Gas Station Sushi
Photos by Katharine Shilcutt
Only a few short days after Eating Our Words' body revolted violently against some inadvisedly consumed cheese enchiladas that had been on a steam table for far too long, as it turns out, we decided to show our stomach who's boss. Take back the night! And what better way to reclaim our iron stomach status by consuming raw fish at a gas station?
Natto (also confusingly spelled Na Tto on its menu and other paraphenalia) is a brand-new Japanese/Chinese restaurant that opened in a Mobil gas station just off Jefferson and Hamilton. Its owners used to run Kappa, a similarly themed restaurant in Pearland -- sans the attached gas station, of course. And if you're not put off by the fuel pumps outside, the roar of 59 running past you, the vacant and weed-infested lots that surround Natto/Mobil, you'll be rewarded with some surprisingly fresh sushi inside.
The first trick to eating here is that you don't actually go into the gas station. Just inside the front door is another door to your right, where Natto is -- thankfully -- separated from the rest of the convenience store, lottery tickets and all. The booths and tables are spotlessly clean, the atmosphere oddly cozy and sunny. Perhaps this is owing to the broad windows (although the view isn't much to comment on) or the cheerful mishmash of trinkets littering the place: A set of Russian nesting dolls, a nautical-themed clock, a British pub sign, a Japanese noren hanging in a doorway. Or perhaps its the cheerful counter service, banging happily through a steady stream of lunchtime visitors -- most of whom are ordering cautiously off the Chinese side of the menu.
The Japanese side of the menu interested us far more, especially considering that natto is a Japanese delicacy: fermented soybeans. Sadly, Natto doesn't serve natto and we didn't get an opportunity to ask why. Some mysteries are best left unsolved.
Instead, we ordered a plate of gyozo (beef dumplings -- $3.50 an order), a sampler plate of sushi and sashimi (really the closest you're going to get to omakase in a gas station) and a tapioca-riddled black tea with milk for $3. It took a good ten minutes for our food to come out, during which time we watched patiently as the sushi chef sprang into action behind the counter. He seemed happy yet bemused that someone had actually ordered any sushi, let alone sashimi. As we waited, more people came in and placed their orders: Fried catfish plate, General Tso's chicken, popcorn shrimp.
When the food arrived, we were startled to see how large and how fresh the six fat gyozo were. The dumplings were nearly paper thin, deftly crimped and folded and looked every bit handmade. Inside, the filling was loose and savory -- not a dense ball of packed beef that one typically gets in a low-end sushi joint. Scarfing them down while they were still hot, we held out great hope for the fish on the other plate.
One of the pieces of nigiri was tamago -- disappointing right off the bat. But we gamely ate the little omelet and found ourselves enjoying it despite feeling slightly ripped off. The rest of the nigirizushi and the sashimi was excellent, however. A piece each of maguro, nama sake and escolar sat pertly next to butterball slices of hamachi and more nama sake and escolar. (It faintly occurred to us that Yogi-san at Kubo's would be appalled at all this escolar.)
The fatty slices of fish tasted like clean air and rounds of butter, the vinegar-spiked rice under the nigiri holding together perfectly and providing a slightly sharp undertone. Yes, there was the sticky green ball of "wasabi" in the corner and a tight knot of pickled ginger slices to round it out, but we found ourselves taking enjoyment sheerly in the fish and ignoring both condiments/palate cleansers altogether.
At $16.95, the sampler plate that we got isn't cheap -- especially when you consider the plethora of $1.99 Ding-Dongs and Cool Ranch Doritos next door -- but it struck us as a bargain considering the quality of the fish and the sheer story value of eating it in a gas station. We happily drank our just-sweet-enough milk tea for dessert and wandered back to the office with a full belly.
Over dinner last night, our friends quizzed us: Was it good for a gas station? Or was it just good? While the truth may lie somewhere in between those two answers, for now we're just excited to have found a new lunch spot and a fun place to get an inexpensive yet delicious plate of sushi.
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