All the Fish in the Sea

Part one of our guide to Austin's proliferating sushi spots

Feel like a fish fix? Good thing you're in Austin, where it seems that sushi restaurants are proliferating like wildflowers in spring. Just how many sushi bars are in Austin? Counts vary based on exactly how you define a sushi bar, but Austin certainly has at least 25 restaurants (all of them covered in our two-week survey) with dedicated sushi areas. As David Byrne would say, how did we get here?

Years ago, the only sushi bars were in Japanese restaurants. Somehow over the years, the sushi business has morphed into a way to fill space at other types of restaurants. First, the Korean restaurants started putting in sushi bars. Now there are several Chinese restaurants with sushi bars and even Asian buffets with sushi. Retail stores like Central Market, Whole Foods, some Albertson's and HEBs, and even Costco are selling sushi! Unfortunately, proliferation has its price. We're not saying that the explosion is bad, but how many customers are there? We hope there are enough to keep the product turning over on a constant basis. Poor turnover equals less-than-perfectly fresh fish. If a sushi place doesn't look spotlessly clean and busy, take your hard-earned money elsewhere. Caveat emptor.

The good news is that the state of the art of Austin sushi is pretty good. Of the restaurants covered, none were just flat-out awful, and several were excellent. During the last few weeks, Chronicle Food writers Mick Vann, Rachel Feit, and I have been searching out the best sushi Austin has to offer. With so many, our only choice was to spread the report over two issues. Here is Part One of what we found, covering 12 restaurants. And don't forget to check out our glossary of sushi terms in this week's section. -- Wes Marshall

Musashino Sushi Dokoro

3407 Greystone, 795-8593

Tuesday-Thursday, 5:30-10pm; Friday-Saturday, 5:30-10:30pm

The crowned King of Austin sushi bars. Musashino has shown up on almost every Best of Austin poll since 1995. The people adore it. The critics are keen on it. And what's not to love? They serve fresh and appealing fish. The atmosphere is suitably and Austintatiously funky (there was even Japanese country music playing in the background, something sure to cause cultural vertigo). Plus, it's just hard enough to get a seat that you feel like you're special just for getting in. As at most sushi spots, the place to settle is at the sushi bar, where there are nearly as many chefs as seats. We recently had a feast there that included 12 different types of seafood, and they hit it out of the park on 11 of them. Unlike some other spots in town, Musashino's prices are by the single piece.

A great test of any sushi place is the simple taste of yellowtail, which is not a tuna, as is commonly believed, but a form of Amberjack. Masushino's version ($3.50) revealed perfectly fresh and sweet flavors, a great harbinger of things to come. Their tuna ($2) was similarly fresh and delicious. Our favorite offering was the freshwater eel ($2.50), cooked to crisp perfection on the outside while still tender and juicy on the inside. It was drizzled with Masushino's delicious Nitsumé sauce, which was the best we tasted in our forays around town. Thick and sweet, it obviated any need for soy. The other standout was the fresh shrimp called Botan Ebi ($2.50). This dish is served raw, except the head, which is deep fried and served after you have finished the tail. The result, though potentially strange to Texas tastes, is a crispy concoction about the texture of a thick sugar glaze on top of a crème brûlée, but with intense sea flavors. You just haven't lived until you've tasted fried shrimp innards. Yummy!

We love fish eggs and, again, Musashino delivered the goods. Both the Flying Fish roe ($4) and salmon roe (served with a raw quail egg, $5) were superb. Then we hit a major snag when we ordered sea urchin roe, aka Uni ($4.50). We watched with interest as the apprentice pulled out the trademark wooden tray. He looked at the roe and went to a master and showed it to him. Uni should be firm and have a surface texture that looks a little like a small tongue. As Uni ages, it loses its cohesiveness, eventually to the point where it doesn't hold together well. This is well before it is dangerous, but for the equivalent of $50-75 a pound, you want good stuff. The master looked over at us, unaware he was being observed, and motioned to his assistant to go ahead and serve it. The Uni they served wasn't holding together at all. I called over the supervisor. He took one look at what I had been served and threw it straight in the garbage and then instructed our server to get out a fresh tray of Uni and make me a new serving. Obviously, any sushi bar can end up with old goods, but the answer is to throw them away. What gave us cause for concern was the original assumption that we wouldn't know a fresh product from an old one. We were relieved when they replaced it. -- Wes Marshall

Origami
Origami (Photo By John Anderson)

Origami

110 N. I-35, Ste. 200-B, 238-6522 Monday-Friday, 11am-2pm, 5:30-10pm; Saturday, 5:30-10pm

Origami is truly a family operation, and perhaps that's why things run so smoothly here and all of the staff seems so happy. Proprietors Larry and Sugako Thomas were the previous owners of the Kyoto empire (now run by Sugako's brother), and the two sushi chefs are the Thomas' sons Tim and David. Excellent and engaging waitress Sara will become David's wife in June. The closeness of the group certainly transfers to the quality of the food, producing what we believe to be one of the top (if not the best) sushi restaurants in the area.

