In San Francisco, waiting in a long line to eat a coveted meal is almost a rite of passage.
In suburban Palo Alto, not so much. Lines down the block do sprout up occasionally -- on hot nights at downtown ice cream sandwich shop CREAM, for example. And on the same block of University Avenue almost every weekday at lunchtime, you'll see a line for Sushirrito.
A small Bay Area chain that serves sushi in burrito form, Sushirrito is the epitome of trendy food: fast, casual, made-to-order fusion food with ingredients like "wasabi dust" and "teri-mayonesa." The company claims to offer the world's first sushi-burrito hybrid.
For those who can't fathom what a sushi-burrito might look like, think of a burrito-sized sushi roll with seaweed wrap instead of tortilla, sushi rice instead of regular rice and Asian-fusion fillings like ahi tuna, agave-soy salmon, pork belly and Sriracha aioli.
The downtown Palo Alto restaurant, Sushirrito's first outside of San Francisco, opened in January on what might be the trendiest block of University Avenue, between Umami Burger and Chantal Guillon, with CREAM, Lululemon and Blue Bottle Coffee as neighbors.
Sushirrito owner Peter Yen came up with the concept (and trademarked it) in 2008 when he was a downtown San Francisco worker who craved sushi that wasn't expensive or time-consuming to eat, but was still high quality.
Three years later, Yen teamed with Ty Mahler, formerly executive chef at Roy's Hawaiian Fusion in San Francisco, to open the first Sushirrito. They soon opened two more nearby in San Francisco, and Sushirrito laid claim to the 448 University Ave. space several months after Sabrosa Taqueria shuttered last April.
The Palo Alto Sushirrito, open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., immediately attracted a following -- so much so that the restaurant puts out a retractable line divider (like those at airports) for the inevitable queue.
On a recent weekday around noon, the line stretched from the register up to but not quite out the door. Twenty minutes later, more than half a dozen people were standing outside.
The menu is relatively small, with eight sushi-burrito choices, one salad and one side (Asian-fusion nachos with spicy tuna, ginger guacamole, green onions, nori and melted pepper jack cheese). Pick up a laminated menu to scrutinize while you wait in line, which moves pretty quickly through the modern, minimalist restaurant. As you approach the counter, employees can be seen behind a glass wall hand-rolling each sushi-burrito down an assembly line.
I had heard rave reviews of the signature "Geisha's Kiss" ($12) -- yellowfin tuna, tamago omelet, piquillo peppers, lotus root chips, cucumber, lettuce, ginger guacamole, yuzu tobiko (flying fish roe) and sesame soy sauce -- but it fell flat. The proportions of rice, sauce and fillings were just right, but the piquillo peppers, thick and red, were a mismatch with the chunks of fresh yellowfin tuna.
Proportions are huge: think the size of a real burrito. Sushirritos come cut in half.
All fish served at Sushirrito is sourced from Royal Hawaiian Seafood, which focuses on responsibly produced fresh and live seafood. All fish is delivered and cut daily, according to the restaurant's website.
The winner was the "Mayan Dragon" -- chicken katsu (fried cutlet), potatoes, julienne carrots, pickled red cabbage, ginger guacamole and shaved jalapenos in a rich, flavorful Japanese curry sauce ($9). The chicken katsu was crispy, and the thick curry sauce contrasted in a ying-yang kind of way with the fresh, crunchy veggies.
As a veggie-lover but non-vegetarian, I thought I'd give Sushirrito's only vegetarian option a try. The "Buddha Belly" comes with spicy Japanese eggplant, portobello mushroom fries, shaved cabbage, carrots, ginger guacamole, kale and roasted garlic tofu sauce ($9). It was incredibly over-salted to my taste, with little complexity of flavors, but my bona fide vegetarian co-worker was head over heels about it.
For carnivores, there's also the "Porkivore" with oven-roasted pork belly, and the "Caballero" with sake-asada beef. The most basic sushi burrito, the "Satori" -- kanpachi yellowtail, cucumber, pickled red onion, sweet corn, red tobiko, avocado and wasabi mayo -- might be closest to true sushi.
Sushirrito allows no substitutions or modifications, which is unfortunate. An FAQ list at the restaurant includes the answer to the question: "Why can't I customize or make my own?"
The answer: "Sushirrito is a chef-driven restaurant concept. We want to share a particular culinary experience with you by designing a menu that is not meant to be modified."
The FAQ also explains the notable absence of add-ons like soy sauce, wasabi or ginger: Each sushi burrito already comes with its own "unique sauce and taste profile" so that these "traditional condiments are not needed."
The restaurant is also very much geared toward quick eating. Each Sushirrito is served in a cardboard take-out box.
For those who opt to wait in long lines for food, the perennial question is: Is it worth it? At Sushirrito Palo Alto, I would say no. Skip the lunch-time rush hour by going before noon or after 1 p.m.
But, if you're like me, a taste of Sushirrito might just leave you craving a genuine sushi roll -- or an authentic burrito.
448 University Ave., Palo Alto