The New Sushi In Town
By Alex Furuya
When the Daily Northwestern broke the news on Facebook that the fusion restaurant Sushi Burrito would open in Evanston in April, many Northwestern University students typed out their excitement.
“BIG STEP FOR EVANSTON.”
“LET’S GO????????? OMG.”
Students quickly tagged their friends in the comment section and the post itself garnered more than 120 likes and 44 comments.
However, some people didn’t share the enthusiasm for the news. “In American culture, the sushi is already bastardized so much,” says Diana Fu, a Northwestern junior.
“I may not be a purist and there are plenty of makis I do like,” says Penny Pollack, the Chicago Magazine’s dining editor. “But I don't want a kitchen sink sushi – I want the one or two things that complement the particular food and do not overshadow it.”
The restaurant sells the a sushi in the style of a burrito, complete with raw fish, rice and vegetables and wrapped with a giant piece of seaweed. The restaurant is one of the many popular New American restaurants that combine cuisines from two different cultures. While some consider these cuisines as cool or novel, others believe it is a form of cultural appropriation. The restaurant, nevertheless, is set to open in a few months and it will pop up only four blocks away from Sea Ranch, a sushi restaurant that has been serving Evanston customers for almost 30 years.
Ikeda Hidemi delicately cuts a sliver of flesh from a chunk tuna. He places the red piece of raw fish neatly on top of a mound of rice that exudes a subtle, sweet smell. The 65-year-old says he knows a few secrets to making tasty sushi, such as the rice, which must be pressed not too hard or too soft – but with just enough force.
“Sushi is easy to make – anyone can make it,” says Hidemi. “But,” he adds,
cracking a smile. “Good sushi is really difficult to make.”
Hidemi is the owner of Sea Ranch, a Japanese sushi restaurant and convenience store located on 518 Dempster St. in Evanston, and can only seat about ten people at a time. Half of Sea Ranch is restaurant, while the other half is taken up by a racks of Japanese snacks and ingredients. The place gets loud around lunch or dinner, but is otherwise quiet – except for the chatter in Japanese coming from the kitchen.
Hidemi says he isn’t worried about competing with Sushi Burrito, which will open on 1565 Sherman Ave, Evanston, just a nine-minute walk away. The new restaurant, once finished, will be complete with loud music and modest sleek interior decorations that is reminiscent to a high-end bar or a club. In contrast, Sea Ranch keeps it old fashioned, having been served loyal customers for decades now. Throughout his time, Hidemi has learned to adapt his business.
Sea Ranch opened its first location almost 30 years ago in Arlington Heights. At the time, it was exclusively a fish market that sold fresh cuts of fish for others to prepare. The business flourished because of its loyal customer base. The market eventually opened a second location in Wilmette, and finally opened a location in Evanston later on. However, as people moved in and out of Evanston, the customer base changed and so did the nearby stores. “Fish business was tough,” Hidemi says. “The price was going up and we had to compete against stores like Jewel-Osco and Whole Foods.”
As a result, the Evanston Sea Ranch added a small convenience store selling goods from Japan, and the fish market began selling sushi as well. Still, the store was still struggling to sell fish. Finally, in 2009, Sea Ranch stopped selling fish altogether and began focusing on sushi.
Hidemi did not know how to prepare sushi when he first immigrated to the US in 1982. At age 40, he was a fish seller from Sapporo, Japan, who trained with the man who married his aunt. He wanted to continue his fish business when he came to the US – but not without first doing a round trip across the US. He drove through Detroit and other cities, and during his trip, he stopped in New York where he met a sushi chef. The chef would later teach him the basics of making sushi. When he first started working at Sea Ranch, he didn’t think he would’ve needed the sushi making skills he learned years ago. Luckily, those skills were useful when Sea Ranch became a sushi restaurant.
That wasn’t the only time the restaurant had to adapt to the changing
surroundings. While sushi did help Sea Ranch for a little bit, the restaurant still wasn’t doing well business-wise as there was no consistent customer base. In order to get people to keep coming back to Sea Ranch, Hidemi – knowing that college students often looked to save money – decided to introduce what other stores were offering: all-you-can-eat sushi. That worked initially. With the help of word of mouth and the internet, Sea Ranch became known as the affordable yet delicious sushi restaurant. However, the all-you-can-eat strategy worked a little too well. Long lines began forming in front of the small restaurant. Regular customers, discouraged, stopped coming to Sea Ranch altogether. Hidemi decided to reduce the all-you-can-eat deals to once a week, then eliminated altogether. All was not in vain, however, as the strategy did introduce students to the restaurant. Now, Sea Ranch isn’t known for its all-you-can-eat offers it once had, it is now known for offering delicious, old-fashion sushi.
Sushi Burrito, in contrast, has a very short history. The chain was founded in 2014 and currently has three locations. The original restaurant, located in Lakeview, is fresh and modern – complete with black plush chairs and an LCD screen displaying its menu. The store proudly displays photos of its latest creation, a giant sushi hand roll covered with Hot Cheeto crumbs, on the screen. Soft 80s music plays continuously as the customers eat in a hurry to get back to work before their break is over. A customer swiftly throws away the aluminum foil that surrounds the sushi burrito and leaves without looking back. The store is quiet at this particular lunch time hour. The servers focus on their text messages while the music plays in the empty restaurant.
Ganzorig Amgalanbaatar, the current owner of the chain, was originally from Mongolia and dreamed of managing a restaurant. His dream came true when him and his wife both moved to Chicago. He opened his first restaurant, called Sumo Restaurant, located in Lincoln Park, an area he says was full of busy working individuals. Amgalanbaatar noticed that many of his customers were looking for something more convenient. Sumo sold only sushi, a food that is not exactly the easiest – or cleanest – to eat on the go.
