Lighten up, sushi purists: A little kitsch can do you good sometimes.
That's my take on TeHaru Sushi and Sushi Eye in Motion, two sushi restaurants that've lately introduced Valley locals to a more playful side of Japanese food culture: kaitenzushi.
That means "conveyor-belt sushi," and, just like you'd imagine, sitting at the sushi bar at one of these places is totally mesmerizing, a steady parade of colorful dishes under protective plastic domes, gliding by on a revolving surface.
TeHaru Sushi, Sushi Eye in Motion
TeHaru Sushi, 9845 S. Priest Dr., Ste. 106, Tempe
Sushi Eye in Motion, 58 W. Buffalo St., Ste. 110, Chandler
Sushi Eye in Motion
Spicy scallop handroll: $3.50
Tako karaage: $7
480-686-8183, web link
Hours: Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to2:30 p.m. and 5 to 9:30 p.m.; Saturday,5to 10 p.m.
Yellowtail nigiri: $2.75
Spicy salmon roll: $1.75
Hours: Monday through Thursday, 11a.m.to10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11a.m. to 10:30 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.
You never know what'll show up next. A shrimp tempura roll covered in gleaming orange tobiko? Maybe a handroll wrapped in crisp nori? Or hey, what's that tasty-looking creation headed our way? Better grab it before somebody else does.
Spontaneity is what makes it fun. I'm hardcore about sushi, but frankly I don't come to either of these places to geek out on the fish. Just like in Japan, kaitenzushi is meant to be an entertaining, affordable sort of convenience food.
Sure, you can stretch out the dining experience into a leisurely event (especially if the sake's flowing), but if you're simply ravenous or in a rush, you can also scarf down an obscene amount of sushi in less time than it takes to order an item from the chef.
Which reminds me: Ordering from the chef is still a good idea. Grab the stuff that strikes your fancy from the conveyor belt, and put in a request for whatever else you want. At the end of your meal, the bill is tallied by how many color-coded plates you've stacked up.
The strip mall exterior of TeHaru Sushi is deceptively fortress-like, which makes it all the more surprising to step inside, where it's like a ray of sunshine — spacious and painted a cheerful shade of marigold, with high ceilings, oversize white wicker lampshades, plenty of booth seating, and a sprawling three-sided sushi bar.
As for the soundtrack, I can't call it anything other than random. At various times, I heard pop music, hip hop, and even — get this — opera. The night I sat alone at the counter as California rolls coasted by to the tune of "Ave Maria" was one of the more surreal dining experiences in memory. That was a fluke, though. Last time I was there, I perked up when I heard "You Dropped a Bomb on Me" by The Gap Band.
The menu at TeHaru is a compact rundown of crowd-pleasing standards. I tried a few nigirizushi with generous slices of fish draped over bite-size balls of rice. Fresh, silky salmon and buttery yellowtail hit the spot. I wasn't fond of the mediocre mackerel or the bland tuna, although a salmon-avocado roll topped with tuna was pretty flavorful. A handroll overflowing with spicy scallops was so tasty I ate it in two gluttonous bites. And the fried batter on some crab tucked into makizushi was hot, crunchy, and delicious.
Besides sushi, the conveyor belt brought other novelties, refreshing seaweed salad and sesame-tinged squid salad being my favorites. By the time I grabbed a plate of gyoza, though, the pork dumplings had gotten a little soft. I think a good rule of thumb is to skip anything fried unless you see when it's added to the rotation, or don't mind if it's lukewarm. (Another note: Employees do keep track of how long items have been out, and remove them if no one takes them after a while.)
There were also bottles of ramune soda, snack packs of chocolate pudding, and dishes of fruit circling the sushi bar. Ice cream, mochi ice cream, and fried ice cream rounded out the selection of sweets. Nothing wrong with that — I'm always game for green tea ice cream. But yeah, dessert didn't make much of an impression.
What did get my attention at TeHaru Sushi was the bill. Seriously, I had to do a double-take at how astonishingly inexpensive it was, considering all I'd sampled. For that, I'll forgive the fact that I can't get my mackerel fix here.
Next time, I'll come when I'm craving a caterpillar roll.
As much as TeHaru is inconspicuous, Sushi Eye in Motion has total curb appeal.
Situated on Buffalo Street, at the north end of San Marcos Place in downtown Chandler, it's a glowing beacon at night, with a funky neon sign in the window and a clear view of the bustling, lime-green dining room. No wonder this 'hood has such a great synergy.
Like at many Japanese joints, the sushi bar runs along one wall, so the conveyor belt simply carries food back and forth from one end to the other. I figured out that the best place to hang out was somewhere near the middle, where the sushi chef adds things to the rotation through an opening between the seafood cases. From there, you can keep a close eye on what's new.
Sushi Eye in Motion is as high-energy as its name suggests. On my visits, the stereo blared bouncy '80s hits and electronic dance tracks, and there was plenty to look at — flat-screen TVs behind the sushi bar, an undulating metal panel up above, and sparkling metallic flecks in the countertop.
The sushi was eye candy, too. If you've ever eaten at Sushi Eye in Motion's sister restaurant in Tempe, Sushi Eye Bar & Grill, then you're already familiar with this eatery's distinctively decadent makizushi. Again, this style of sushi isn't geared toward purists, but it's delicious in its own right — many of the rolls are drizzled with creamy wasabi sauce or sticky-sweet unagi sauce, and sprinkled with tobiko and crushed macadamia nuts.
For example, take the Cardinals Roll, an uramaki of tuna, eel, cream cheese, and avocado, with unagi sauce, roe, and nuts. Every bite was a heady combination of rich flavors. The expansive menu spins out every conceivable variation on this theme, from the Orange Blossom Roll, filled with tuna and avocado and topped with salmon, to the Second Climax Roll, with spicy yellowtail and cucumber inside, and sliced yellowtail outside.
The cool thing about grabbing these off the conveyor belt was that the portions were smaller than the full orders I'd have gotten if I'd ordered them from the menu (making it so much easier to try a few kinds).
And yes, Sushi Eye in Motion does traditional sushi, too. Toro and uni, both on special one night, were fresh and clean-tasting.
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Edamame were room-temperature by the time I grabbed a bowl of them (items here are tracked by bar codes on the plates), but that didn't stop me from picking at them as I contemplated my next move. Gyoza weren't bad — they still had a bit of crunch to the edges. And tako karaage (fried octopus) was worth ordering from the menu. The chunks of tender octopus, veiled in crispy batter, came with a side of tangy tonkatsu sauce.
For dessert, I couldn't resist Bing Soo shaved ice, a dome of ice the consistency of snow, soaked with sweetened condensed milk and strawberry sauce, smothered with fruit and sweet red bean paste, and topped with scoops of red bean ice cream. Incredibly, my waitress had urged me to order the tempura ice cream instead, but I assured her I wanted this.
Hmm — authentic Asian-style sundae, or fried ice cream?
At the end of the day, I'll still take authentic.