Sunday, October 2, 2011

Kula Revolving Sushi Bar: Only $2 a Plate

High Quality and Low Prices at Kula Revolving Sushi Bar of Irvine and Rowland Heights

With an economy still in the doldrums, some sushi restaurants have had to get creative to stay afloat in the game. Competition stiffened as wallets tightened, and consumer tastes, it seemed, got more fickle by the minute. One good thing that has come out of this, though, is the proliferation of conveyor belt sushi restaurants.

Although the concept is not new, conveyor belt sushi has become quite a hit in the Southland, particularly Kula Revolving Sushi Bar and Gatten Sushi, both of which have multiple locations and continue to crop up more.

Also called a “Sushi Train” or “Sushi-Go-Round,” conveyor belt sushi is all about rotating sushi and other dishes on a moving track that runs through a restaurant, so that each selection sails past the patron and is literally up for grabs. At the end of the meal, the small plates (usually stacked high) are tallied up to determine the amount of the bill.

This is ideal for all types of people: those on the go who don’t have a lot of time for a formal sit-down meal, those who wish to sample a variety of dishes without filling up, and those who are on a budget.

Talk about a good deal: At Kula Revolving Sushi Bar, all plates are $2 each, and the quality is surprisingly high considering the low price. And if that weren’t enough, Kula also serves premium organic rice as well as the best and sweetest-tasting real wasabi I have ever experienced. Not only is this bargain-hunter’s dream of a sushi place not about cheap powder-based wasabi, which is what most restaurants offer, but Kula's wasabi is flown in from Japan from a special purveyor; the texture is grainy and its flavor potent (sweet with a pure and raw hotness that no imitation stuff could ever come close to).

In 2008, Kula had first opened in Century City as a formal dining establishment. Special cut rolls cost as much as $16. But due to low visibility and presumably a gloomy financial climate, it shortly closed down—but it wasn’t long before Kula reappeared in Orange County, this time having been reinvented as a more affordable, toned-down yet still-hip sushi outlet.

Although Kula Revolving Sushi Bar offers even the exotic items, from heart clam to conch, it mostly specializes in popular rolls and nigiri, such as “Shrimp Avocado Roll with Creamy Yuzu Sauce” or “Snow Crab Leg” sushi. For $2, you can choose from a plate of cut rolls with only three pieces, or one to two pieces of nigiri, depending on the type (snow crab and sea urchin, for example, come as a single piece).

There is also the Seared Beef with Yakiniku Sauce, a sweet and tangy Americanized selection. For those who aren’t yet ready for the totally raw, other cooked choices abound, such as seared salmon or seared scallop sushi, both squiggled with mayonnaise. Or you might find yourself tempted by the crispy rice squares topped with spicy salmon or spicy tuna, with jalapeno slices that crown the mound of chopped-up chum mixed with chili sauce and mayonnaise.

Little touches make it even more remarkable that this is a $2-a-plate joint: squid sushi here is served with refreshing shiso leaf; albacore sushi is thoughtfully presented with ponzu sauce on the side in a little plastic condiment container, ensuring the fish doesn’t get soggy and that patrons who don’t like sauce can eschew it.

To ensure freshness, both Kula Revolving Sushi Bar and Gatten Sushi have systems in place which automatically disposes sushi plates after a number of revolutions on the belt. This adds up to a lot of food wasted, and with such low prices, you wonder how they stay in business—and then you see the small plates stacked to the Heavens as patrons prepare to pay, and it’s obvious that the numbers add up; people simply overeat and indulge more because they know it’s affordable.

The ideal time to eat at any revolving sushi bar is when it’s the busiest: that’s when the assembly-line sushi is at its freshest due to the rapid turnover. Another helpful tip: at just about every conveyor belt sushi restaurant, you can always ask the chef for a fresher order of anything you see on the belt, especially if it’s something fried (it’s common sense, but the longer a tempura item sits on the belt, the less crunchy it gets).

Taking the guesswork out of what to order from a menu also makes conveyor belt sushi more approachable and less intimidating. Neophytes need not be very familiar with Japanese terms at sushi train restaurants, as little signs bearing the name and ingredients (and sometimes a photo) of the dishes that follow usually say it all; plus it’s all right there—and if it looks good, it will be picked up. Sushi train restaurants are simple and fun, and they make a great starting point for small children who are just being inducted into the world of sushi.

Although the Rowland Heights location just opened up about a month ago, it is almost always packed. At peak times for both locations, expect to put your name on a list and then wait about a half hour.

Kula Revolving Sushi Bar
2700 Alton Pkwy., Irvine


1370 Fullerton Rd., Rowland Heights

Fresh Off the Sushi Train at Gatten Sushi

Gatten Sushi: Multiple Locations to Serve You

With even more locations here in the Southland than Kula Revolving Sushi Bar, Gatten Sushi serves high-quality food off a conveyor belt as well, but with tiered prices: dishes range from $1.50 to $5 (or $2 to $3 at the Gatten Sushi Junior locations), depending on the color of the plate.

The wasabi at Gatten Sushi is unremarkable, but Gatten Sushi has its own variety of tasty items that Kula Revolving Sushi Bar doesn’t feature. The seared shrimp sushi drizzled with spicy mayonnaise, for example, is top-notch, and rare items like tilapia and gizzard shad are served as nigiri. Another popular choice: the tuna steak nigiri, which is covered with a marinated onion sauce and diced scallions.

Gatten Sushi’s "Original" locations (the larger branches) also offer specials such as squid sushi with mayonnaise and fried onions, seared three-piece Salmon Oishi-Zushi topped with chopped vegetable salsa and jalapeno, and Una Tama, which is short for Unagi Tamago. The latter is a tasty treat: warm slices of Japanese omelet served with a sweet syrupy sauce, with little bites of eel peeping out from the center. For dessert, there’s even Almond Tofu in a glass that you can lift off the belt.

The seared beef sushi at Gatten Sushi is a tad on the chewy side; Kula’s Seared Beef with Yakiniku Sauce has that one beat. And although Gatten Sushi’s crab nigiri costs $5 for two pieces, the single-piece version at Kula’s tastes sweeter and fresher. Gatten Sushi, however, has a unique Daily Specials menu that lists different trio sets of nigiri depending on the day: on a Thursday, for example, you can get the amazing Seared Trio for only $2, with seared yellowtail, salmon and white tuna. On other days, you may find specials like the California Trio or the Shrimp Trio, which involve the same base nigiri dressed in different toppings. Or, it might be a Tempura Trio, which involves different kinds of fried tempura with the same sauces.

Gatten Sushi also sells a rowdy, energetic ambience: every new item that gets placed on the belt is heralded by a chef, to which the entire staff choruses “Yummy!” at the top of their lungs. Every time a patron stands up and prepares to leave the restaurant, you can hear a staff member announcing “Customer leaving!” And at this, the entire staff turns toward that customer and bows graciously, exclaiming "Arigato Gozaimashita!" loudly and in unison.

A Gatten Sushi Original is slated to open in the Westfield Shopping Mall in West Covina sometime this month.

Gatten Sushi Original
500 N. Atlantic Blvd., Monterey Park

Gatten Sushi Jr.
4517 Campus Dr., Irvine

Gatten Sushi Jr.
18162 Colima Rd., Rowland Heights

Gatten Sushi Jr.
11306 ½ South St., Cerritos