Can sushi go populist?

Make-your-own spot gives new respect for the chef

Is this $15 worth of sushi roll?
  • Is this $15 worth of sushi roll?

Should sushi have populist appeal? It's a question worth asking. On the one hand, a talented sushi chef can turn a meal into an transcendent eating experience. On the other, why should the enjoyment of raw fish be reserved for a privileged elite willing and able to pay highly skilled experts?

Sushi Freak

5175 Linda Vista Road #105, Linda Vista

Enter Sushi Freak, the budding local franchise concept that offers to let you design your own maki rolls. In three Sushi Freak restaurants — two here in town, one in Albuquerque — the special sushi rolls can be made to order, with a host of ingredients available for mix and match experiments.

The sushi roll just kind of gave up at the end here

The sushi roll just kind of gave up at the end here

Standards like avocado and cucumber may be replaced with mango, asparagus, or mandarin orange: four bucks gets you any two out of more than a dozen fillings for your roll. Five bucks if you prefer soy paper to nori seaweed wrapper. Another three adds raw fish, while $2.50 opts for cooked seafood, tofu, or fried bean curd. Another buck or three lets you add toppings from tempura crumbles to spicy tuna. You can get a fairly simple roll for $7, but easily add on to make it $15.

A fast casual sushi franchise

A fast casual sushi franchise

That's about equivalent to any modest sushi restaurant, so the value partly depends on how tastefully you assemble rolls. I decided to see how daikon sprouts and avocado worked out, wrapped with salmon in a pink soy paper with a free side of ponzu sauce. For a second roll, I requested yellowtail with New Mexico-style green chilis and carrots, topped by spicy mayo

Nobody stopped me from making such poor decisions. But I guess that's the price of freedom from sushi chef tyranny. Despite the uncoordinated ingredients of my personalized rolls, the sticky sushi rice had the appropriate amount of rice vinegar, so at worst they just tasted like bland sushi.

Bland sushi that was falling apart on me. One of the owners of Sushi Freak once told the Reader's Ed Bedford, "I can teach any kid to become a sushi roller," but my disintegrating maki says otherwise. As I ate, my yellowtail roll fell into enough disrepair it ate more like a sushi scramble. But even before I plied my chopsticks, one end of the roll pretty much resembled a pile of rice, topped by an artless glob of spicy mayonnaise.

Sushi chefs can breath a sigh of relief; Sushi Freak hasn't proven their hard-earned skills obsolete. And I don't think sushi should be cheap, or convenient. If we're looking at a finite amount of sashimi quality fish in the world, I'd rather it be put in the hands of people who know how to make the most of it.

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