The interior of the restaurant is beautifully decorated in a spare but artful manner, making one forget the strip center location. The menu covers all aspects of Japanese cuisine, and we had excellent renditions of seaweed salad ($4.99), cloud-like fried tofu squares in scallion broth ($4.25), and perfectly done gyoza dumplings ($4.50) as appetizers. But the impeccably fresh sushi is why we were there.

The sashimi and sushi menus cover every conceivable want, and the diner can order combination platters if they don't want to have to make their own decisions. We knew exactly what we wanted, and attacked the list with glee. We started with a sashimi selection of silken, warm, and sweet anago sea eel ($3.95), buttery hamachi ($4.95), and sea bass ($3.75) and tuna ($4.50) that could have been wiggling in the water mere seconds before.

The next platter of sushi rolls took the experience way over the top, cresting the crown of Mount Fuji. The chopped toro roll (fatty tuna, $6.99) is liberally stuffed with unctuous belly tuna that melts in the mouth. The spicy tuna roll ($6.95) is made in reverse fashion (rice on the outside), featuring a zippy blend of chopped tuna that Neptune himself would have blessed.

The last platter featured two tempura rolls: the first being the scorpion roll ($7.25) of fried soft-shell crawfish, which is dressed with a spiced remoulade-like dressing, rolled in conventional fashion. The pinnacle that all sushi rolls should wish to achieve came next: the ethereal ninja roll ($7.95). Rolled inside out, it encases spicy chopped yellowtail paired with tempura and cucumber for an impeccable combination of texture and taste. Each bite is pure heaven.

The only downside to Origami is the fact that it's in Round Rock, but once you make the trek prepare to envelop yourself in a calming, friendly atmosphere while you eat Central Texas' freshest, tastiest sushi. -- Mick Vann

Sushi Sake
Sushi Sake (Photo By John Anderson)

Sushi Sake

9503 Research Blvd. #500, 527-0888

Monday-Thursday, 11:30am-10pm; Friday-Saturday, 11:30am-10:30pm; Sunday, noon-10pm

There is something very reassuring about a sushi restaurant where the servers point out items that might be particularly fresh, or conversely that may not be on the menu that day. When it comes to sushi, it's nice to know that a restaurant puts an emphasis on freshness and flavor. This was the case with a fatty tuna ($4.95) I ordered at Sushi Sake not long ago. The waitress informed me that only medium fatty tuna was available; their extra fatty tuna had not been delivered that day. Instead, she recommended that I try the mackerel ($3.50), as it happened to be excellent. She was right -- its full flavor had not a trace of fishiness. And as for the fatty tuna, I suppose my palate is just not sensitive enough to really discern the very fatty from the medium fatty, because in my estimation, the piece I ordered was absolutely silky, beautifully marbled, and it nearly dissolved on the tongue.

One of the youngest of Austin's sushi restaurants, Sushi Sake is also among the chicest. Dimly lit, elegantly trimmed in soft woods, dark tile, and stainless steel, the sophisticated interior here manages to completely obscure the McMall feel of the surrounding chain stores and parking lots at its Research Boulevard location. Though the regular menu changes infrequently, the kitchen offers specials depending on what happens to be fresh and available that day. We were lucky enough to be there on a night when the kitchen had just received a shipment of oysters from Seattle ($6.95). These immense, fleshy bi-valves were served two to the order, on the half shell with just a drizzle of ponzu (a sauce made of lemon, soy, and sugar), lemon zest, and a sprinkling of scallion. Fish slices on their sushi and sashimi menus are ample and always fresh, though not cheap. Single pieces of sushi range from $2-$5, while sashimi is priced $8 and up per five-piece order. Non-sushi appetizers range from $4.95-$12.95, and entrées average around $15.

