For completely selfish reasons, I have spent years pushing for the fast-food-ification of sushi, firmly of the belief that the way people (non-foodie people, the droves who nightly flock to the Olive Gardens and Burger Kings of our bloated republic) discover and become comfortable with new foods is by first ordering them through an enormous clown's head at their local drive-thru, by seeing them on value menus and in commercials booked during the midnight-to-3-a.m. stretch, speaking directly to stoned and starving insomniacs who, with very little prompting, can be convinced to eat blocks of cardboard and Styrofoam packing peanuts provided they're deep-fried or slathered in enough cheese sauce.
Out here in the Weird West it may be tough to imagine this, but there actually was a time when, growing up on the East Coast, I had no idea what a taco was. A burrito was as foreign to me — beans-and-wienies child of the suburbs — as a ham sandwich would be to a devout Muslim, so forget tamales, tortas, chicharrones or chile. I lived in a place where there was only chili (the stuff with the meat and beans that came in the can) and Chili (a town in upstate New York that produced, primarily, snowmobilers and sluts). My introduction to Mexican food (which, no lie, was often referred to as "Spanish food" out of some kind of misguided geographic confusion bred of '70s small-mindedness and provincialism) came when I found tacos in a box at Wegman's, the local grocery store, and then discovered Taco Bell. And while today I would never dream of calling Taco Bell good Mexican food, back then it was, at least, available. It was out there, on the street, and my occasional forays through the drive-thru got me accustomed to foreign words like taco and burrito and gordita. It put them in my mouth as definite objects, cracking open a tiny gate in my mind that would, years later, be thrown wide to accept such distantly related foodstuffs as carnitas burritos from Chipotle, the tacos de cabeza at El Taco de México and my afternoon tortas de jamón from Tacos D.F.
Not surprisingly, just as there were no authentic Mexican restaurants in Rochester when I was young, there were no sushi bars, either. And definitely no sushi drive-thrus, even though sushi started out as fast food. Long before Ray Kroc came squalling into this world, preserved fish and balls of rice were being sold to weary travelers outside the walls of the fortified city of Edo (what Tokyo was before it was Tokyo). But sushi took an unusual detour when it came to the United States. Rather than sticking to its roots, persisting as simple, quick and casual cuisine made for the common man, it diverged, becoming both a big-ticket indulgence for Manhattan yuppies and Hollywood starlets and a freakishly foreign delicacy cloaked in mystery and tradition made to keep away the rubes and chance diners. Rather than embrace the American fast-food culture, it spurned it, turned inward and became, for a long time, a purely ethnic kick. "Raw fish?" most people would say. "You ain't never gonna get me to eat that."
I got my first hit of sushi in the weirdest, worst possible way: from the aforementioned Wegman's, which sold it in little black plastic clamshell to-gos, featuring fish with all the flavor of a spatula blade, gooey rice and wasabi that I still remember tasting vaguely of sawdust. It was terrible sushi, but at least it was sushi, and, being introduced to it this way, I came to know the words: tekka maki, ebi, wasabi, tamago. They stuck in my brain like burrs. They let my deepest self know that this stuff — this bizarre, colorful, weird stuff all made out of rice and seaweed — was actually food. And I never forgot.
Twenty years later, I am a sushi aficionado. I have eaten some of the strangest parts of the strangest creatures of the sea and gone back for seconds, chasing down toro and uni and eel with the fixation of a street junkie looking to score in an unfamiliar neighborhood. And I credit Wegman's for introducing me to sushi, for my first, best, cleanest hit. I might never have become a fan of the stuff had it not been for a fifteen-year-old me, skipping class to greedily cram rice and nori into his face. But those kids who came after me, who're just starting down a path of experimentation and excess, have it a little easier and a lot better. Because they've got Mikuni.
Mikuni, which opened last August in Park Meadows, is part of a chain based in California — and is definitely not the place for sushi veterans. It is, to put it quite bluntly, the Applebee's of sushi restaurants — big and bright and loud and filled with harmless toe-dunking excursions into Japanese cuisine punctuated by truly American things with vaguely goofy names. It also has a wheel you can spin on your birthday for a chance to win free baseball hats, shot glasses or bits of fish.
