If you've visited a local brewery, taken a stroll down Commercial Street, or slurped oysters at The Shop in the past couple of years, chances are Mr. Tuna has infiltrated your headspace at some point. Slinging temaki "hand roll" sushi from a Yeti cooler emblazoned with the image of a proud tuna, head held high in a three-piece suit and brandishing a walking cane, you might've thought we've finally reached peak hipster (for lack of a better term).
I did, until the first time I forked over $6 for a cone of nori outfitted with spicy scallops, crabmeat, julienned cucumber and tempura flakes while casually sipping spontaneously fermented ale at Allagash. It took only a few seconds to realize that those three bites were the best I'd had in months, as synapses fired in every direction. I could no longer deny that Mr. Tuna was something special.
Lucky for us local folk who live, work or otherwise find themselves downtown on a regular basis, those hand rolls — the same specimens Bon Appétit Editor at Large Andrew Knowlton is quoted as saying "might as well have been served in L.A. or Tokyo” — are now available six days a week as a permanent fixture at the Public Market House in Monument Square. Rather than simply fashioning another mobile cart, however, Mr. Tuna's admirable growth has resulted in a veritable no-frills, walk-up sushi bar. It's the first of its kind in Portland, and a breath of fresh air for the long-stagnant Market House layout.
The most noticeable difference for those already familiar with Mr. Tuna's omnipresence around town comes in the extent to which proprietor Jordan Rubin (who cut his chops working at Uni Sashimi Bar in Boston) has upped his entire game with the new location. Yeti coolers full of fish — still to be found streetside — have been replaced by a sleek and lean stainless steel sushi case, where the day's offerings are prominently displayed for patrons and passersby alike. Neon signage, an ever-changing blackboard menu hanging from the ceiling and giant rice cookers frame the space, which looks and feels far more permanent than any other stall in the building. There is a dishwasher; I imagine a godsend for Rubin and his staff.
Sitting at the sushi bar is a somewhat chilly experience this time of year given its proximity to two constantly swinging entrances to the Market House, but chances are Rubin himself will be on the other side of the counter prepping your order. You may even end up with a little treat from the kitchen for hanging around instead of taking your food to go.
Also noticeable is an expanded selection of menu items, which now includes sushi burritos (yes, that's very much a thing now), an assortment of snacks/sides and a hyper-seasonal specials board highlighting the day's fresh catch. The burritos are surely the heartiest lunch options on offer, with the Mr. Tuna house specialty — tuna, avocado, spicy scallops and crab, eel sauce tobiko, scallions and tempura flakes — to be considered a must-order. Snacks range from fun and filling — a Japanese potato salad rife with bacon, bonito and kewpie mayo — to more refined options such as the house avocado salad. Bright with acidity from just enough presence of pickled onions and creamy miso dressing, it's the perfect side dish to flesh out a trio of hand rolls.
Those hand rolls are still the stars of the show. Every combination I've tasted has been up there with the best vehicles for raw and slightly seared fish I've ever tasted, save for a few small, barely mentionable gripes (a heavy hand with powerfully fragrant shiso in the salmon belly temaki, a bit too much acid for my tastes in the tuna tataki). None of this matters once you sink your teeth into a fresh dayboat Maine scallop cone, with just enough smoky char from broiled sudachi mayo to balance what has got to be the sweetest, most texturally pleasing mollusk on the planet. Equally worth ordering is the Maine crab, where a simple dash of yuzu mayo brings out multiverses of salinity and soft, delicate funk.
I suppose the only complaint that can be made by those who would happily belly-up to the sushi bar at Mr. Tuna on a regular basis is price point. At $15 for three hand rolls and $5-6 per side (and trust me, you want a side), it's not exactly a daily lunch option for the lot of us. The $17 sushi burritos don't exactly scream Tuesday afternoon, either. Contextualizing this meal as an occasional treat and bearing in mind the quality and freshness of ingredients being used, however, it becomes much easier to swallow the associated costs. Great sushi isn't cheap, nor should it be. You just need to know that going in.
There's a lot of additional room for growth for Mr. Tuna as a brand, including the inevitable full-service evolution with beer, wine and sake on offer that I'm sure will come a bit further down the road. For now, grab a seat and revel in the immediacy while enjoying some of the best sushi available in Portland.
Mr. Tuna | 28 Monument Way | Mon-Fri 11 am-5 pm; Sat noon-5 pm | www.mrtunamaine.com