As their name implies, Sushi Sake also features more than 15 premium brands of sake, some meant to be served cold, and others meant to be served hot. Their finest sake comes with a $250-per-liter price tag. Though a meal at Sushi Sake can take a chunk out of the monthly entertainment budget, it is generally worth it for the excellent quality and friendly service. -- Rachel Feit

Benihana

9070 Research Blvd., 451-7505

Sunday-Thursday, 5-10pm; Friday, 5pm-1am; Saturday, 5pm-midnight

When I was a child, Benihana was the place we begged our parents to take us to for birthdays or special nights out. Twenty-five years later, this nationwide Japanese chain hasn't changed much -- kids still love it. The food here is prepared on a giant cook-top right at your table. Chefs brandish oversized knives that flash through meats and vegetables as if they were rice paper, and devein a dozen shrimp faster than a rodeo act. The pure spectacle of the preparation is one of the best reasons I know of to go to Benihana, which specializes mainly in meats, fish, and vegetables of the stir-fry variety. Not to be left out of the sushi boom, though, Benihana has also added a respectable list of sushi and sashimi to their menu. Sea bream, giant clam, bonito, and eel are among the more exotic of their offerings. This fun, family-style restaurant also features the typical sushi assortment such as yellowtail, salmon, and tuna. Prices for sushi hover around $4.50 for a two-piece order. -- Rachel Feit

Ichiban Il Bun
Ichiban Il Bun (Photo By John Anderson)

Ichiban Il Bun

7310 Burnet Rd., 452-2883

Monday-Friday, 11am-11:30pm; Saturday, noon-11:30pm; Sunday, 3-11pm

Ask any of Austin's sushi connoisseurs where they think the best sushi is, and Ichiban usually falls near the top of the list. This no-frills Korean-owned sushi emporium attracts a loyal following of Korean, Japanese, and just plain sushi-lovin' folks who come here not to hobnob among tony hipsters but to get down to the serious business of eating. Ichiban offers a large variety of sushi and sashimi -- from the ubiquitous salmon and tuna to the more exotic sea urchin. They specialize in designer rolls such as the esoteric Rainbow roll, the Austin roll, or the Burnet roll (crunchy fried tuna or yellowtail rolls wrapped with green onions and sweetish soy sauce). Korean bi bim bob or spicy-sweet bulgoki are also worth ordering. Open late night. -- Rachel Feit

Imperial Asia

825 East Rundberg, 834-9388

Monday-Friday, 11am-2:30pm; Monday-Thursday, 5pm-9pm; Friday, 5pm-10pm; Saturday, 11am-10pm

Imperial Asia is a Thai restaurant that is in the middle of constructing a sushi bar that will open in late May. They currently serve some sushi. The main attraction is the price. At least for the moment, all of the sushi on the menu is just $2.50 for two pieces. Rolls range from $2.50 for the Cucumber Roll to $4.50 for the Philadelphia Roll. Bargain hunters will go for the Imperial Sushi Two ($7.95), which includes six assorted pieces of sushi and a California Roll. -- Wes Marshall

Jade Chinese Restaurant

3704 N. I-35, 459-6001

Tuesday-Friday, 11am-2pm, 5-9:30pm; Monday and Saturday, 5-9:30pm

Close to the university and priced with the student in mind. Primarily a Chinese restaurant, but they do have a sushi bar. Limited selection. Best choice: the Eel Hand Roll ($3.95). -- Wes Marshall

Kimchi Sushi

6406 N. I-35, 453-4111

Monday-Thursday, 11am-10pm; Friday, 11am-11pm; Saturday, noon-11pm; Sunday, noon-10pm

This new, simply decorated restaurant located in Lincoln Village features a sushi bar in addition to its menu of Korean favorites. Sit at the bar and chat with the garrulous sushi chef while you sample some of Kimchi's fresh-tasting yellowtail, tuna, or salmon sushi. Prices at this restaurant are better than most of the newer sushi places -- sushi ranges from $3.50-$5.50 for a two-piece order. -- Rachel Feit

Korea Garden Restaurant and Sushi Bar

6519 N. Lamar, 302-3149 Monday-Saturday, 11am-2:30pm, 5-10pm; Sunday, noon-9pm

This is the funky-looking Quonset hut restaurant across from the Yellow Rose on Lamar (not to be confused with the other Korean sushi spot farther out Lamar), but when you enter, you find a beautiful, comfortable space inhabited by young hipsters. We have always loved the sushi here, and found the prices quite attractive. Especially yummy are the spicy tuna handroll, the eel, the yellowtail, the salmon skin roll, and the smelt roe. Korea Garden is an particularly good place to feast on the sushi chef dinner combinations. -- Mick Vann

Korea House

2700 W. Anderson Ln., Ste. 501, 458-2477 Daily, noon-10pm

Korea House has been hiding in the courtyard of the Village Shopping Center for decades, and over those many years has developed a throng of followers loyal to their sushi as well as their Korean offerings. The sushi bar is the focus of activity in the space, and they offer a complete line of delectable and fresh sushi and sashimi. Although some diners feel the quality can fluctuate here, we have always found our old friend Korea House to be delicious and dependable. -- Mick Vann