It is, more than anything, fun.
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But it took a while before I recognized this. In fact, my first visit to Mikuni left me nearly horrified at what passed for Japanese cuisine on its massive sampler platter of a menu. Sushi is a cuisine more rigorous than most, one that values simplicity, seasonality, obsessive freshness and nudity of presentation above all else, one that exists primarily to bring glory to its ingredients. Sitting in the main dining room, facing the burnished metal of the sushi bar and three massive TVs hanging above it, eating under the gaze of painted geisha girls executed in an oddly American pinup style, I had a Denver roll with panko-breaded shrimp, fried, wrapped in avocado, topped with masago, green onion and dressed with the house "special sauce" — a single roll that, all by itself, violated just about every rule of classical sushi-making and focused a uniquely American light on the basic idea of sushi. There was no raw fish here; it had been fried. There was clutter rather than simplicity. And there was sauce — which, classically speaking, is bordering on anathema.
Of course, none of this stopped me from eating. And absent all considerations of classicism and tradition and history and good taste, the Denver roll wasn't bad. I followed it with a Park Meadows roll (crab mix and tuna, more panko shrimp, more avocado, more special sauce), with a plate of Dragon Balls (pure Japanese junk food) and another of carpaccio: so out of place, but cut from a Prime filet, touched with Japanese yuzu and onions from Hawaii. And by the end of this first meal, I was coming to understand the particular intent of Mikuni. It's designed as that perfect intermediary between American tastes and Asian culinary sensibilities — an arena custom-built for their shattering collision. Just as Taco Bell had once taught a younger me what a taco was, this place is showing a new generation that fish and rice and udon and katsu and masago are not so weird after all, that they can be just as accessible as a cheeseburger, a burrito or a platter of Riblets. It serves a very vital purpose, allowing those neophytes to sample the joys of sushi, sashimi and don don bowls, of nigiri, maki and temaki, without any danger of stumbling across something too strange or too intimidating.
On my second visit to Mikuni, I gave myself over entirely to the experience. Under the happy ministrations of a floor staff unencumbered by any traditional notions of flighting or service (the food just arriving whenever it was done, plates coming and going with staccato randomness that had our first and our final separated by more than forty minutes), I ordered broadly, getting both a tekkadon chirashi bowl to test the cutting skills of the sushi-bar crew and the freshness of their product, and a plate of "Not So Typical Sesame Chicken" just because I thought the name was kind of funny. The tekkadon chirashi showed that this crew couldn't cut to save their lives; what should have been lovely, even lozenges of tuna flesh arrived looking like they'd been hacked to pieces by a psychopath with an ax. But the fish was fresh and of reasonable quality. And the chicken was actually delicious for about four bites, at which point its lack of depth and lack of any descriptive flavor beyond crunchy sweetness became apparent. Having been tempura-fried, chopped into strips and doused in a sesame-teriyaki sauce, there wasn't anything to it beyond fulfilling the simple human craving for sugar and fryer fat. I also ate gyoza (deep-fried again, natch) and found them better than some I've had in restaurants that claim far more cultural authenticity than Mikuni does; ate maguro, tako and ebi that weren't good enough to deserve raves, but not so bad as to need health warnings. The kitchen was doing exactly what was promised by the space, the service, the concept in general: offering a blunt and shallow introduction to an incredibly rich and complex cuisine, and doing it in a way that was precisely keyed to appeal to the broadest possible swath of marginally adventurous American eaters.
Which, frankly, is fine with me. I don't expect people to move directly from the Olive Garden to Domo, from Mickey D's to Sushi Den. Learning about food and learning to love it is a long process — one that often must be entered into carefully and slowly, with great deliberation. And with that in mind, Mikuni can be an excellent stepping stone — a place where one's tamest culinary fantasies might be gently indulged.