I've got déjà vu, and it's no surprise why.
Around this time last year, I wrote up a hopeful place named Café Banzai, next door to Pueblo Avenue's Rocket Room. I basically said that the outfit was good, cheap and battling some tough odds to make that obscure, tiny location work.
Now, I'm tasked to review another hopeful place, unimaginatively named Sushi & Teriyaki House, located in Café Banzai's old digs and serving a similar menu of Japanese and Korean staples, but with the addition of sushi. Again, the food's largely good and inexpensive, and the central obstacle to success remains the location.
The back story: Couple Mia Pong and Jin Kim, who ran a similar restaurant near Lansing, Mich., for five years, recently moved here to be closer to family. A few months ago, they responded to an ad placed by Café Banzai's proprietors, the Kim family (no relation), who were looking to escape their lease and find a larger space. (That search continues.)
Pong and Kim, unfamiliar with the area and still residing in a motel even today, unknowingly shouldered the burden of the bad location. This was evident when, during my first visit, a pleasant but somewhat subdued Pong said, "Tell your friends about us — we're too slow."
At lunch, with the mountain of food you get for the cheap price, they really shouldn't be hurting for business. Stark but sizable fried rice and lunch bowls (steamed rice under proteins like teriyaki chicken) run $3.99 to $5.99. Bento Boxes with typical six-piece California rolls, passable miso soup, sunomono (sweet vinegar-cured cucumber slivers) and an iceberg salad under a delicious ginger and peanut dressing with eight main item choices, including beef bulgogi, tofu teriyaki and spicy pork, come in at $5.99. And sushi lunch specials composed of soup, salad and three rolls, such as a Philadelphia and spicy tuna roll, range from $5.99 to $7.99.
No alarms and no surprises — just competent, affordable renditions of the standards. The same can be said for dinner plates like the shrimp tempura ($10.95), basic battered prawns and veggies with a tasty, thick tempura dipping sauce, that also come with rice, soup and salad.
As for the sushi, simple rolls range from $2.95 to $4.95 and the premiums span from $5.95 to $10.95 — a couple bucks less per roll than many competitors for similar sizes. The quality this discount fetches ranges from so-so to damn good, thankfully with no all-out stinkers.
Though bearing the fun name "Crunch Monster," a little too much Panko buries the otherwise fine tempura shrimp, crab and avocado roll with a tangy eel sauce and spicy mayo in it. The Crazy Boy Roll of deep-fried crab, avocado and cucumber with eel sauce also can't command mad love. The Diablo Roll, though creative with a melted mozzarella cheese top and a hard-not-to-spill chopped crab, shrimp and scallop garnish in spicy mayo, doesn't entirely jell, either.
Common, but well-executed Spider and Rainbow rolls make better choices, as does the rich House Special Roll of deep-fried tuna, salmon, crab, avocado, jalapeño and cream cheese. A light and fresh spring roll ($5.99), served segmented like a sushi roll, also wows with crab, tuna, shrimp, avocado, cucumber and mixed greens enveloped in rice paper under sweet mustard.
Welcome sushi addition aside, the déjà vu reminds that location remains the crux here. The good-for-cheap recipe, after all, only works with volume.