La Vida Sushi
by Jeremy Kraybill

The Great Austin Sushi Crawl

Part 1 of 3

What is the meaning of life? Do aliens exist? How many Austin sushi places can a person visit in one day? These are the the three questions that have been plaguing man since the dawn of time. Last Sunday, I set out to answer at least one of them.

I enlisted the assistance of two partners in crime. Partner 1: Neil, the English-Australian scotch-guzzling smoked-salmon fiend of the northwest corridor. Partner 2: Jonno, the swashbuckling uber-pirate who can lull a crowd of women to their knees with his heart-wrenching renditions of Prince's greatest hits. All three of us share a passion for the cathartic experience of consuming large quantities of sushi and sake.

Our goal was to visit every Austin sushi bar in one day. The sushi locator lists no less than thirty sushi joints in Austin, which I used as a starting guide. Thirty restaurants in one day would be tough, but fortunately at least seven of those thirty are not open on Sundays. Down to twenty-three. We drew up a map which would take us from the north, working our way south and then curling back across the west side of town.

So it was that at 11:24 a.m. on March 16th, 2003, we set out to change Austin sushi history forever by setting out on The Great Austin Sushi Crawl. Our guidelines were simple: hit as many sushi joints as we could before closing time, while ordering, eating, and discussing sushi.

11:36 a.m. Benihana
Edamame, Negihama Roll, Large Hot Sake

I hadn't been to Benihana in almost three years so it was an auspicious sign that our first stop was an enjoyable one. Hubert was our server and extremely diligent to the point that we felt he really needed some kind of insignia on his uniform. I think he would make an excellent sushi corporal or sergeant.

At Benihana they bring out individually-wrapped hot moist towels, which makes Jonno the happiest man on earth (see above photo). There are few explanations for how happy hot towels make him. If you also get this happy when you get a hot towel, you should either seek therapy or frequent Benihana.

We kicked off the day with a bowl of hot edamame and a large hot sake. Some of the edamame were still pretty cold, but in Neil's words they were "well salted" and mostly good. The Negihama roll (yellowtail and scallion) came out soon after, and we ate it fairly quickly. I don't usually go to Benihana for sushi but this was well-made and tasted fresh.

Discussion of favorite types of sushi came up. Neil is a salmon, unagi and spider roll type of guy, Jonno is a salmon and toro ("not chu toro!") type, and I'm gaga for the seared salmon sushi at Musashino.

After a brief 24 minutes, we grabbed the check and got Hubert to help us out with a game of credit card roulette, the predetermined method of payment for the day. For those of you unfamiliar with this great game, each person takes their credit card and gives it to the server. The server shuffles the cards behind his/her back, and draws out the cards one at a time. The last person drawn pays.

Jonno was the last person drawn and so graciously agreed to pick up our tab. Damage tally: Jonno $12.70, Jeremy $0, Neil $0. On to the next place.

"I like scallion." -Neil

12:05 p.m. Mikado
Chorishi's Fire, Large Hot Sake

We were starting to get a little more charged up about the day, probably from the combined effects of being more fully awake, as well as the sake from Benihana starting to defrost us a little bit. Julie, the Mikado hostess, was chatty and helpful, as was our waitress, Angela. Julie recommended Chorishi's Fire, a shrimp tempura / spicy tuna / avocado / crunchy roll which was really excellent. Excellent and huge -- so huge that we all realized doing rolls at all the places was not going to result in a very sustainable day. We decided that moderating rolls, and just doing one piece of nigiri each at most places would stop us exploding from sushi overload.

The topic of Mikado was innovations in sushi we'd like to see. Neil laid out his pipe dream of mass-produced, high-quality, cheap supermarket sushi where Randall's has sushi as good as Musashino only it costs $0.25 per piece. We all need our dreams. I expressed a desire to see more fruit used in sushi, which was met with a wall of groans. Jonno would like to see a place with nude waitresses, which really doesn't need any commentary.

An attractive young woman came in with a young girl who looked about 15 years old. Jonno thought the attractive young woman was the mother, and the girl the daughter, which made me snarf some sake at his poor powers of age assessment. The so-called "mother" couldn't have been older than 25, I challenged. You have the eyes of a cockroach and the brain of a dung beetle, he cried. A bet was made, handshake exchanged and I walked over and innocently asked the two if they were sisters, which the young woman confirmed, although her expression as I asked her was one of either utter puzzlement or abject disgust. Lady, I'm not some kind of deviant sister fetishist, I just like to make bets about stupid things.

The roulette wheel hit my number this time, tempered by the $10 I won from Jonno's poor bet on the sisters. Damage tally: Jonno $22.70, Jeremy $9.49, Neil $0. We had spent a lot of time at Mikado, making conversation and harrassing innocent sisters. We had to press on.

