Even weeks after my first visit to Sumo Sushi, there's one memory that makes me smile.
It's the image of an apple-cheeked sushi chef dancing to a techno birthday song and shaking a glass filled with spoons like a homemade maraca. As one friend put it, that was a highlight.
First impressions may be a good guide to Sumo Sushi, the latest addition to San Luis Obispo's ever-growing sushi empire.
The restaurant, which opened more than a month ago, makes no claims at strict traditionalism--no sneering chefs here -- just satisfying sushi rolls and other dishes in an atmosphere that's sleek, modern and no-fuss.
"It's a fusion of what's traditional and something different, something creative," said head server Alan Hsu, translating for the restaurant's main owner, Jung Yo. "It's a good way to get introduced to Japanese food."
According to Hsu, the former import/export business owner sought inspiration from his mother's restaurant in his native Korea.
Whether they're die-hard sushi fans or raw-fish novices, Central Coast diners should find plenty to like at Sumo Sushi.
Looks can be deceiving
Tucked into the Wells Fargo Bank complex off Broad and Marsh streets, Sumo Sushi's frosted-glass front gives little indication of the clean lines and attentive, good-natured staff waiting inside.
During one visit, a waiter answered countless questions by the sushi novices at my table and consulted the chefs with special requests for brown rice and meatless yakisoba. On another visit, a small army of servers filled water glasses, whisked away plates and presented bills.
The clientele itself is an even mix of college students and professionals --I've yet to see many families -- seated at small tables, the long wooden bar or the padded benches that line both walls.
Nods to Japanese heritage are few but tasteful -- a redand- black serving dish here, a cloth hanging depicting sumo wrestlers there.
The only off note is the large flat-screen television prominently displayed near the entrance. Although the sound was turned low on my visits, it seemed like an unwelcome distraction for folks more interested in unagi than the latest Ultimate Fighting Championship match.
As the rainbow of photos decorating the restaurant's walls suggest, more than 50 sushi rolls make up the backbone of Sumo Sushi's menu. They're served on pretty, mismatched plates.
One standout, the Yo Yo Roll ($10.50), roars with spicy crab meat and a chili-infused sauce so hot it'll make your tongue tingle. Thin, slippery slices of avocado help the fire slip down quickly.
Tuna lovers will enjoy the Aloha Roll ($10.50), a tasty blend of spicy tuna, asparagus and avocado topped with slices of the ruby fish.
For those watching their carbs, Sumo offers a number of riceless rolls -- such as the Love Love Roll ($12.50), featuring tuna wrapped around pinkish scallops, spicy tuna and avocado. Those tiny purses of fish counteract the mild heat with a hint of sweetness.
The Morro Bay Roll ($10), another riceless option, is fresh and clean-tasting with salmon, tuna, albacore and pinkish cucumber bearing the fragrance of pickled ginger.
And then there's the vegetable tempura roll ($7.50), which I found a definite improvement on some other versions of the dish.
Warm with a satisfying crunch, the large, lettucewrapped medallions enclose small but delicious bits of carrot, zucchini, onion and sweet potato.
I only had one big gripe regarding the rolls: Some pieces were too loosely wrapped and fell apart almost immediately in my hand.
The rest of Sumo Sushi's dishes range from beef ribs and udon noodle soup to yakisoba: pan-fried noodles served with chicken, beef or a seafood mix, julienne-cut vegetables and meaty strips of mushroom ($9 to $12.50).
Unagi don ($15), one of eight rice bowls, featured a slightly crispy eel filet that flaked open to reveal moist and tender flesh. As with the yakisoba, I found it disappointingly scant on veggies.
There's also a vegetariansonly menu with delicately fried and marinated tofu steak, salads and a number of fresh vegetable rolls ($10 for two dishes, $13.50 for three).
Even this lighter fare is filling--one combination included vegetable tempura, fried tofu and cold tofu salad drizzled with a light vinaigrette- style dressing. Rice and avocado came on the side.
In contrast to its fishless options, Sumo Sushi only has a small, spendy selection of those cool, expertly cut slices of raw fish and octopus known as sashimi. The best deal might be the chef's special combo ($14.50 to $22.50), which serves up fish-on-rice nigiri sushi and rolls.
Top off your meal with a sake martini in flavors like lemon, lychee and cucumber, and finish with a tasty scoop of tempura-fried green tea ice cream topped with whipped cream ($5).
Not for snobs
With middle-of-the-road prices and only a few costly steak and lobster dishes, Sumo Sushi has no pretensions of wooing the strictest of sushi purists. The restaurant's appeal lies in contemporary, casual dining and a solid selection of Japanese cuisine accessible to both the squeamish and the sophisticated.
As some of the repeat customers around me suggested, it's easy to see Sumo Sushi sticking around in SLO.
* * *
667 Marsh St., Suite C, San Luis Obispo
544-1818 Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. daily; 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 5 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Sunday
The scene: Sleekly modern sushi joint with enthusiastic service
The cuisine: Colorful rolls, appetizers, salads and sake cocktails
Expect to spend: $4 to $28.50