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Food Fight: Battle Discount Sushi

Houston still lacks the crucial "conveyor belt sushi" concept
Houston still lacks the crucial "conveyor belt sushi" concept

It's no secret that we love sushi. However, we also love something else -- and we love it even more than we love sushi. We love money. To paraphrase Adam Sandler, we're a big fan of money. We like it, we use it, we have a little. We keep it in a jar on top of the refrigerator. We'd like to put more in that jar. That's where discount sushi comes in.

Now, we're not talking discount sushi like how our parents go to Super H Mart, buy a piece of raw tuna, take it home and cut chunks off it to eat like savages. We're talking about getting your sashimi fix at a place that's less expensive than stalwarts like Kubo's or cutting-edge joints like Kata Robata. It's possible to go painfully wrong eating cheap raw fish, though.

To that point, we asked our Twitter followers recently what their favorite places in town were to get cheap sushi. Responses varied, but most echoed sommelier Linda Salinas's answer: "Cheap and sushi do not belong in a sentence together. There are plenty of other cheap things to eat. It's like skimping on moisturizer...it shows later. If you find something, let me know. p.s. Miyako's fish tastes like refrigerator." We especially liked the last part.

Setting out to prove that there is decent, inexpensive sushi in this city, we pitted two favorites against one another this week: Oishii, an old friend with the best happy hour in town, and Natto, the "gas station sushi" with which we've recently become enamored. Here's how it shook out.

This is what happens when you forget to bring your camera to a restaurant, kiddos.
This is what happens when you forget to bring your camera to a restaurant, kiddos.

Oishii, 3764 Richmond

We've been fans of this family-owned, nondescript sushi joint on Richmond since a friend introduced us to the ridiculously good happy hour back in 2005. But the restaurant has a lot more going for it than just buy-one-get-one appetizers and cheap sake. It's cozy and friendly, with colorful pop art paintings lining the wood-paneled walls (which are for sale -- the paintings, that is, not the walls) and a mean cup of miso soup.

We ordered a Special C, which is a plate of assorted sashimi that comes with the aforementioned cup of soup, for $16.95. Our dining companion got the Special A, which is several pieces of sushi, a crunchy roll and a cup of miso soup, for $11.95. We were already starting off on the right foot with such inexpensive dishes, but upped the ante with an order of agedashi tofu and some bottles of Asahi (happy hour prices on the appetizer and beers, of course).

Our platter of sashimi included three pieces of salmon and 12 pieces of other fish such as tuna and escolar. It was a lot of sashimi, to say the least. Some of the pieces were on the small side, but you couldn't deny the freshness. Our dinner companion's sushi was good -- compact pieces of vinegared rice holding together admirably and all -- but the crunchy roll left a lot to be desired. The rice fell apart the moment you touched it, with the avocado, spicy tuna and salmon inside tasting nearly of nothing.

Thankfully, the agedashi tofu and miso soup were delicious -- both featured perfectly silken chunks of tofu, while the soup had a nice, warming kick to it.

 

And here you see what a picture of sushi should look like.
And here you see what a picture of sushi should look like.

Natto, 1818 Hamilton

We first stumbled upon Natto a couple of months ago on our way to Calliope's for a po-boy. Vowing to go back, we have never come away from there disappointed. Sure, it's inside a Mobil gas station. Sure, the aesthetic leaves a lot to be desired. Sure, it's run by Chinese folks (a bias which we've never held and annoys us on a regular basis). But for carry-out sushi and a geniunely friendly smile -- and for not dropping a lot of cash -- they have our heart.

On this visit, we ordered the M8 -- a sushi and sashimi combo -- for $16.50, and a crunch roll for $8.95. Chagrined, we instantly noticed that perhaps Natto wasn't the best value for your money after all. The sashimi that came with our combo was cut into much larger pieces than at Oishii. But even with that consideration, the six pieces didn't go nearly as far as our 15 had, and the fish tasted nearly identical. The sushi tasted slightly better, oddly, than at Oishii. But there was no miso soup with our order.

The crunch roll at Natto was even more disappointing than at Oishii. Perhaps we just need to stop ordering rolls altogether. This one held together better, but the rice tasted old and the spicy salmon inside tasted only of spice, nothing else.

Winner

At Oishii, we got far more food for our money -- the same $16 there goes much further than it did at Natto -- and you get a lot more "look" for your buck, too. That is, an actual restaurant complete with beer, sake, wine, table service, cloth napkins and a much nicer environment overall. As much as it pains us since we love them both, Oishii is the clear-cut winner here.


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