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