All the Fish in the Sea

Koreana Korean Grill and Sushi Bar

12196 N. MoPac, 835-8888

Monday-Friday, 11am-2pm, 5-10pm; Saturday, 5-10pm; Sunday, 5-9pm

One of the growing legion of Korean restaurants around town that also pay homage to Japan's culinary influence, Koreana may be better known for plump savory mandoo ($5.95), bulgoki ($6.95-$7.95), or spicy Korean garlic shrimp ($8.95) than for raw fish dishes. This attractive, comfortable restaurant located in Austin's far northwest corridor offers a standard assortment of sushi and sashimi options with dinner, but we've found them to be only moderately appetizing. Mackerel can be fishy-tasting (always a danger with this type of fish), and tuna can be stringy or a little flaccid. Still, considering the prices range from $3.50-$4.95 for an order of two, Koreana offers one of the better sushi deals in town. -- Rachel Feit

Kyoto

315 Congress, 482-9010

Lunch: Tuesday-Friday, 11am-2pm

Dinner: Monday-Thursday, 6-10pm; Friday-Saturday, 6-11pm

Long before the dot-coms, long before the latest wave of austere, marble-clad shrines to unrestrained gastronomy, there was Kyoto. This elder statesman of Japanese restaurants was one of the trailblazers in Austin's currently flourishing and diverse restaurant scene. Always strongly committed to sushi and sashimi, the original downtown eatery features the now-familiar roster of sushi standards. Kyoto's sushi and sashimi menu is slightly more limited than many these days -- you won't find 20 varieties of hand rolls exploding with nontraditional goodies -- but Kyoto's excellent quality makes the trip there special. Non-sushi items cover the basics in Japanese cuisine, but don't expect surprises. -- Rachel Feit


A Sushi Glossary

The Sushi chef that has attained master status is called a shokunin, and to call him "shokunin-san" is a supreme compliment. They have to work for years to develop the experience to be rightfully called by this honorific.

The main preparations are sashimi, nigiri, and maki. Ordering sashimi is the best way to let the chef know you mean business. What you will receive is the finest part of the fish, generally on a prettified platter with radish, ginger, and wasabi, sometimes with a special dipping sauce but never with rice. For first-timers, Hamachi is the perfect fish for sashimi. Nigiri, what most people mean when they say sushi, is a hand-formed ball of rice with the fish or your choice. Maki is a piece of nori (seaweed) stuffed with rice and the fish or vegetable of your choice. The fancy rolls don't have a proper Japanese name. They are an American invention and as foreign to them as Chicken Fried Octopus with Soy-Cream Gravy would be to us.

Hamachi (Yellowtail): Probably the best choice to immediately determine the quality of a sushi bar. It should be fresh and sweet. If it is tired, mushy, or flavorless, pay your bill and go somewhere else.

Maguro (Tuna): Wonderful intro fish, and another good indicator of the overall quality of the bar.

Ebi (Shrimp): Cooked shrimp. Easy on sushi beginners.

Ama ebi (Sweet Shrimp): Raw shrimp. Should be extremely sweet. Generally served with the head deep fried, intact, and filled with entrails. Scares some folks.

Sake (Salmon): Mostly farm-raised and fatty, but succulent.

Unagi (Fresh Water Eel): The biggest surprise for the novice. Not only is it cooked, but it's rich and drizzled with a sweet sauce. Everyone loves it, unless the idea of eel is just too much.

Ikura (Salmon Roe): When fresh, each egg explodes in your mouth with the fresh taste of the sea. When not fresh, it's just mushy.

Uni (Sea Urchin Roe): Expensive, and most people don't like it. Unique flavor and sometimes served past its prime, due to the cost considerations of throwing it away. For the few of us who love it, nothing else will drag us into a sushi bar quicker.

Tobiko (Flying Fish Roe): Imagine if caviar weren't salty and was sweet. Delicious stuff, and worth trying with a raw quail egg.

Tako (Octopus): Looks like octopus. Outside Japan, it is always cooked. Has a very mild taste.

Tamago (Omelet): A layered hen egg omelet with a sugary flavor. Absolutely delicious dipped in the soy sauce/wasabi combo. You know you've found a shokunin when you see them making it by hand behind the bar. It is so time consuming that most places buy it pre-packaged.

Kani (Crab): Always served cooked. Delicious and sweet, but most places actually serve Kani Kamaboko (fake crab).

Hello (in the evening) is konban wa (kone-bahn wah). Goodbye is sayonara. Thank you is domo arigato (doe-moe ahr-ih-gah-toe) except at the end of the meal, when it is gochiso-sama desh'ta (goe-chee-soe sah-mah desh-tah). -- Wes Marshall

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