La Vida Sushi
by Jeremy Kraybill

The Great Austin Sushi Crawl

Part 2 of 3

2:15 p.m. Korea Garden
Yellowtail, Large Hot Sake

The interior of Korea Garden feels kind of like someone made a restaurant out of a military bunker. It has big domed walls and a strange corridor in the middle of the restaurant. The walls of the restaurant are populated with "Big Mouth Billy Bass" talking fish trophies, which I hear are also popular in military bunkers.

We had a pleasant surprise when our server, Mimi, brought out the large hot sake -- it came out in a huge teapot! This thing was filled to the brim. For $12 we got at least double what we get at most places in a large. Unfortunately it was really lukewarm, but Jonno and Neil didn't seem to mind all that much.

It turned out to be a good thing that we got so much sake, because it took us 35 minutes for our order (four pieces of yellowtail) to come out. There was only one sushi chef, but in those 35 minutes he only made one order, a sushi combo, for a couple who had ordered about five minutes after us. Not too good, but when the fish did come out it was surprisingly good, in fact some of the best tasting yellowtail I've had in Austin, succulent and with a great texture.

We had an interesting pricing discussion. If there was a very good sushi restaurant that offered a one-year all-you-can-eat pass, where you can go in anytime and get as much sushi as you want (but only you can eat it), how much would you pay for it? And how often would you go? Neil was the lowballer at $1,000. He said he'd go for 2-3 lunches and 2-3 dinners a week (this works out to about $3.80 per meal). Jonno came in next at $2,000, and said he would eat lunch there every day and 3-4 dinners a week ($4.50 per meal). After thinking about it a while, I concluded they both were hitting the sake a little too hard, and it was worth way more than that. I priced it out at $3,500 and would do 3-4 lunches and 3-5 dinners there a week ($9 per meal). What do you think?

After that huge pot of sake, Jonno and Neil were starting to feel the effects a little bit, and we had spent almost an hour in there. Jonno lost CCR for $21.54, but got to have the extra piece of yellowtail as part of the loss. Damage total: Jonno $52.73, Jeremy $25.58, Neil $3.99.

3:31 p.m. Sushi Niichi
Momoko Roll, Cherry Blossom Roll, 3 Magic Strawberry Bubble Teas

We're huge fans of Momoko but hadn't been there for a while -- not since they remodeled and Sushi Niichi opened. All I have to say is WOW. Niichi is a serious contender. The sushi was simply amazing, two of the best rolls I've ever had. Not only that, but this was the only sushi place I've ever been to with a senior Japanese sushi chef who is this outgoing and personable. Yoshi is his name, and he is one heck of a sushi chef. We spoke to him for a while. He said he trains sushi chefs in Austin, and I can see why after this visit.

We had a great experience there. Sushi Niichi does not have a liquor license, but I was happy to start off with Magic Strawberry Bubble Teas, which were excellent as usual. We ordered a Momoko roll, which is unagi and smoked salmon inside with avocado and Yoshi's special spicy sauce on top. All three of us were in awe of how good this roll was. Yoshi makes his own spicy sauce which is quite unlike any other spicy sauce in town and was simply fantastic.

While we were chowing down, tattoo-superstars The Enigma and Katzen were eating at the sushi bar! We talked to The Enigma for a bit, he was a nice guy and got in a photo with us.

We were just getting ready to leave when Ayaka, our waitress, brought out another roll and said it was a new roll that Yoshi had just created for us! It had tuna, cream cheese, and crab in the center, with salmon, avocado, tobiko, and spicy sauce on top. I'm not sure which roll we liked better, they were both incredible. Yoshi named the new roll the "Cherry Blossom Roll", I heartily recommend it even if it's not on the menu.

Yang and Ayaka also deserve special mention. Yang has been making us bubble tea since we started going to Momoko. He's a nice guy and always treats us well. Ayaka was our waitress, and she was really nice too. It was her last day, she is going to work at Umi. We heckled her about giving us free sushi if we see her at Umi but she is obviously a woman of integrity. The whole staff of Sushi Niichi and Momoko were the happiest and nicest looking group of staff we saw all day. Our whole experience there was terrific. Of the several new places we went to that day, I'm most looking forward to returning to Sushi Niichi.

We discussed what the best sushi is for breakfast on a hangover morning. Jonno said a salmon roll with avocado, Neil went with smoked salmon sashimi (aka smoked salmon), and I said anything with tempura, for the grease factor. I'm not sure it's actually advisable to eat sushi for breakfast after a hangover, but you never know when you're going to wake up in the arms of a master sushi chef with a raging hangover and a hunger for a taste of the sea.

Our bill was $21.11 and I got hit by the whim of the credit card roulette wheel. Neil wasn't pitching a no-hitter but was pretty darned close. He was looking pretty smug, probably figuring at this point he was a lock to get the Guinness record for most sushi eaten for $3.99. Damage total: Jonno $52.73, Jeremy $25.58, Neil $3.99.

"The woman shirt." -Ayaka, looking at Jonno's Playboy covers shirt

4.24 p.m. Umi
White Alaskan Cod, Large Hot Sake

This was the first time any of us had been to Umi. I had heard good things but just don't go south for dinner too often. Umi has great decor and I liked the circular design of the interior.

We sat down and Jonno and Neil lamented the apparent lack of sake in their bodies. The alcohol-free stop at Sushi Niichi was taking its toll on their inebriation levels. Our server, Michi, recommended the white alaskan cod so we ordered that up with some hot sake action.

