Following the Instagrams and Twitters and whatnots of various local foodies, you might think they only eat the finest, most luxurious, top-of-the-line dishes from the most stylish and posh restaurants. Or, if they eat at home, that they’ve whipped up a fabulous gourmet meal for one on the fly and they’re just lazing about in their open, naturally lit breakfast nook, casually letting you in on their effortlessly charmed life.
As a various local foodie, I would like to disabuse you of this notion. I can’t speak for everyone else, but I am a garbage person who eats a lot of garbage food in between visits to the stylish and posh restaurants in which I can only afford to eat because this is my job.
(For more on this, please check out our new #GarbageTime reviews.)
Garbage food is a bit harsh, I guess, but it’s not all five-star meals. Some of them come in at a solid two stars and, frankly, I’m grateful for it.
Sushi is not a dish that I consider garbage, even when it’s stuffed full of fried fish and cream cheese, but there are definitely degrees of fanciness to sushi restaurants.
Tokyo Japanese Restaurant, Saii Asian Bistro, Tsubaki Sushi, Sushi Neko, Yuzo Sushi Tapas—these are among the local spots that I consider the creme de la creme of Oklahoma City’s sushi scene. I love all of them in different ways. But I cannot afford to dine with them as often as I want sushi, frankly, which is how I came up with a new category:
When you want sushi, but you’re not ready to drop $50 on a meal, you absolutely can still eat at the high-end sushi spots...you’ll just be eating a little less and you won’t have much in the way of change.
But there are times when I want a BIG plate of sushi that I can eat like a damn monster. I want so much sushi that, when I’m full, there are still several pieces sitting in front of me, taunting me with their very existence. For that, you need utility sushi. Good enough to enjoy, but not the kind of sushi that calls for loving staged photos.
Honestly, I think utility sushi joints are in the sweet spot. Sushi is a volume business, after all—the price of some of the ingredients is fairly low (rice, seaweed, etc.)—so the variations in cost to the consumer has a lot more to do with the style of the business. You pay more for nice places with fancy flatware, helpful servers, and chefs who have studied sushi-making for years vs. places that care less about how the sushi looks, serve your food in styrofoam containers, and have counter service.
Here are a few of my favorites:
GOGO Sushi Express and Grill (two locations)
I am best acquainted with GOGO’s Midtown location, as it’s a stone’s throw from an office in which I spend a fair amount of time every other month. I’d be lying if I said, “Oooh, I’m in the mood for GOGO,” because that’s not how it works. I am usually neck-deep in work when I look at the clock, realize I haven’t eaten yet, and deduce that my bad mood and stalled productivity might be related. There are a lot of great Midtown options, but when I need something fast-ish, healthy-ish, and cheap-ish, GOGO is my GO-TO.
The nigiri prices are in the $2.75-4.50 range (though, honestly, who is getting crabstick nigiri?) and the “basic rolls” are $4.50-11.79, though that’s an outlier. A rainbow roll might seem basic, but it’s loaded with at least five different kinds of fish. It’s a meal in itself. I think the spicy smoked salmon roll ($5.99) is the best deal on the menu by a mile.
Rock & Roll Sushi Station (4501 NW 63rd St., OKC)
Reader Megan Scott is all in on Rock & Roll Sushi Station, which is a combo sushi restaurant and gas station. There was a time that would have stopped me in my tracks, but honestly I’m surprised we don’t have sushi restaurants/dispensaries by now.
Her favorite is the Captain Crunch roll ($7), but you can get lots of rolls in the $5-7 range. And when the prices go up, like on the $8.75 Oklahoma roll, the size goes up, too.
The Sushi Bar (three locations)
Basics are basic, but they’re also cheap and tasty and they’ll fill you up. The Sushi Bar, owner of one of the most-generic sushi restaurant names available (beaten only by a stripmall restaurant that just has a vinyl sign that says “SUSHI” with quote marks included), serves up $4-5 “small rolls,” which are just the simple ones we all love—salmon roll, tuna roll, yellowtail roll, cucumber roll, avocado roll.
Volcano Sushi Bar & Hibachi (three locations)
Before long, I will have every member of the Carman family writing for the site. Ashley, sister of our Noodling reviewer Becky, swears by Volcano Sushi Bar & Hibachi for getting her utility sushi fix. Here’s her take:
“It’s good and affordable. Tokyo is my favorite, but it’s a place where you want to drop $100 on a meal, while Volcano is great and priced for eating more frequently,” she said. “The spicy ‘Oh My God’ as a hand roll is excellent with a cup of seafood soup (clear broth with a bunch of seafood in it) and the Tataki roll—spicy tuna, avocado, with seared tuna on top.”
The lunch special at Volcano is great, too, with an ~$8 box in which you can choose a from a couple of categories to try new parts of the menu.
Hana Sushi (280 N. Mustang Road, Mustang)
Mustang isn’t my first choice for raw fish, but that might be changing thanks to Hana Sushi’s extremely reasonable lunch specials. Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m., you can get any two regular rolls for $9. Or any three rolls for $10. Yes, that excludes a bunch of specialty rolls, but there are literally 30 you can choose from on this deal. Snow crab, avocado, and caviar, next to an eel tempura roll and a deep-fried “bagle” roll? Yes, yes, one thousand rolls yes!
