Cafe Reviewed: Wednesday, May 10, 2006
Super Tran: The owner and executive chef of Piranha Killer Sushi in Sundance Square challenges diners to help him please their palates.
Piranha Killer Sushi
335 W 3rd St, FW. 817-348-0200.
Rollin’ Into Town

A crazily named sushi bar may be just what the doctor ordered to revitalize dining in Sundance Square.


Kenzo Tran is the owner and executive chef of the recently opened Piranha Killer Sushi in Sundance Square. The 31-year-old Vietnam native may be many things — an entrepreneur, a nice guy, a fantastic sushi chef. But one thing he is not: a drug dealer.

“Someone just asked me, ‘Kenzo, do you put cocaine in your sushi rolls? Because I find myself craving them if I stay away too long.’”

The new restaurant is Tran’s second Piranha — he opened the first in Arlington five years ago. By all accounts, Piranha II looks to be a success and also the shot in the arm that dining in Sundance Square has been needing. Business at Piranha, Tran said, is “getting crazy, but I love it.”

Who would have thought that an independent sushi joint would give some kick to an area that’s seen a handful of independent restaurants close over the past couple of years and many more struggle? The times, they must be a-changin’.

“When I opened the Arlington Piranha, some friends said I was crazy,” Tran said. “ ‘Sushi in Arlington?’ But I was 100 percent convinced that if people would just come through the doors, I could create flavors that would please them even if they thought they hated sushi.”

Though he understands that downtown Fort Worth denizens in 2006 might have slightly more developed palates than Arlingtonians in 2001, Tran said he was confident in his ability to win Cowtown over. He had been scouting locations across the Metroplex for a second Piranha since 2004. Sundance Square moved to the top of his list about a year ago, immediately after the closing of Zolon, the previous tenant in the space currently occupied by Piranha.

His only direct competition is a more traditional yet equally tasty sushi bar right down the street. Yet while Mikado Sushi on West 5th Street is pretty much all about the food, Piranha looks like a place you wouldn’t mind hanging out in — the décor is trés chic but totally unpretentious. People in flip-flops likely feel as comfortable as folks in wing-tips.

Piranha’s food is also a bit more adventuresome than the competition’s. Indeed, Tran’s business philosophy resembles the strategy of many a successful crack dealer — if your fare’s good enough, buyers will always come back for more. Tran claims that he even has a special delicacy for creating zealous converts, the “Marry Me Roll.” Its secret? Ingredients familiar to any sushi novice — coconut, shrimp, tuna, avocado, ginger cream, and strawberry slices.

Tran moved to Texas when he was 6 years old. He didn’t realize he wanted to please palates until his teens — he lived with his grandfather and some uncles, and they all insisted that the boy cook and serve unadventurous Vietnamese staples. “Truthfully, I hated it,” Tran said. “It was a chore.” He eventually left home for South Florida to seek out kitchens that allowed more room for experimentation. He spent the first couple of years washing dishes. Once he broke into the cooking ranks, he discovered kitchens and superiors even more demanding than his family members. Tran’s first boss was a Chinese sushi chef named Mama-san, a tough old bird known for precision and perfection. Even tougher was Tran’s second chief, Tanaka-san, who smiled less than Mama-san and was even harder to please. Tran then got out of Asian eateries and into French and Italian joints, where he thinks he began developing his easygoing, highly personable, intensely creative kitchen style. Tran still recalls one boss in particular, Carmine, “a Joe Pesci type who threw pizza around and talked up the regulars.”

The whole time, Tran was saving money and building a good line of credit. He claims he sacrificed a lot in his 20s — dating, club-hopping, hanging out with friends. After moving back to Texas in 2001, he immediately opened the Arlington Piranha with seven credit cards and the entire contents of his savings account.

Tran’s motto is “personalize, not commercialize.” He calls both restaurants “free-style sushi bars,” and he attributes his loyal clientele to the fact that he hires only creative-minded chefs. Any Piranha customer is welcome to challenge Tran’s fleet of Hawaiian-shirted knife-wielders. Some customer-designed rolls, like the Dr. Fran (shrimp tempura, eel, cheese, masago, scallions, avocado, and tuna), have become signature Piranha menu items.

“We work very hard to create an atmosphere where people can come from work and just relax,” Tran said. Interestingly, the laid-back, spontaneous, inspired vibe of Piranha Killer Sushi is also somewhat of a conscious negation of his hidebound teachers. He credits all of them for helping him develop his culinary prowess, and yet: “Those were not happy environments,” Tran said. “I wanted my place to be the exact opposite of the places where I learned.”

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