"There's something about sake that feels vaguely like indigestion. Only I hate indigestion but I love sake." -Neil

"I'm not going to end up on anyone's shirt, am I?" -Julie, while getting her picture taken, to Jonno, who was wearing a Playboy covers shirt
"You could, but you'd need to disrobe a little more..." -Jonno

12:56 p.m. Sushi Sake
Bluefin Tuna, Large Hot Sake

First major props of the day go to John, who took care of us at Sushi Sake. Whenever he's around, things just seem to go smoothly, the service is excellent and he's always in a good mood. Sunday was no exception. He was really enthusiastic about the Sushi Crawl, and took us through some of his selections on the menu. He recommended the bluefin tuna, which was excellent.

We discussed one of the eternal sushi conundrums: If you could eat any type of sushi off the body of any celebrity, what and who would you pick. Neil picked Drew Barrymore, and tobiko, "because it would take a long time to eat". Jonno went with Lucy Liu and tuna, "for the aesthetic contrast". I picked Aria Giovanni and seared salmon, because it's good.

I got a call from our missing fourth sushi crawl partner, Hong, who was AWOL and hadn't returned any of our calls. He was doing other stuff but was going to try to meet up with us later on. I'm not sure but I think that's what the fifth Beatle had said.

We managed to make a quick departure within 20 minutes of our arrival. John drew me in credit card roulette for $16.09, bringing the damage total to: Jeremy $25.58, Jonno $22.70, Neil $0.

"Sultans of Swing is a bad karaoke song." -Jeremy
"Singing 'he can do the honky tonk like anything' makes it worth it." -Jonno

1:27 p.m. Korea House
Salmon, Small Hot Sake

Our stop at Korea House was really the only negative experience of the day. I don't mind Korea House for Korean food, but I only got sushi once there and decided their Korean food was the much better option. But it was on our list, and so in the name of sushi science we stopped in for some sushi.

We had an extremely rude waitress. I've had her before, and she was never too endearing, but this was the rudest I had seen from her. She didn't want to tell us her name, but after a couple times she told us it was Jin. She seemed very irritated to even be at our table, and so we didn't get recommendations from her but just ordered the sushi. After we ordered three pieces of sushi she said "Is that it?" and seemed genuinely angry even though we had explained to her what we were doing. After our food came back out she never returned to our table. The sushi was also the only sushi we had all day that we all agreed was not good. The pieces were poorly formed, and the fish quality was not quite there. I don't think I'll be going back there for sushi. Although I have to say that their sushi was some of the most photogenic we had all day... that photo still makes me hungry even though I remember how bad the sushi was!

Korea House has the most hilarious names for their rolls. On the menu were the "90210", "Cowboy", "Viagra" and "Mexican Orgasm" rolls. Perhaps the sushi chef once had a pharmaceutically-enhanced affair with Shannon Doherty while wearing a cowboy hat in a Cancun hotel?

The roll names led us to discuss what we would create if we made our own sushi rolls, and what we would call them. The sake was starting to influence our discussions; I was the designated driver so Neil and Jonno had been doing most of the sake consumption. Neil envisioned a Catholic School Girl Roll, made entirely of fish that didn't meet the legal size minimums. Jonno dreamt up a MacGuyver roll, where a sushi chef comes to your house and has to make a sushi roll out of whatever ingredients you have in your kitchen. I created a Casino War roll, not so much a sushi roll as an option that can be added onto any roll -- the waiter deals two cards face up on the table, one for you and one for the house. If your card is higher than the waiter's card, you get two of the rolls you ordered. If your card is lower, you get nothing. Either way you get charged for one roll.

The bill was $8.49, and Jonno lost. On the car ride to our next stop I said to Neil that if he managed to pitch a no-hitter and end up paying nothing, I would dub him an official Legend of Luck in my article. He was pretty excited at the prospect; I guess he just craves recognition for his skills at not getting picked in games of sheer chance. Damage total: Jonno $31.19, Jeremy $25.58, Neil $0.

1:56 p.m. H-E-B
Crab Roll Combo Pack

This was sort of a joke stop, after our earlier discussions about "high-quality" supermarket sushi. H-E-B doesn't quite meet the standards we had in mind for excellence in sushi, but we decided to add it to the roster anyway. We were helped out by two very nice people, Rodney, who helped us find the sushi, and Marissa who checked us out. Rodney said he had to get his manager's approval to get his photo taken but I assured him we weren't with the health department or any printed newspaper. He seemed nervous but still posed for the shot.

While in line we discussed what restaurant food item we'd like to see in supermarkets. Jonno said philly cheesesteaks. Neil said sawagani. I'd like to see hot sake that you can drink while you shop.

The bill was $3.99. The lines were long so we decided against trying to explain the rules of CCR to Marissa with a bunch of irritated shoppers behind us. Neil put the cards behind his back and ended up drawing himself last! His unblemished streak was over, but only to the tune of four bucks. We each ate one piece in the parking lot, and got a suspicious looking woman to take our photo. I'd describe the krab roll as having an overly dry exterior with an overly moist center, much like a three-week old jelly donut. Damage total: Jonno $31.19, Jeremy $25.58, Neil $3.99.

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