Cafe Icon (311 S. Blackwelder Ave., Edmond)
I am reticent to put Cafe Icon on this list, not because they don’t have good deals, but because I think the quality is better than some other utility sushi. That said, at lunch time (11 a.m.-3 p.m., Monday-Friday) the restaurant does Buy-Two-Get-One-Free specialty rolls, which could get you out for super cheap...if you choose $3 rolls like the Avocado roll or Cucumber roll. For meatier fare, you might be able to get away with a $20-25 tab, which isn’t the cheapest tab on the planet, but also pretty affordable if you’re feeding two.
A bit harder to time, if you’re a working stiff like me, but the Happy Sushi Hour at Icon is an even better deal. Go in Monday-Friday, from 3-5 p.m., and you’ll see big discounts on rolls. Rainbow roll for $8 instead of $14. Lava rolls for $12 instead of $15. Plus a ton of smaller rolls for $6-9 (with most being $6).
Park Harvey Sushi (200 N. Harvey, OKC)
Sushi is such a chameleon. Is it healthy? Is it junk food? How drunk should I get while eating raw fish? (The answer to the last one is: Not so much that you puke.) Park Harvey Sushi is bar sushi, which doesn’t make it inherently unhealthy. Sushi can provide a really great balanced meal of protein, carbs, and veggies. The fact that we sometimes include cream cheese and dip the whole thing in batter and fry it is on us.
Regular sushi rolls here sell for $6-10, but the best deals are at lunch from 11 a.m.-3 p.m., Monday-Friday, when you can choose two classic rolls for $11.50. The trick here is how to leave without ordering four or five rolls.
Ocean 81 Sushi Bar (7508 N. May Ave, OKC)
For the best deals at Ocean 81, you’ll need to arrive between 4:30 and 6 p.m. for happy hour, when diners can get a California roll for $3.50 and several other varieties for $4, $6, and $7 each. A spicy tuna roll, a sassy roll, and a $6 cocktail is a $14 dinner I’ll gladly eat again and again.
Nhinja Sushi & Wok (five locations)
I didn’t come up with the term “utility sushi” specifically for Nhinja, but it’s far and away the best example of the concept. The most expensive roll on the menu is a 10-piece dragon roll filled with tempura-fried shrimp, cucumber, and avocado, and covered in eel, more avocado, scallions and eel sauce. It’s a spot I feel comfortable taking my kids, both because it’s inexpensive enough that we can all eat and because their cooked options are just as affordable for their sometimes-picky tastes.
There’s only two rolls I refuse to get, and they both include an ingredient that I don’t need in my sushi: cooked steak. I guess raw steak wouldn’t be much better, but there’s something really insane about going to a discount sushi restaurant and expecting the staff to get an ingredient as temperamental as steak to behave. Kobe and JoJo rolls? Ya burnt.
Saki Sushi Bar (13520 N. Eastern Ave., OKC)
You can absolutely spend a lot of money at Saki Sushi Bar, so far north in OKC it might as well be Edmond, but you don’t have to. The rolls aren’t quite as cheap as a few others on the list, with a few starting at $6, but there are lunch specials in the $10-11 range that either come with two rolls, sashimi, or a mix of nigiri and maki.
On Saturdays, however, head in from 5-10 p.m. for a buy-one-get-one-half-off deal that is probably your best bet for trying a few of the pricier rolls (the Payday Maki roll, which includes lobster, for instance) while remaining on your budget.
Jiro Sushi (1101 NW 23rd St., OKC)
Strap in, because Jiro might dream of sushi, but the happy hour (2:30-4:30 p.m.) at Jiro Sushi must give the owners nightmares. Combos from $6-9 include a drink, miso soup, and a roll. If you eat light, this could be an every day meal.
That said, Jiro has a ton of rolls that are hard to fathom at the price. Sushi Fried Chicken roll? $4. Volcano roll? $6. The most expensive roll on the menu is $12. It’s not all-you-can-eat sushi, exactly, but you could certainly give it a go without going broke.
Shawn’s Sushi (5612 Northwest Expressway, Warr Acres)
This is the birthplace of utility sushi. When I lived much closer to Shawn’s, my ex and I would visit often and get copious amounts of takeaway. When it first began, Shawn’s shared space with a donut/kolache shop, but it wasn’t long before they moved into their own spot in a strip mall and kept turning out delicious, if not fancy, sushi.
Not for nothing, but when your most-expensive roll is $16 and the majority of the menu is in the $6-9 range, it’s a volume business. Shawn’s expects you to leave full and happy and with good reason.
Target/Whole Foods/Crest/Wal-Mart/Uptown Grocery
There are plenty of grocery stores doing sushi and the results are fair to middling. Your best bet here is to stumble upon the guy or gal actually making the sushi. That’s when you should buy it. And if it’s great and affordable, maybe go back when the chef isn’t there and see if it’s still good.
That’s the thing about utility sushi—you might just accidentally find some really amazing sushi, but you might also get an eel roll that you’re not eager to finish. It’s a roll of the dice sometimes, but when you want sushi and you want a lot of it, it’s a gamble I’ll take every time.