Bigfork’s popular sushi restaurant offers its own spin on popular Japanese bar food
Story by Justin Franz | Photography by Hunter D’Antuono
Owner and chef Drake Doepke says SakeTome will always be, first and foremost, a sushi restaurant. But that doesn’t mean Doepke can’t offer his patrons something new, which is why he recently added a Chicken Karaage Bao to the menu, his spin on a popular type of bar food found in Japan.
“This is just for fun,” he says, “to mix it up.”
Doepke spent his 20s traveling Asia and developed a passion for the region’s food. When he landed back stateside, he got a job at a sushi restaurant in Steamboat Springs, Colo., and later worked at restaurants in Bozeman and Hawaii. In 2009, Doepke opened SakeTome on Electric Avenue in Bigfork. At the time, a sushi restaurant was a bold addition to the local culinary scene there, and Doepke says some people were hesitant of a seafood eatery so far inland. But in the 11 years since its doors opened, SakeTome has become a community culinary cornerstone and has expanded to open a second location in Missoula.
Doepke says he launched the Missoula location because he thought the community there could use a restaurant like his, plus he believed it would serve as a counterbalance to Bigfork’s more seasonal operation. He says this year it seems as if both restaurants have been busier than ever, even with social distancing and the weeks-long closure back in the spring due to the pandemic. He notes that, while running a business is challenging during the pandemic, in many ways restaurants are well suited for these times because sanitation and cleanliness are always a priority.
While both SakeTome locations have been a success, Doepke says it’s unlikely the brand will expand again (although his spin-off ramen restaurant in Missoula, Michi, is poised for potential expansion). For one thing, it’s hard to duplicate a sushi restaurant.
“Sushi is really an art form, and it can take years to train a sushi chef,” he says.
But variety is the spice of life, which is why Doepke has decided to add a few small plates to the menu inspired by Japan’s Izakaya cuisine. Izakaya is popular with late-night revelers and usually consists of small items made with a few ingredients. The Chicken Karaage Bao is a prime example. The dish features Japanese-style fried chicken on a steamed bun with pickled cucumber and carrots and a white truffle sriracha sauce. Doepke says it’s a simple dish but one that is sure to please.
“Sometimes the simplest food is the best food,” he says.
The chef says the Chicken Karaage Bao was created out of a desire to mix things up and have fun with the menu, adding that it’s always important to keep things fresh. However, it was also important to show just how diverse Japanese cuisine can be.
“We want to show people that Japanese cuisine is more than just sushi,” Doepke says.