Fast-food sushi, as a concept, has not exactly been embraced by Americans. Sure, even Giant Eagle now sells pre-made maki and nigiri to take home, but fast food has long been the province of greasy meat and plastic booths, while we expect pristine raw fish to be served in quiet restaurants with pale wood, green tea and the delicate strains of recorded koto music.
But in Japan, sushi originated as street food. At its best, it is consumed within moments of assembly, while the seaweed remains toasty-crisp, the rice warm and the fish cool. The recipe is actually ideal for adaptation to the peculiarly American institution of fast food.
And so it occurred to Ting Yen, a Taiwanese-born son of restaurateurs, who created Sushi Fuku (“fuku” meaning “lucky”) to serve the busy, hungry “eds and meds” crowd in Oakland. Here the traditional sushi bar, with a single skilled chef preparing and assembling to order, is replaced with an assembly-line system. Customers approach the counter to order off the set menu or to experiment with combinations of fillings, wrappers, sauces and even rice (white or brown) to augment and customize a basic roll.
Sushi Fuku narrows the range of traditional sushi at one end by eliminating nigiri, but expands it at another by offering rice bowls topped with fish (known in Japan as chirashi) and burritos (known in Japan not at all). Customers place their orders with the worker in charge of the rice cooker, which extrudes a neat panel of rice apportioned to each sheet of wrapper, a choice of seaweed or soy. Strips of fish, crab, eel and less traditional proteins like chicken and steak are then added from neat bins, and the still-flat roll is moved to the veggie-and-sauce station, where it is rolled, sliced and served in a plastic basket at the cashier’s stand.
Our first bites revealed the upside to the system: The temperature gradient from roasted nori to cool sushi filling was perfect, a relatively simple aspect of sushi that is all too often overlooked. However, the texture was closer to supermarket than sushi bar. The short-grain rice had the right sweet-and-sour seasoning from sugar and rice-wine vinegar, but it lacked the distinct grains and chewy-yet-firm texture that are the essence of sushi rice.
The fish was a mixed story as well. Sushi Fuku’s raw offerings are intentionally limited to perennial favorites tuna, salmon and yellowtail, ensuring rapid turnover and maximum freshness. But these mild fish tended to be overwhelmed by other components piled on to the meal-size (10 slices!) rolls suggested on the menu board. In the Hamachi roll, for instance, a single strip of yellowtail might have been tasty, but the roll’s other ingredients of cucumber, avocado and jalapeño swung the flavor profile so far toward the green that it might have been a garden roll. In the Twin City roll, featuring tuna, salmon, cucumber and avocado, we didn’t taste much of the salmon’s signature richness.
Tuna was ruby-red, flavorful and firm, with none of the wateriness that plagues low-end tuna. But Spicy Tuna was a disappointment. This usually consists of chopped tuna in a spicy, creamy sauce, but Fuku goes beyond chopping to pulverizing — the spicy tuna was served with a scoop — and we didn’t even get the flavor kick of a high sauce-to-fish ratio, because the heat was so tame that it was barely there. This was a shame because the rest of the roll worked well. Actually, it was a “burrito,” or an unsliced maki roll. Crunchy-sweet shrimp tempura and crisp batons of cucumber made for satisfying mouthfuls, and the fruity yum-yum sauce brightened the seafood without overwhelming everything else. We tried it with the soy wrapper, which resembled a thin flour tortilla, never a bad thing.
The soy wrapper would probably have been a good match for the fillings in the Oakland Avenue roll, a fish-free maki with tempura chicken, bacon and omnipresent cucumber. As a fish-free option for the sushi-shy, it succeeded, but the poultry and pork were an odd match for the briny nori wrapper of a traditional maki.
We were also pleased with our sides, edamame and gyoza. The former is hard to get wrong, but the latter can run the gamut, and we liked the crisp edges and shrimpy interior of Fuku’s dumplings.
Even when of middling quality, we think sushi at its best is one of the world’s near-perfect foods. You won’t find faster sushi this side of a takeout case than at Sushi Fuku, but you can do better for the money if you’re willing to wait another couple minutes at a traditional sushi bar.