First Look at Sushipop

"Do you know how to open that?" asked a young, red-headed Sushipop employee as he approached the table with my order. A sly grin was on his face as I looked askance at the bottle of Ramuné I'd quickly chosen from the cooler near the register.

"Um...no, I don't," I admitted, a bit ashamed. The bottle itself said on the side: Ask your parents for assistance in opening. Or, in my case, ask a kid half your age at a fast food sushi restaurant for assistance in opening. I had officially become old in that moment. Thanks, Ramuné.

The kid laughed as he showed me the intricate steps involved in opening what is ultimately a bottle of Japanese Clearly Canadian with a marble in it (oh, screw caps -- why have you forsaken me?). It was one of many authentically Japanese beverage selections in the case -- sake and beer among them -- at Sushipop (9770 Katy Freeway, Suite 100), the new fast-casual sushi joint that's among the latest rash of openings in the vast strip mall megaplex that's evolved at Bunker Hill and I-10.

I'd been eyeing the restaurant with interest before it opened, for one reason above all: I am a sad, sad sucker for cheap sushi. My appetite for sushi far surpasses my ability to pay for it, so I'm always on the lookout for inexpensive sushi to tide me over between gorging sessions at places like Soma or Sushi Raku. Unfortunately, it's the inexpensive sushi that I'm able to afford about 90 percent of the time. Fortunately, it also means I get to try a wealth of different places in my search for a place that can form a happy place between price and quality.

Sushipop opened on August 19 and seems to have been doing brisk business since then. I attribute some of that to the visibility of their location and some of that to the fact that there really aren't any other affordable sushi options close to Memorial City Mall and the wealth of shopping, office towers and other density that's lately sprung up in the area.

The cool, chic interior certainly doesn't hurt, either. With a sweeping mural on one wall, flatscreen TVs showing news and sports, and an assembly line of sushi chefs to watch, it's simultaneously multi-sensory and inviting. And then there are the prices.

I ordered a High Roller combination over the weekend in an effort to taste three hand rolls in one go, and also because the price was decent: $9.95 for a shrimp tempura hand roll, a spicy tuna hand roll and a spider hand roll. The combo also comes with a choice of miso soup or a salad. I went with the miso soup, as I'd already ordered the edamame as an appetizer.

First things first: Sushipop does not skimp on the hand rolls. They're the same size as the ones I normally get at Oishii -- another inexpensive favorite -- although priced a little higher. The same rolls are $2.50 each at Oishii, or $7.50 for a trio (sans the soup/salad, of course).

The edamame and miso soup were standard, typical offerings. Nothing particularly good or bad about either. The hand rolls, too, were pretty bland.

They were mostly well constructed and filled with plenty of ingredients, except that the vinegared rice fell apart the moment you bit into the rolls, and the fish -- particularly in the spicy tuna hand roll -- tasted of air. Slightly spicy air, but air nevertheless. The shrimp tempura roll was the standout, solely because the tempura batter was nicely light and crunchy. I was particularly disappointed in the spider roll, which featured none of the spicy mayonnaise typically found inside. Without it, the roll lacked the zing which normally makes it a favorite of mine.

Despite this, I do want to go back and try some of Sushipop's signature rolls. Perhaps more effort and attention is given to items like The Fisherman (spicy tuna roll topped with unagi, eel sauce and sesame seeds for $9.95) or The Alaskan (snow crab, avocado and cucumber for $6.95). And I do appreciate the concept of fresh, fast sushi at an affordable price.

For now, though, places like Oishii still have the market cornered in that area. And Sushipop's interests seem to lay in expanding their operation straight out of the gate: More locations are already tentatively planned, according to the website and Facebook page. My advice? Take it slow and concentrate on getting the food right first. Then take over the world.

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