Real flames are on the menu when customers order the flaming dragon specialty roll at Inari Sushi in Elmwood Park. | Melissa Elsmo/Food Editor

According to The Story of Sushi: An Unlikely Saga of Raw Fish and Rice by Trevor Corson, the very first traditional sushi restaurant popped up in Los Angeles in the mid-1960s. The establishment named Kawafuku catered primarily to Japanese immigrants and earned a robust following. As a result, Japanese chefs started flocking to California to open similar restaurants and by the 70s health-conscious American celebrities had discovered the delicacy. Sushi began gaining considerable traction on the West Coast as chef’s capitalized on locally available ingredients like crab and avocado. Once the perennially popular California Roll took hold of the burgeoning sushi-loving community, creativity and accessibility took hold of American sushi menus.

Over the past 50 years colorful maki rolls, nigiri morsels and subtle sashimi have been gaining in popularity across the country. In fact, the number of sushi focused establishments in the United States has grown to more than 15,000 in the past half century.  When served in Japan, sushi is a celebration of simplicity and freshness while in America extravagant maki rolls tend to dominate menus. Building on a traditional trio of ingredients including seaweed, seasoned rice and fresh fish these rolls create opportunities for creative chefs to distinguish themselves from the multitude of spots serving up sushi in the states.

Inari Sushi and Sake Lounge, 7428 W. North Ave., has created a place of prominence on Restaurant Row in Elmwood Park over a decade. Sara Kate, the spot’s owner, spent years in management at Tank Sushi in Lincoln Square and maintains industry ties to the folks behind Sushi Wabi — the standard-setting sushi bar located on Randolph Street in Chicago that closed in 2012. Relying on the wisdom of chefs from some of the great Chicago sushi houses has helped Kate and her devoted team embrace creativity in their array of custom maki rolls.

Sure Inari keeps with tradition by offering straightforward sashimi, nigiri and maki rolls that honor Kate’s career long devotion to souring quality ingredients, but their specialty rolls have evolved well beyond the typical California roll. Consider Inari’s Flaming Dragon Specialty Roll — this baked inside-out roll is stuffed with shrimp tempura, scallions and sweet spicy mayo before being topped with fresh salmon, super white tuna, black and red tobiko, scallions and sesame seeds. The offering is literally set on fire before landing on a customer’s table; the showy offering is a favorite among Inari’s regular customers. 

No flames needed: The diablo roll from Inari looks unassuming but packs a spicy punch thanks to spicy tuna and fresh jalapeño. | Melissa Elsmo/Food Editor

Folks looking for a different type of heat will appreciate the Diablo Roll filled with spicy tuna, avocado, cucumber, cilantro and fresh jalapeno. This spicy offering, garnished with tempura crunch, spicy mayo and sweet soy, is sure to please hot heads everywhere.

The creativity continues with Inari’s alphabetically inclined S.T.A.Y Rolling Roll featuring letter focused ingredients: salmon, tuna, avocado, and yellow tail. The offering is a delicious spelling lesson. The festive X’mas Specialty Roll lets a well-known color palate drive the dish. Look for ruby-hued tuna, snow crab and tobiko to join green-hued cucumber and avocado in this ode to a festive time of year. The memorable roll is meant to be enjoyed all year long.

Miso soup is a warming start to any meal at Inari in Elmwood Park. | Melissa Elsmo/Food Editor

Precede any Inari maki roll offering with a piping hot bowl of house-made miso soup or innovative appetizer offering.  A healthy summer roll, found among Inari’s rotating menu of daily specials, appeals to health-conscious visitors. In lieu of nori and rice this maki-inspired starter is wrapped in carved cucumber and sweet sauce.  Inari’s spicy tuna ravioli boasts an especially memorable presentation with tuna and crab meat mixed with ponzu sauce hidden behind scales of thinly sliced avocado.

Though rooted in Japanese tradition, Inari’s offerings celebrate the best side of American sushi cuisine while remaining both elevated and refined. The decade old sushi lounge offers deceptively complex, chef driven creations with customer comfort in mind — a noteworthy combination on North Avenue.