Banzai Sushi & Grill

Never a town to ignore fashion, Austin has its own set of worldly fast-food eateries selling everything from wraps to pasticcio. One of the newest is this Japanese grill.

Banzai Sushi & Grill

3914 N. Lamar (across from Central Market), 323-2151

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

It used to be that fast food in America meant fat food: hamburgers, fries, and fried chicken. If a vegetable appeared on the table, it was generally submerged in a bacony stew, or well-hidden on the underside of a hamburger bun. But as Americans become increasingly concerned with health and obesity issues, the fast-food industry has had to modify its product, making it not just healthier, but also more appealing to a worldlier group of citizens. Fast food in America has undergone a massive revolution. Beyond Burger King, today's fast food is fresh, sophisticated, and culturally self-aware. It embraces international cuisines, organic salads, gourmet pizzas, and even sushi.

Never a town to ignore fashion, Austin has its own set of worldly fast-food eateries selling everything from wraps to pasticcio. One of the newest is a Japanese grill called Banzai. However, while Banzai's concept is based on the fast-food model, the execution is a little disorganized. Diners order at the front, then take a number and have their food delivered when it's ready. But the menu is way too long and complicated for most people to peruse rapidly, causing inconvenient lines at the counter. The single order-taker at the front is then also responsible for getting drinks, which leads to still more delays. Utensils, napkins, and condiments must be delivered by a server, who sometimes forgets, and the food is not really that fast, especially on a busy night. The end result is that the few service people there work doubly hard to compensate for the inefficiency in the restaurant's design. And diners who expect a quick, low-impact meal end up twiddling their thumbs.

That said, the food at Banzai is a Fuji-sized improvement over most fast-food joints, even that of its major Austin competitor, Zen. And this may be due to the fact that, aside from premaking nori rolls, Banzai's kitchen is not really set up to be fast. Banzai's menu choices range from the predictable to the unusual. Yakisoba, steaming udon soups, and airy tempura anchor the menu. These made-to-order dishes come glistening out of the kitchen, piled with freshly fried noodles, vegetables, and shrimp. Banzai's Gyoza ($2.99) are fat and flavorful, stuffed with seasoned turkey and vegetables, accompanied by a salty soy and vinegar sauce. The fried, surprisingly plump oyster appetizer ($2.49) is equally enticing, encrusted in a delicate batter.

Like most Japanese restaurants these days, Banzai has its own set of wildly imagined signature nori rolls. We loved Banzai's Green Shadow Roll ($7.99), made with fresh salmon, cream cheese, and jalapeños wrapped in green soy paper. The Sumo Roll ($7.99), stuffed with shrimp tempura, asparagus, crab, and avocado, tucked into bright yellow soy paper, tasted crisp and fresh. Our favorite dish, however, was the Unagi Don ($7.99) – lightly sauced fried eel over a bed of fresh sticky rice. The eel was beautifully cooked. It was tender, moist, and deliciously coated in a light sweet soy sauce.

Unlike the boutique-y Japanese restaurants of the 1980s and Nineties, Banzai's causal format makes Japanese food accessible to the budget conscious, to college students, and to families with small children. Judging from the clientele, these misfit demographic groups are finally finding a home beyond the burger-and-fries genre. This makes it all the more disappointing that Banzai has some serious service kinks to iron out. Once smoothed, however, Banzai should be poised to blaze its way toward fast food's holy grail: the franchise.

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