I have to take a moment to talk about restroom facilities in sushi restaurants. Of all the places we saw along the way, Umi had the best facilities by far. While in there, I commented to Jonno that I felt like I was at the Bellagio in Vegas. Really above and beyond when it comes to quality and cleanliness. On the other hand, we saw an absolutely huge disparity in the quality and condition of the other restrooms along the way. At least four places had huge puddles of what was hopefully only water in the middle of the floor. One place was using mothballs as deodorizing cakes. Two places had at least one urinal covered with plastic with handwritten signs saying "out of order". I'd say at least half of the places had far below what is the expected quality of a restaurant restroom. So, sushi bar managers -- please make sure your restrooms are regularly monitored, or at least that someone goes in and cleans more often than once a week.

Back to Umi. The cod was excellent, and also quite photogenic as you can see. Really firm, and the rice was great too. Michi was fast and friendly. The discussion revolved around consumption of sake and the fact that Neil's stomach was hurting, which he blamed on the bubble tea. I was feeling great, and none of us were feeling even close to full despite our feast at the hands of Yoshi.

We talked about sushi-related turn-ons. Jonno likes kimonos. Neil likes waitresses of the tall, hot, Japanese variety. I like dates who can handle eating whole pieces of sushi without flubbing it and splashing soy sauce over half the table.

The tab was $21.75 and Jonno got hit again. He was pretty much on tilt by this point. We heckled him about maybe not wanting to play CCR anymore, but he swore he would continue with it so that it would finally hit Neil. Neil continued to beam his smug grin Jonno's way. Damage total: Jonno $74.48, Jeremy $25.58, Neil $3.99.

Jonno: "We're way behind the sake curve here. Not being able to drink at Sushi Niichi made all our early work go to waste."
Jeremy: "Dudes, we're running a marathon here. Relax."
Neil: "A marathon is just a long series of little sprints."
Jeremy: "That's why you're not a marathon runner."

"I'm not so sure about the bubble tea. It was good at the time, but now it's causing quite a bit of sloshing." -Neil

After Umi, we were all starting to feel a bit tired for the first time in the day. We went for a walk up to the local gas station, and Neil and I bought a couple Red Bulls for a little kick of legal stimulants. It cost us some time but we needed it. We RPS'd for the bill, and Neil lost which officially doubled his losses for the day. Damage total: Jonno $74.48, Jeremy $25.58, Neil $7.97.

5:37 p.m. Kenichi
Austin-Style Sashimi, Large Hot Sake

Kenichi had opened at 5 p.m. but was totally empty except for us. That was fine by me. Our missing fourth partner aka "The Fifth Beatle" Hong, and his lady friend Carie, joined us for this stop, which was nice of them. We ended up chatting with our server, Kerry, for a while. She gave us an excellent recommendation for the Austin-Style Sashimi, which is yellowtail with cilantro and jalapeno slices in a ponzu sauce. It was terrific. The pieces of fish were huge and really smooth. The dish actually comes with six pieces; like some of the photos here, we all got so excited when the dish came out that some of us chowed down before the photo was taken.

Discussion turned to what you would name a sushi restaurant if you opened one. Neil won lamest answer with "Fruit of the Sea". Jonno came in with most socialist: "People's Republic of Sushi"; Carie, most tex-mex: "Sushi y Mas"; Hong, most rhyming: "Sushi Gushi"; and me, most repetitive: "Sushi Bu Sushi?".

Hong's card got hit for the $25.86 bill, surpassing my total for the day by 28 cents in one fell swoop. Damage total: Jonno $74.48, Hong $25.86, Jeremy $25.58, Neil $7.97.

We walked over from Kenichi to Sushi Sake. I think a Friday night mini-sushi crawl of Kenichi/Pango/Kyoto/Sake on Sixth would be a good time (and make a substantially shorter column).

6:42 p.m. Sake on Sixth
Tuna Belly, Large Hot Sake

Sake on Sixth has great ambience, even when it was fairly empty. The service there has been consistently good for me too. We were disappointed to learn from our server Christine that they had done away with the waitresses' wigs; the waitresses used to be required to wear shoulder-length wigs of "unnatural color". I just found it amusing to be served by someone with blue, or pink, or purple hair. I'm sure the staff are happy about not having to wear them anymore.

The service was fast and good. Christine recommded the tuna belly which we really enjoyed, although the pieces were not very well constructed and almost fell apart. The fish was good quality though.

Sake on Sixth's downfall for this visit was that it had the worst-maintained restroom facilities of the whole trip. They were actually worse than most bars on sixth street I go to, to the point of being almost unusable. I like the place, but nasty facilities are a big turn-off.

We did a time check and realized we had really spent way too much time at the last couple places we had been to and had to keep moving. Thanks to the fast service, we were able to get out of there within twenty minutes or so. We had a brief discussion about what sushi adjuncts we'd like to see used in rolls. Neil would like to try potatoes in their various forms. Jonno wants to see more celery. I'd like to try a couple rolls made with cauliflower, I think it would go well with some of the stronger-tasting fish.

The bill was $20 even and to nobody's surprise, Jonno was drawn. The gods of sushi luck were not shining on him that day. Damage total: Jonno $94.48, Hong $25.86, Jeremy $25.58, Neil $7.97.

Jeremy Kraybill is a fool who loves sushi, walks on the beach and the aroma of a 14-hour winning streak at the poker table. Jeremy's Blog