Cafe Society

Mikuni makes sushi for the masses

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.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan

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