First Taste

How Do You Roll? Is Like a Date You Know Will Never Work Out, But You Give It a Shot Anyway.

When a new spot opens in town, we can't wait to check it out -- and let you know our initial impressions, share a few photos, and dish about some menu items. First Taste, as the name implies, is not a full-blown review, but instead a peek inside restaurants that have just opened, sampling a few items, and satisfying curiosities (yours and ours).

Restaurant: How Do You Roll? Location: 1515 North 7th Avenue Open: Almost a month. Eats: Fast-casual sushi. Price Point: About $8 to $10 per person

A fast-casual sushi chain in the Valley? It's true. And like a date you know will most likely never work out, you're curious enough to go along with it anyway.

Founded in 2008 in Austin by brothers Yuen and Peter Yung, How Do You Roll? allows customers to follow a line, Subway-style, and build their own sushi rolls from an array of traditional and non-traditional ingredients.

Last month, the chain opened its first two restaurants in Arizona. In addition to a Tucson location, the custom sushi shop also has a home in Phoenix at the rebuilt corner of Seventh Avenue and McDowell Road (in the former Historic Antique Mall) alongside neighbors such as Five Guys, Jersey Mike's Subs, and Chipotle Mexican Grill.

And if you think sushi can't get any more Americanized than it already is, read on.

Like many fast-casual chains, the concept of How Do You Roll? is about being accessible to as many people as possible. And when it comes to sushi, that means making Americans feel that this Japanese food can simply be another form of a Subway sandwich or a Chipotle burrito -- that is, a wrapped food product filled with familiar ingredients. It's surprising the idea hasn't happened sooner.

And judging by the popularity of the restaurant when I popped in, I'd say folks are buying it -- at least for the initial novelty of it all.

Not for faint of heart sushi purists, the scene at How Do You Roll? could be described as, well, McSushi. Lighted menu boards hang behind the Subway-style ordering line; cold sides come in plastic containers out of a cooler; a condiment bar, instead of ketchup and salt packets, features wasabi and ginger; and the soy sauce comes from one of two large urns.

The menu offers six featured rolls and promotes customizing your own with more familiar ingredients such as spicy tuna, cucumber, and unagi as well as non-traditional ingredients like grilled chicken, beef -- even strawberries. All rolls are ten pieces and come wrapped in traditional seaweed or modern soy and with a choice of white or (Oh, my!) brown rice.

My featured rolls, the unagi ($7.95) and the 3 Alarm ($8.95 and more of a 1 Alarm), were assembled before me quick and efficient-like and served up on plastic trays. Flavorwise, chewy seaweed wraps and mushy rice were the beginning of both rolls' problems, and a multitude of ho-hum ingredients masking barely-there proteins of freshwater eel and tuna finished the fact that, when it comes to fast-casual sushi, you get what you follow the assembly line for.

Although at most sushi bars it is customary to ask the chef what's good that day, when it comes to ordering an associate's favorite creation at How Do You Roll?, I would suggest approaching the subject with caution. When I asked my friendly counter guy to fix me his favorite, I was given a soy wrap of seasonal fruits, white rice, and cream cheese. Not good and my bad.

Of course, true sushi lovers likely won't be frequenting How Do You Roll?, but I wonder, after its initial uniqueness has worn off, would anyone else? At the end of the day, with an array of fast-casual competitors like Five Guys and Chipotle in the same building and competing for around the same dollar mark, will Americanized sub-par sushi beat out a burger or burrito? I guess we'll have to wait and see how How Do You Roll?, er, rolls.

How do you roll, fast-casual sushi fans? Have you been to How Do You Roll? yet? What did you think?

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Laura Hahnefeld
Contact: Laura Hahnefeld