Don't roll with it
Sacramento, CA 95827
Good for: Japanese food that isn't sushi
Notable dishes: Nabeyaki ramen and fried smelt
Minus rare exceptions, I generally assume most sushi places are the same sushi place. In essence, they’re a bit like Taco Bell. The same eight ingredients matched in any number of different ways to create a larger menu, but instead of sour cream and mystery beef, it’s spicy mayo and fake crab.
Are all of you as bored as I am by this? Cheap cylinders of rice and nori packed with the same old, same old tired combinations? Rolls with silly names at all-day happy-hour prices so cheap any proper foodie should be downright nervous?
I went into Tsukiji Sushi recently, a humble place tucked behind a Starbucks on Bradshaw Road that I left with terribly mixed feelings. Tsukiji does do a lot of things right when it comes to Japanese fare, but it’s the sushi part of the menu where issues arise.
Let’s begin with the non-sushi options. They’re not that varied, but what is available is flavorful and expertly cooked.
A plate of gyoza stuffed with pork arrived perfectly crispy and so hot they belched steam when bit into. My fellow diners dredged them through soy sauce to quell their heat before devouring them in seconds.
Tempura vegetables and shrimp were a paragon of what tempura should be: ethereally light with a perfectly crisp exterior that shatters against your teeth. These were cooked quick and served tongue-scalding hot. No soppy spots of oil or heaviness in the stomach that results from poor frying. Rather, these were snappy pieces of carrot, broccoli and sweet potato paired with tender shrimp.
Then there was the smelt. Can we talk about smelt and the curious case of why so few restaurants ever serve them? Yes, I suppose there’s the whole eating something that is technically looking back at you thing, but carnivorous diners need to get over that or become vegetarians. These smelt were supple, not too oily, and fried with the same crisp exterior as the tempura. Truly, someone back in this kitchen can fry.
The tonkatsu, a breaded and fried pork cutlet was succulent inside and crunchy on the outside. The Tsukiji pattern emerged: Deep-fried equals good.
The night’s biggest hit was the nabeyaki ramen: a one-pot dish of chewy ramen noodles, cooked chicken, shrimp and fish cake punctuated with a variety of crispy vegetables. On top of it all was a fried egg with a still-wobbly yolk. Once broken, the yolk oozed into the sweet and hauntingly savory broth. It was all terribly addicting and something that I will return for when the cold comes back to Sacramento.
Now to the sushi rolls. To be honest, there is little to say. Three different rolls, most of them rehashes of masago, soft-shell crab, spicy mayo, et cetera, were ordered. Tongue-in-cheek names and curiously low prices. The 1822 roll was smeared in a fire-engine-red hot sauce that was nothing but pure cayenne, obliterating the flavor of the tuna.
The Fat “D” roll was akin to the worst hookup ever: bland and boring. We actually dissected this one: old avocado, mushy fish, poorly seasoned rice. Yawn.
There was a deep-fried roll as well that tasted of the color beige. Done and done. None of the rolls were finished and we refused to take any of it home.
Tsukiji Sushi is a conundrum: a terrible, repetitious sushi joint but an excellent Japanese fry and noodle house. Still, know what to order and your visit will be worth the time and money.