Sushi O Sushi
3643 Star Ranch Road, 576-9830
An obvious sign of success is when an eatery knocks down a wall to take over a neighboring retail space. Such is the case with this 2-year-old south-end sushi staple. It recently added a gorgeous new tatami room (love the comfy seat backs), which only needs to kill the mismatched ska-punk soundtrack at lunch.
Start with a seaweed salad ($4) 'cause it's good for you, as is nutty Genmaicha green tea ($1). On the simpler side, both a pickled daikon roll ($3.75) and Ume Siso roll ($5.50) strike fresh chords, the first with carrot crunch, the latter with herbaceous perilla leaf astringency and the faint tartness of plum paste. Find fun Korean fusion with the Bulgokimchi Roll ($9.50): sweet and spicy bulgogi and kimchi slivers as sushi. The yellowtail ninja roll ($8.95) packs the awesome heat of seven separate peppers, but is a touch chewy and fishy. The convoluted but delicious and pretty Crouching Tiger ($12) hides quite a dragon. — Matthew Schniper
Rocco's Italian Restaurant
3802 Maizeland Road, 574-1426
Having moved from its charming, original location just a few doors down, the old Rocco's is now the new Rocco's in the old Steaksmith. Gone is the ancient salad bar, replaced with an equally antiquated-feeling spread of checkered tablecloths and fake plants. The Italian-restaurant-in-a-box setup really does the dark, windowless main room no favors, and while we were there a nearby table of elderly women commented, "This is music to put you to sleep."
Still, the three-decade-old restaurant has it where it counts: the food. Start with warm, crusty bread. Next, an OK minestrone soup. After that, inspired by a mouthwatering history of Italian beef sandwiches (tiny.cc/k44fmx), I had to make my order the baked classic ($8.95). It came full of mild onions and peppers, with thick, juicy slices of beef next to a cup of jus. A bowl of baked stuffed shells ($11.95) offered creamy ricotta bliss in a bold tomato sauce. — Bryce Crawford
Smiling Toad Brewery
1757 S. Eighth St., #100, 418-2936, smilingtoadbrewery.com
With Smiling Toad's recent move to South Eighth Street, the brewery has injected some life into the drab, single-story warren of offices behind Little Nepal. The entrance is a little obscure, thus the "brewery" flags, but inside the place feels just like it should: a red-and-black concrete floor holds wide, comfortable picnic tables in front of a bar already full of regulars at 5:30 p.m.
The customary chalkboard advertises nine different brews, all $5 per pint or $3 for a half. The Wee Heavy is an 8.6 ABV beauty of a Scotch ale, dark and clean, while the vanilla porter combines a mellow approach (26 IBU) with a touch of bitter smoke over lots of vanilla sugar. (The aroma is pure maple syrup.) A lavender option poured golden yellow with a sparse white head, purple flowers in the nose and a gentle, distinct flavor in the body without tasting soapy. — Bryce Crawford