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Wednesday, May 16, 2007
Ridin' that (sushi) train
Sushi go-round restaurants: some people fear 'em, some people won't go near 'em. I regret to say that the first time I tried sushi, I was 21 and it was in one of these places. Looking back, it might have been the best place to start. After diving into the world o' sushi on one of its bottom rungs, anything mediocre tastes downright divine.
If you aren't familiar with them, go-rounds are the equivalent of fast food in the world o' sushi. Patrons sit at a large, round bar on stools around a conveyor belt that carts around cheap items ranging from edamame to cucumber rolls to sticks of Pocky. A team of sushi chefs stand in the center and add new items as need be.
I had my first bite of sushi at Marineopolis in Beaverton, which is to sushi what Burger King is to cheeseburgers. After years of making bad jokes about "how could anyone want to eat raw fish," a colleague dragged me out to there for a plate of unagi (freshwater eels). In hindsight, the rice was soggy, the unagi was lukewarm and it had probably been making the rounds for over an hour. At the time though, I didn't know the difference and I was immediately hooked.
In the weeks and months that followed, I was averaging a trip to a sushi go-round every two weeks. Room-temperature edamame, rotgut California rolls, miso soup that consisted of little more than broth, spicy tuna rolls with all the kick of a dead donkey- I couldn't get enough of stuff that would cause a discerning sushi eater to weep if it touched their taste buds.
Sushi-gobblin' isn't a poor man's game but there are those of us willing to play anyway. After Sushiland, my new addiction led me to Sushi Takahasi in Chinatown. In time since I discovered it, the place has become popular to the point where a wait on a weekend night can run over 30 minutes for a spot at the bar. Despite the cool tea house atmosphere and a toy train that carts around plates of sushi instead of a more traditional conveyor belt, you won't find it anywhere near any given list of recommended sushi restaurants in Portland. I'd rate the quality of the rolls down there right around what you might find in a Fred Meyer deli case with a red discount sticker slapped on the side. Despite my incredibly low standards, a trip to Sushi Takahasi back in February might be my last. The decor was getting shabby, I had to wait forever for a seat, the sushi was worse than usual and I was wedged between a drunk hipster couple and a fireman sitting next to his teenage daughter. They spent the whole time bickering about her decision to take a post-high school gig in a factory instead of enrolling at PCC.
Sometime later, I made my first trip to Sushiville on NW 23rd. It's the best go-round joint I know of in Portland and it too is becoming more and more popular. Still, I can think of at least one local sushi snob that angrily headed for the exits after spitting out an avocado roll. If you go, give the caterpillar rolls a shot. They aren't half bad.
Despite the low quality, go-rounds are popping up like weeds around town. Recently, two opened within a few weeks of one another downtown. Blue Fin Sushi on SW Broadway near PSU isn't bad but I wasn't impressed with their variety during a recent trip and the loud '90s dance pop pounding out of the restaurant's stereo system doesn't help matters. This painting I found in the mens room was pretty cool though:
Better is the new Sushiland (part of a chain that also owns Marineopolis) in the Pearl District a block away from Powell's. Unlike its suburban predecessors, the sushi is higher quality and there's a bar upstairs. I headed down there on Saturday before a trip over to the Baghdad. When their conveyor belt ran out of unagi, a chef behind the counter cranked out another plate and had it over to me in two minutes flat.
You can find sushi just about anywhere in PDX, some good, some bad and I suspect that a lot of people out there don't know the difference. It'll be a long time before I'll ever be a true sushi connoisseur. On the spot, the best roll I've ever eaten would have likely been the unagi at Bush Garden downtown. Can anyone out there come up with a reasonably-priced alternative here locally that can top their stuff? I'm sure it won't be much of a challenge.