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Last Best Plates

Stella Fong: NaRa Restaurant combines Asian, Montana flavors

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On this day after a heavy spring snowstorm in Billings, I leave the bustling traffic on Division Avenue behind to step into NaRa Restaurant. My attention is immediately drawn to the long light wood sushi bar, and then to the fireplace in the corner flickering a warm welcome. Panels of Japanese wood block prints depicting a snowy mountain scene hang on the back wall above metal art of a school of fish, adjacent to windows looking out onto one of the busiest corners in town. A large flat screen near the sushi bar flashes the special offerings in high-resolution photos.

Working at a quick pace is owner and chef Dae Shin who has established the signature of rolling Montana-style sushi — bold in flavor and large in size. With black gloves, a black T-shirt and a black apron, he wears the uniform that befits the meaning of his given name Dae, the “great one.” With a Miyabi knife in hand, he holds the spirit of a warrior, and today is fulfilling his duty as the son carrying on the family legacy albeit in his own style from his Korean roots and Montana upbringing.

While still offering the nigiri, a seasoned rice ball with raw fish, vegetable or egg on top, and sashimi, bite-sized pieces of raw fish originally placed on the menu by his father, Young Soo, Shin has created innovative specialty rolls. They carry names such as Dos Eggies with spicy tuna, bacon and two over easy eggs, Dragon Breath with salmon, mango and jalapeño, and Alpine with shrimp tempura, spicy tuna, cream cheese and jalapeños.

In 1996, his aunt, Mia Settergren ,and mother Young Ran opened NaRa two years after the Shins immigrated to the United States from Seoul, South Korea. After a couple of years, Settergren left the business when her brother, Shin’s father, came to work.

While mom cooked in the kitchen, dad handled the sushi bar. Soon after, they recruited their 12-year-old son to come in and help. “My dad and mom would have me come down and do dishes for a whopping $5 a day.” Over time, he learned to make sushi. In 2004, his father sent him off for training. “He wanted me to go and expand my knowledge, and he had me go to Korea where he had some contacts. There was a well-known sushi place in Daegu, Korea attached to an awesome five-star hotel.”

After three months, he was beckoned back home. With new found knowledge, Shin wanted to make some changes. “When my dad first took over the restaurant, he was very traditional, but as time passed and different sushi restaurants started opening, he realized that it’s not what he wanted, but what the customers wanted that was important. So that’s how he started adding new things, and then as I took over, I decided to expand the palate of our customers.”

His father retired in 2012, and three years ago, returned with his mother to South Korea. His mother cooked for the restaurant after Young Soo left. “She passed on zero recipes to me,” Shin says of having to recreate the hot dishes. At the end of last year, after her last visit she made a batch of kimchee. “Yesterday we ran out of her kimchee,” Shin laments. Old customers miss her homestyle cooking.

Though Shin commands the sushi bar, he values Dustin Ritts, who has worked alongside him for more than four years. In the kitchen, classically trained Kayce Hilton cooks up the entrees.

Shin continues to push the limit with his sushi rolls.

“Our biggest thing is probably bacon. How many sushi restaurants do you go to where you can get bacon on your roll?” he says.

With his favorite cuisine being Mexican, he believes, “Mexican flavors blend really well with Asian flavors.” His biggest seller, The Rollin' Red, is a roll with spicy tuna, cream cheese and jalapeno and avocado on the inside and topped off with tempura lobster pieces, bacon, green onions, sesame seeds, volcano sauce, spicy teriyaki sauce and sriracha.

When Shin first started working at the restaurant he admits, “For a long time I didn’t take this as a real job, a job you go in, punch in and punch out.” Now, “I enjoy talking to my customers. I have always gotten to know my customers, usually on a first-name basis.”

Since taking over the restaurant, his wife Tanya first worked the front of the house waiting tables, but, now, with four children, she works behind the scenes in public relations, bookkeeping and running errands.

While she grew up eating bland cuisine from her Jewish heritage, she enthusiastically shares, “I put kimchi on everything.”

Shin has satisfied his goal with his number one fan. “I would like to be known as the sushi chef in town that pushes flavors. I’m not one to shy away from bold flavors. Whenever we come up with new dishes, I say we need more flavor, more garlic, more spices, more ginger, more sesame.”

I have the Slammin' Salmon with salmon, cucumber, avocado and asparagus on the inside with seaweed wrapped on the outside and garnished with spicy asparagus sauce, sesame oil, and sesame seeds. Before my entree of Thai-inspired Drunken Noodles with chicken arrives, my palate is readied with sips of savory miso soup, and bites of fresh greens tossed with ginger dressing. The soft, slightly chewy noodles remind me of my childhood dish of chow fun while the sushi keeps me in the present.

NaRa Restaurant continues to evolve after 26 years of being in business, combining Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Thai and Montana flavors.

Stella Fong, author of 'Historic Restaurants of Billings and Billings Food' hosts 'Flavors Under the Big Sky: Celebrating the Bounty of the Region' for Yellowstone Public Radio.

TheLastBestPlates.com is a digital destination that serves up Montana's tasty food, travel and culture stories … one bite at a time.

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