luxurious eel sauce, which adds another dimension of sweetness and salt.

Mild rice and shrimp serve to keep everything in balance, while crisp cucumber keeps it clean. That sprinkling of tajin provides a final gritty pop of salt and acid.

Traditional? No. Delicious? Absolutely 

Kaizen's Caribbean King is light years from traditional Japanese sushi. It's not restrained or particularly subtle, but I challenge you to taste this exuberant, irreverent, utterly luscious roll and tell me you care.

Pro tip: everything on the menu is half off during happy hour — 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday for dine-in only. During that two-hour window, the Caribbean King drops from $19 to $9.50. Get there early or make a reservation. This is one party you don't want to miss.

Details: The Caribbean King ($19) at Kaizen, 515 E. Grant St., Phoenix, 602-432-0752, kaizenphx.com.