Updated: April 7, 2010
"I don't eat sushi in Colorado."
"We're, like, 20 hours from the ocean — gross!"
"I don't want to eat fish that's been frozen. I like my fish off the boat, onto my plate."
If you've been in Colorado for a while, you've heard some version of one of the above sentiments. Some people simply will not deign to eat sushi out here.
Do they happen to have more refined, delicate and precise palates, or are they just plain ignorant? This question in mind, I spoke with some local sushi slingers to find out just how fresh the local raw delicacy actually is — or isn't.
The quick answer, courtesy of Sakura Sushi and Grill owner Nancy Jang: "This is the 21st century."
"You can overnight anything anywhere," Jang adds. "We just have to pay a little bit more than L.A. or Seattle. We still get all the fresh stuff."
"People need to get away from that old pioneer mentality," offers Tomo Sushi's John Ra. "I'm from California, and when I go back there I'm not blown away by the freshness of the fish. People don't have to worry about fish here."
Under federal regulations, all fish with the exception of tuna must be flash-frozen, or cooled to a below-zero temperature within hours of being caught. Fishing boats stay out at sea for several days, and it doesn't matter if you're in Boston or Hawaii — nearly all the fish you will ever eat will have been flash-frozen for a minimum of a week.
This process kills parasites in the fish that would otherwise kill you and your bowels, and also preserves the fish's juices and the "just caught" freshness. After seven days, seafood companies let the fish properly thaw out before shipping it; typically, it's not frozen after the initial flash-freeze.
As for the shipping: Don Disraeli, owner of California-based Kanaloa Seafood, says fish arrives in the Rockies just as fresh as when he packaged it in, say, Santa Barbara. He explains that on his cutting tables, he uses ozonated water, which kills bacteria. Then, inside double-walled cardboard boxes lined with an inch-thick layer of waterproof, baffle-fortified bags — "that's what you're really looking for, is an inert area where air isn't moving through" — he places special gel packs. Those packs help the boxes maintain temperature for up to 48 hours, meaning they can safely be shipped on standard commercial flights.
"We ship all over the country every day," says Disraeli, adding, "I can put sushi on a plane in L.A. and it'll be at a sushi bar in New York by that night."
Assurances like these help bolster the confidence of local purveyors.
"I can make up some BS about how fresh the fish is at my restaurant," Ra says, "but the quality of the fish and the seafood distributors is not something you have to worry about."
And as anyone who's smelled warm raw fish knows, it wouldn't take long to discover if something's awry. Says Fujiyama's kitchen manager, Alex Kim: "I personally go to the fish market in Denver and check and make sure it's good."
Just like a marbled filet of meat, the texture and flavor in sushi firstly comes from the precise way a piece of fish is cut. But Jang notes that it also falls to the chef to know his or her product, and the proper temperature and moisture levels.
In rolls, the rice-to-fish ratio is also key; an experienced chef knows the precise way a ball of rice should feel beneath a cut of fish. It must be compacted together with just the right amount of pressure so the fish can sit on top and be bitten through like warmed butter.
Rolling that perfect sushi roll, the one that sells for gobs of money at a mega-hyped sushi joint like Nobu, is an art that takes hundreds of hours of practice and apprenticeship.
"[Sushi chefs] start by sweeping the rice off the floor," says Ra. "Then they practice making the rolls and they'll eat it themselves or it'll be thrown out. It's not like rolling a burrito."
According to Ra, it takes years before a sushi chef is allowed to even touch a piece of fish that will be served to a customer. So, if you're really paranoid, rather than questioning an outfit's location, ask about the chef's experience. Says Ra: "Tell [people] to worry more about opening a can of Chicken of the Sea."
It's actually true that the first day of the week isn't the best day to head out for sushi — but it's also not gonna kill you. Most seafood distribution companies take the day off on Sundays, making Monday morning fish deliveries out of the question. As confirmed by a manager at Jun Japanese Restaurant, on Mondays, most sushi restaurants are usually digging around in their walk-ins for fish rather than greeting a truck.
So, maybe avoid that day, but otherwise, don't let any misconceptions about landlocked sushi get in the way of enjoying a meal of delicious raw fish.
Editor's Note: Chambers reported that a manager from Jun Japanese Restaurant told him that most sushi restaurants don't receive fish deliveries on Mondays. The Independent stands behind this as a general rule, but Jun would like to clarify that it actually does place orders on Sundays for Monday delivery.