“I then had the idea for the Sushi Burrito,” says Amgalanbaatar. “Sushi that could be eaten on the go. You can eat the sushi burrito while walking, in the car, you can eat wherever.”
The sushi burrito is part of a bigger trend – New American cuisines. Much to the frustration of food critics, this is a label loosely used to describe food that does not originate from one single origin or culture. According to Penny Pollack, New American cuisines arose sometime in the late 1980s. She believes that New American began with fusion cuisine, or a cuisine that incorporated East Asian and Western cooking. However, it is difficult to pinpoint when New American cuisine arose, and more importantly, what it exactly is.
“I've been doing this for 25 or 30 years and I'd love to pinpoint it for you,” says Pollack. “But I've seen the evolution – It used to be, when you went out for Italian food, or Chinese food, or Mexican food, there were very defined culinary labels. You pretty much knew what you were going to get at a given restaurant.”
Things have changed since then. “To me, New American cuisine is any dish that can be prepared just about any darn way you want it,” says Pollack. “You can use Mediterranean influences, you can use Asian influences and use ginger and soy, you can have Spanish influences and get your habanero and chile peppers – but it's all American because we've learned to appreciate all these flavor profiles and we don't see a need to have to go to place to place to place to get it. You can get get everything you want.”
Some appreciate New American restaurants like Sushi Burrito and enjoy similar restaurants in Evanston including Soulwich, a pit-stop restaurant that serves sandwiches with Asian ingredients; Flat Top Grill, a restaurant where customers can customize their own stir-fry dishes; and Asian Cajun, which proudly combines Cajun style seafood with Asian cuisines like curry and noodles. Those who appreciate the experimentation view New American cuisine as a palatable gateway to other cultures.
“It fits your typical type of cuisine,” says Talissa Dorsaint, a 27-year-old graduate student at the Illinois Institute of Technology. “But it also gets you exposed to a different culture.”
However, others believe that New American cuisines bastardize the original recipe that stems from culture and history.
“A lot of time people try to capitalize on fusion cuisine without acknowledging the cultural traditions,” says Diane Fu.
Fu blames food media. Young people, particularly millennials, are interested in trendy food fads and get their cues from food media outlets including Food Network. However, the staff that creates the content for outlets like Food Network tend to be white. This can be problematic, according to Fu.
“In that way, they've been perceiving food in a white lens,” says Fu. “I think a lot of young people who are into trendy fads or nutrition fads get their information from a lot of the main food outlets.”
Sheng Quan, who currently works at a Chicago restaurant called Alinea on 1723 N Halsted St, believes that sushi burritos are insulting to sushi chefs.
“I think it's insulting to specific groups of people who spend a lot of time
perfecting certain crafts,” says Quan. “These famous sushi chefs in Japan spend five to 10 years to learn how to wash rice and making it perfect and picking the perfect fish and serving at the perfect time and perfect temperature. To suddenly take that and say, ‘We're going to start a sushi burrito restaurant,’ is kind of throwing out everything.”
This isn’t the first time that people have centered political debates around food. When Bon Appetit published the video, “PSA: This is how you should be eating pho,” in September 2016, many people complained about the white person who was presented as the authority of teaching others how to eat a Vietnamese cuisine. Last year, NPR dedicated an episode to cultural appropriation of food, specifically on Rick Bayless, a white chef originally from Oklahoma who is said to appropriate and profit from Mexican cuisines. The podcast, Racist Sandwich, created by three journalists of color, recently launched last May and centers on the relationship between food, race, gender and class in Portland, Oregon. In today’s political climate, some consider food more than simply just food – it is a thing that is significant to a culture and deserves to be respected. New American cuisines, they argue, erases the cultural significance of food and attempts to profit from novelty of it.
Food critics like Pollack, agree that New American foods like the sushi burrito are a nuisance, but for different reasons.
“I think [sushi burritos] is a good example of going too far – I really like things to taste the way they are supposed to taste,” says Pollack. “I don't see the point in making a maki roll so big that you can't even open your mouth around it just so you can get cream cheese and peppers and crab sticks – I think you create white noise out of your food.
“Give me a really good piece fish that was processed properly, rolled in the rice properly, has just exactly the right touches that make that fresh fish clean flavor pop and shine and gets seared into your memory and you're not happy until you have that again. I think some of these things are cover ups for not making basic thing as well as you should.”
While she is not necessarily against New American cuisines, Pollack believes that retaining some tradition is important. “I'm way in favor of having a diverse culture but I think that people should also be proud of their origins and stick up for the way their grandma made it.”
Quan also says there is deep tie between food and identity. “It's just as important to not lose sight of your food heritage as it is to lose sight of your personal identity,” says Quan.
Food trends are inevitable. In the recent past, Chicago natives recall seeing restaurants that served food like ramen, chia seeds and frozen yogurt come and go. “Food trends like that tend to not last long,” Quan says. “At the end of the day, you can only make something taste so good. Once you hit that mark, people start to lose interest and start to look at something else.”
Hidemi continues to work quietly at Sea Ranch. Would he ever try the sushi burrito? He says he would not be opposed to trying it. “It’s a good and interesting idea,” says Hidemi. “It’s different, but as long as it’s oishii, then everyone is happy.” Oishii means delicious in Japanese. Hidemi has been in the fish business long enough to know what keeps customers coming back. Restaurants like Sushi Burrito might pop up every so often, but Hidemi continues on with what he does best – creating oishii sushi.