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Fish out of water

Jera Kassner's office has a real fraternal-order-of-the-elks vibe. Sure enough, his restaurant, 2nd Street Sushi, shares a roof with the American Legion Post, just a few blocks off the main drag in Hamilton. There is even one of those '70s-era roll-out accordion room dividers and a pool cue rack still fixed to the wall.

In the next room, Kassner's employees, a hodgepodge of young guys and gals from around the Bitterroot Valley, turn out what is often regarded as the best sushi in Montana. I haven't tried all the sushi my beloved state has to offer, but it's hard to argue with 2nd Street's reputation.

Kassner is a Real Montana Dude with that tough-and-honest thing that seems to be in the water east of the divide. He hails from Circle, almost as far east as you can get in Montana. He started out serving beers and burgers in Glendive, then delivering for Pizza Hut in Missoula while putting himself through school. Kassner moved up the ranks at Pizza Hut, got some corporate managerial training and found himself with a desk job—not ideal for a guy with an independent streak. In 2008, Kassner and his then-business partner, Toby Helms, opened 2nd Street Sushi.

"Now I have a sushi restaurant," he says. "It's quite unbelievable. I never expected it to turn into what it has and to be around as long as it has been."

This attitude makes sense when you consider that 2008 was a tough year. It was the depths of the economic downturn and not a great time to open a restaurant, never mind a sushi joint in Hamilton. I don't mean that as a knock on Hamilton, just that nobody had tried it before. It was a risky move in a part of the world that takes its meat and potatoes very, very seriously. Turns out, it was a stroke of genius.

Kassner says sushi newbies would come in for the cooked food, and someone adventurous would order a California roll (sushi's gateway drug, of sorts) or sushi would get ordered on a dare. Before long, Kassner had a load of faithful regulars.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • photo by Chad Harder

Word got out. After winning a spot on MenuAsian.com's national list of Top 100 Asian Restaurants back in 2011, curious diners have been driving in from all over the state and beyond to check it out.

So when I ask Kassner why people are saying his restaurant's sushi is the best in Montana, he tells me that he never said that. He's a humble guy. But he does speak proudly about why, perhaps, his restaurant has received acclaim.

"It's in the handling and the preparation," he says. "It's what we do when we get it. It's what we put on it in the end, it's how we cut it. I don't know, we know what we know and we do what we do."

When I try a piece of Tazmanian salmon nigiri, it's clear what Kassner means. It melts in my mouth and tastes so fresh that you'd think an ocean must be hiding somewhere in the Bitterroot Valley.

The freshness speaks to a common misconception about sushi in Montana: a Seattle restaurant isn't necessarily getting fresher fish than one in Hamilton. Quality, Kassner explains, is a function of how long you want to wait for it and how much you want to pay for it. And the fish served at 2nd Street Sushi is the good stuff.

Take the tuna, for example. After it's caught off the coast of Hawaii, the fishing boat docks at port around 4 or 5 in the morning. The fish is unloaded and sold at market before 7, and Kassner's secret contacts have it on the 10 a.m. plane. Twenty-four-ish hours later, Kassner is picking up his tuna at the airport in Missoula. You could be eating it for lunch just 36 hours after the fishing boat docked in Hawaii.

Kassner has fish delivered three times a week. Most is delivered whole and flash frozen as required by FDA guidelines, with a few exceptions as the rules permit: tuna, for one, as well as some shellfish. The freezing process doesn't degrade the fish—it actually makes it safe to eat by killing off the nasty critters that will make you sick. The FDA calls it the "parasite destruction guarantee." That's the way it's done in every sushi restaurant, regardless of its proximity to the ocean.

If the idea of indulging in fine sushi in the shadows of the Bitterroots still leaves you skeptical, Kassner makes a suggestion: order the Montana combo, which includes a seven-piece chef's choice, or ask about whatever specialty fish is in that week. You can't go wrong with either, even if the ocean is still more than 600 miles away.

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