By Terry Greene Sterling | Photo by Edward McCain
In Japan, the word “Tanuki” conjures mythic characters resembling dog-like raccoons. Supernatural Tanuki can either be nasty or kind, depending on how they feel. They hold special sway over Japanese restaurant owners, so it makes sense that Michiko Maggie Grace (pictured) named her restaurant and sushi bar Tanuki.
What doesn’t make sense, at first glance, is that Grace’s Japanese bistro sits on Fry Boulevard, the main street in Sierra Vista, a small Southeastern Arizona community populated mostly by military personnel who work at historic Fort Huachuca, the local Army base, as well as by government contractors and retirees.
You just wouldn’t expect sushi in Sierra Vista. Spend time in the town, though, and you’ll find it’s a cosmopolitan place that has a lot to offer. Hikers, cyclists and birders enjoy the high-desert grasslands and sky-island mountains that surround Sierra Vista, along with the nearby San Pedro River. History buffs flock to Tombstone, the town too tough to die, and Bisbee, the mining town turned art colony — both an easy drive from Sierra Vista. And the “living cave” at Kartchner Caverns State Park rests a few miles north of the town.
Grace recognized Sierra Vista’s potential when she first visited it in 1980. Sierra Vista couldn’t have been more different than Grace’s native Okinawa, and that’s exactly what she liked about it. “Okinawa is a beautiful island, but there are many people living in a small space, and every place you go, you see the ocean,” she says. “Here, you look around and you see the big country.”
A short, stocky woman with oversized glasses and thick black hair pulled back in a bun, Grace is now in her 60s and an American citizen. She opened Tanuki in 1994. Through the years, grateful Sierra Vista sushi fans have given her dozens of mementos from their trips to Japan — porcelain figurines, framed prints, needlecraft, toy boats — all of which line the walls and crowd the windowsills of the restaurant.
What distinguishes Tanuki from most other sushi joints, besides the décor, is that Grace hires only trained Japanese sushi chefs, makes all her own sauces, and is extraordinarily picky about the freshness of the fish she serves. Tanuki’s fish is flown throughout the week from Los Angeles to Tucson, where Grace picks it up at the airport and drives it 70 miles back to Sierra Vista. If a supplier sends bad fish, Grace throws the fish away. “I would rather lose a fish man than a customer,” she says. “I always have the best quality fish. I am very careful with my fish.”
Grace’s passion for fresh fish shines in the wide variety of sushi (vinegar rice, usually wrapped around raw fish or seaweed paper) and sashimi (raw fish). Other authentic Japanese dishes, such as Tempura Udon (shrimp tempura in noodle soup), Katsu Donburi (pork, vegetables and eggs served over rice) or Sukiyaki (beef, chicken or tofu simmered in Grace’s homemade sauce with yam noodles, bamboo shoots and green onions) all await nonsushi eaters. For even less adventurous palates, the fresh salmon or sirloin steak offer delicious alternatives. And Grace’s homemade cheesecake is a must.
Thanks to her own hard work and talent, and maybe a little magic dust from Tanuki, Grace has made Sierra Vista home to one of the most authentic Japanese restaurants in Arizona.