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Sawara satellite tests 'fast sushi express' concept in University Village

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'Crunch' is just one of the many textures Sawara shows off on its colorful, quirky sushi roll menu. - GRIFFIN SWARTZELL
  • Griffin Swartzell
  • 'Crunch' is just one of the many textures Sawara shows off on its colorful, quirky sushi roll menu.

There's a certain bit of spectacle and gratuitousness to a sushi roll like Sawara's $19.99 Fireworks. Examine the ingredient list alone: spicy tuna, spicy krab (they spell it "crab" like the real stuff but make no mistake, it's surimi), regular krab, jalapeño, cream cheese, cucumber, baked shrimp, and "crunch" (kind of a puffed rice substance, liberally used menu-wide). But that's only what's on the inside; then there's: salmon, tuna, snapper, ebi (shrimp), scallions and avocado as a topping wrap, plus spicy mayo and white, sweet and hanabi ("fireworks") sauces. Oh, and the staff wraps the roll in foil so it resembles a Chipotle burrito, that is until Everclear's poured on it and it's lit, still on fire as it arrives at the table to bake under that burn until blown out.

Holy — what? What could all that possibly taste like together, in one bite if your mouth can fit it?

Everything and nothing at once.

Close your eyes and power through the protein wad, unable to taste single ingredients as they all meld together into a uniform creamy, salty richness, a kitchen sink mouth-hammer I'm not displeased with, but I can't really describe without words like "excessive" and "overwhelming." I think of silly food challenges, of American big-truck culture, of not choking. Thankfully, nothing else on the menu reaches this level of absurdity.

Which isn't to say newly opened Sawara beats any traditional path to sushi. With locations in Castle Rock and Greenwood Village, plus another coming online in Denver soon, it's a franchise-forward operation billing itself as "fast sushi express," geared toward to-go, online ordering and pick-up as much as sit-down service. They claim to be "simpler, quicker cook[ing], better quality, lower price, no use of unidentified oil and much better price for the fancy rolls." Which equates to a snappy picture menu broken largely into $7.99, $8.99 and $9.99 offerings; only a handful of specials like the Fireworks climb into the teens and higher. It also equates to foam Dixie cups instead of ceramic for green tea, ginger and wasabi served in plastic ramekins, and little paper boats and trays for holding sushi and soy sauce (which I promptly mix up, sans direction from staff, and bleed black sauce all over the table).

Sawara shares a building inside University Village with Starbucks and its busy drive-thru, matching that bustling energy with contemporary lime and peach colors and modern furniture, all bright and inviting. The generally lower prices are nice, and playful touches abound. Take the Piña Colorado roll, adding coconut flakes in with the rice (too little for proper impact, but still), with salmon, cream cheese and avocado. Or the super-fresh Aloha, a gingery mound of Hawaiian-ish mango and salmon poke piled atop a cucumber-tuna-krab-avocado roll. Or the meaty Fire Blast, with spicy tuna and jalapeño fortified by habanero sauce for a legitimate mouth burn.

Don't ask me why anyone would name a sushi roll Longtime No Sea (yikes! ... er, um, raw fish, guys), but with relief we find the yellowtail amply fresh too, accented in part with a punchy wasabi yuzu garnish and the aforementioned "crunch" texture. Something else lesser seen: Sawara claims to be first to bring the "sushi burrito" to the state. Much more appropriately sized than the Fireworks, our NaDo burrito — which reminds me of popular grab-and-go, triangular-shaped onigiri we ate out of Lawson convenience stores in Japan — packs in spicy krab and spicy tuna with avocado and cucumber. The krab pulls out stringy into our teeth and a provided "special burrito sauce" dip smacks overly sweet — instead we happily douse the foil-wrapped hunks in soy.

For another roll with an interesting ingredient, or if you prefer sweetness, get the Chillin Shrimp, which sports pineapple (a balanced amount) with shrimp, avocado, cucumber and the "crunch" in both a white and sweet sauce. No complaints. But we really enjoy what's perhaps Sawara's least showy and more straightforward plate: the Chirashi bowl. It's a steal for its size at $9.99, mixing several raw fish cuts with krab, avocado, lettuce, and seaweed salad over rice. On top goes a side cup of Korean gochujang sauce, to your desired saturation, turning the whole affair deep red with chili heat and flavor; keep mixing with your chopsticks to balance bites.

While a liquor license pends, you can pair none of this with sake or a beer, so perhaps pick-up currently is the way to go. Go ahead and test the concept. Maybe just leave off the Fireworks for now. There's plenty of pop elsewhere on the menu.

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