PANAMA CITY BEACH — Raw seafood, whether sushi or oysters, seems to elicit extremely passionate responses — from those who love it and those who are adamantly against it.
Since discovering sushi as a teenager, I have reveled in what I consider to be a delicious and fun eating experience for the senses. A local suggested I try Ketana after she became hooked.
Ketana definitely pays attention to details. The straw in my Diet Coke had the top of the paper wrapper left on it, but the rest of the wrapper had been twisted, spiral wrapped and tucked neatly around it. I asked waitress Aom Sirisang about her technique and she was happy to show me how it is done.
“When I first tried, not so beautiful,” said Sirisang, who made it look easy as she demonstrated. (She handed me a straw to try — not so easy, with the tucking of the twisted wrapper especially tricky.)
At her suggestion, I ordered the Ketana Roll, the most popular along with the Beauty & the Beast and Red Dragon rolls. After the white rectangular platter of sushi arrived, I realized there was no way to eat each piece in one or even two bites.
Each piece looked like a volcano with red and orange house sauces spilling over the mound of spicy tuna. (Ketana also has a roll named Volcano). I took my chopsticks skills to the limit, keeping each piece intact for dipping in the mixture of soy and wasabi — though more spice really was unnecessary.
Sushi chef Wannarong Khuantang mixes the ground yellow fin tuna with spicy mayo, onion, fish egg, pure sesame oil, Srichai and eel sauce.
After Khuantang noticed I was fighting the heat, he asked, “Spicy? … Next time I can make it less spicy.”
For the Ketana, he rolls spicy tuna, avocado, krab (fish presented similarly to crab meat), asparagus and rice in seaweed, deep fries the entire roll and cuts it before topping with more spicy tuna and sauces.
“All sauce is homemade. I make it myself,” Khuantang said as he pulled an array of sauces from behind the bar. “Spicy mayonnaise, wasabi sauce, ponzu sauce, kimchi sauce, eel sauce. I have a lot of sauces.”
Khuantang, originally from Bangkok, Thailand, has been at Ketana since it was opened almost two years ago by Saisunee “Nee” Sarnnok, who also owns Oishi. Also a Thai and sushi restaurant, Oishi is located a little farther down Front Beach Road.
“I mix it up,” said Khuantang, who moved to South Miami in the ’90s and helped make Thai at his aunt’s restaurant. (He even names a Cucumber Wrap, Miami Nice, after the city.)
Khuantang, wearing a Florida Seminoles hat, has been on board with Ketana since its begining, but he still helps out at Oishi when they are busy.
“I like tuna and eel,” he said. “Next time, you get half eel and half tuna, Beauty and the Beast — that’s a good one.”
The Beauty & the Beast Roll is half eel, half tuna with avocado, asparagus, tempura flakes and masago topped with tuna and eel and served with the house special sauce.
For sushi lovers with a specific fondness, there are the Tuna Lover and Salmon Lover sushi dinners served with miso soup or salad. Each entrée comes with four pieces of sushi, six pieces of sashimi and a roll.
And for those who hate sushi altogether, there are plenty of Thai options.
“We have good Pad Thai, Curry and Thai Crispy Duck,” he said.
Wine bottles, including Sake (rice wine), hang on racks on the rose-colored wall behind the sushi bar. Customers can dine at tables and booths, or pull up a bar stool where pendant lighting features lamp shades in pink, gray and purple. Hunter green curtains were tied back at the front of the restaurant to let light in and make way for a view of the condos and palm trees across the street, with the sky and beach peeking through.
Ketana was quiet on a recent Thursday, mid-afternoon, as a couple dined at a booth and the sound of the news on the flatscreen TVs barely was heard in the background. But that will change in February.
“Next month, we will be really busy on Spring Break,” said Khuantang, who averages about 100 rolls a day when the spring breakers come into town.
What: Thai restaurant and sushi bar
Where: 10514 Front Beach Road, Panama City Beach
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily
Details: (850) 249-1510 or KetanaRestaurant.com
Thai, sushi cooking classes
Learn how to roll your own sushi with Boatyard Restaurant’s Chef Slade Christmas during his Advanced Sushi demonstration at 10:30 a.m. Jan. 12 at Somethin’s Cookin’,93 E. 11th St., in Panama City. On Feb. 2, Day Logue continues her series of Thai dishes at Somethin’s Cookin’. Reservations and pricing: 769-8979.