The rise of sushi restaurants in recent years is something of a local phenomenon.
The number of trendy Japanese eateries has more than doubled since 2004, from seven in the county to 17 today. And that total includes the recent departures of Just Sushi, Sakura Rikyu and Sakura Express.
So why the rage? High in protein, rich in flavor and packed with numerous health benefits, sushi makes an ideal casual work-time meal -- or it can make for a romantic dinner.
Perhaps Stephen Yung, former owner of Imperial China, foresaw the trend when he closed his San Luis Obispo Chinese food restaurant late last year, after more than two decades. It's since been replaced with another Japanese restaurant and sushi bar, the newly opened Sumo Sushi at 667 Marsh St. in San Luis Obispo.
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"People's tastes are changing," he said. "They want healthy Asian food, and for many people, that's sushi."
While there are old local favorites such as Tsurugi in San Luis Obispo and Harada in Morro Bay, the influx of new fusion-Japanese restaurants has made sushi restaurants part of the mainstream. In fact, there are more sushi restaurants than casual barbecue joints on the Central Coast today.
So, if you're unfamiliar with the many delicious forms of sushi, get out there and wrap your mouth around some talented chef's seaweed and rice concoctions.
Can't decide what to order? Ask a sushi chef for a daily special or house special roll. And don't forget the green tea or sake to wash it down. We've created a roundup of sushi restaurants and categorized them by what type of sushi consumer you are: novice, middle-of-the-road, or nothing-is-too-strange sushi purist.
11560 Los Osos Valley Road, Suite 160, San Luis Obispo
Sushiya is among the latest sushi places to open, and it replaces Sakura. Your server will explain how to order sushi, what exactly is in it (seaweed, rice and your choice of fillings), and even how to use chopsticks.
We like: The house specialty Sushiya Roll ($10). Smothered in fresh salmon and a spicy, creamy sauce, this roll is filled with tempura shrimp, crab, cucumber and avocado. It's a per fect combination of sweet and spicy.
We also like: The Tempura Vegetable Roll ($6) -- the largest vegetarian roll we've ever seen--and the Double Famous Roll ($8) with its spicy tuna, veggies and crunchy exterior.
Locations in Paso Robles, San Luis Obispo and Pismo Beach
541-5282 (SLO), 773-3535 (Pismo), 226-8867 (Paso)
The color and creativity of the rolls at these sushi bars is hard to beat. With choices like the Sexy Roll (no carbs) or the Baked Dynamite, there is something for even the most discriminating eaters.
We like: The Sexy Roll ($10), a rice-free roll wrapped in cucumber and filled with veggies and three types of raw fish. Not for the squeamish, however, because a quail egg makes for the plate's centerpiece.
We also like: The Fire Dragon Roll ($10) -- topped with spicy tuna --and the Philadelphia Roll ($10.50), because you can't go wrong with salmon and cream cheese.
Shin's Sushi Bar
1023 Monterey St., San Luis Obispo 543-2348
Best known for its half-price rolls, this downtown Japanese cafe is popular with college students and budget-sushi eaters. It's a nice, casual eatery where you can watch the chefs work their magic.
We like: Any of the halfprice rolls. Sushi is known for being hard on the wallet, so you can't pass up a discount.
We also like: The rolls with interesting names like the
A quail egg tops a plate of Sexy Rolls, above, at Yanagi's, which has locations in Paso Robles, Pismo Beach and San Luis
Obispo. The Snake Roll at Sushi Kokku
includes eel and avocado.
Fireball, the Ex-ta-sea and the Hot Grover Beach Night.
1741 W. Grand Ave., Grover Beach 481-3986
Owned by the same people as Shin's, Yamato serves up large pieces of sushi in a quaint setting. Go for someone's birthday and you'll be pleasantly surprised (that's all we're saying now -- find out for yourself).
We like: The Ursula ($9). Tempura-fried yellowtail, spicy tuna, avocado, cucumber and mango covered with spicy sauce.
We also like: The Dragon Roll ($9), a version of the California roll with crabmeat and roe covered with eel and avocado.
Locations in San Luis Obispo and Paso Robles
782-9231 or 227-4659
It's the only takeout Japanese eatery in the county since Sakura Express closed, letting consumers save on time and money.
We like: Any of the createyour- own rolls. You can add whatever fish and veggies you like starting at about $4.
We also like: The Spider Roll ($8), a soft shell crab stuffed inside a roll with various vegetables and then fried.
Umi Teriyaki and Sushi
1319 W. Grand Ave., Grover Beach 489-7424
Umi plays into local themes with rolls named after cities, such as the Morro Bay and the Los Osos.
We like: The Morro Bay ($8), a large roll filled with seared yellowtail, crab and green onions and then lightly tempura-fried.
We also like: The Crazy Horse, a roll filled with three different fish; and the Los Osos, a salmon and cream cheese-filled roll.
Paso Robles and Grover Beach 237-1353 and 474-9962
Both locations are unas-suming, yet the ambience is inviting and fun once inside, with karaoke machines and gold-painted columns.
We like: The Dynamite Roll ($12), a monster of a California roll, topped with a mess of warm seafood (scallops, shrimp, bonito) and sprinkled with green onion, crunchy bits of tempura and orange masago roe.
We also like: The Sweety Roll ($10.50), a mix of crab and tempura-breaded popcorn lobster blended with onion and cream cheese; the Snow Cone Roll ($11), a California roll topped with baked albacore; and the Vegetable Roll ($5).
California Sushi & Teriyaki
539 W. Tefft St., Nipomo
A modern setting that makes an ideal place to try the latest twists on California's version of traditional sushi.
We like: The Rattlesnake Roll ($11), a roll with jalapeos, cream cheese, raw fish and crab, and fried in tempura batter.
We also like: The Cinco de Mayo Appetizer ($8), spicy raw tuna atop tempura-battered seaweed and the Lady Roll ($11.50), an all-raw roll filled with salmon and ahi and covered in spicy sauce.
Toshi's Teriyaki Sushi Bar
1065 Olive St. San Luis Obispo
This casual eatery close to the Cal Poly campus is popular with students and passing-by motorists.
We like: The Pacific Ocean Roll ($10) is filled with spicy tuna and tempura shrimp, and topped with salmon and spicy sauce.
We also like: The Highway 101 Roll ($10) contains deepfried prawn, snow crab, cucumber, onion, seared tuna and spicy sauce and the Spicy Baked Scallop Roll ($8) is a California roll topped with warm scallops in spicy sauce.
570 Higuera St., San Luis Obispo 543-8942
A longtime local favorite, Tsurugi is often deemed the most authentic Japanese restaurant in the county by sushi enthusiasts. It's difficult to find behind The Creamery, but you'll rarely see an unpacked house.
We like: The spicy tuna roll ($8), with its spicy, creamy sauce and large chunks of fresh tuna, may be the best one in the county.
We also like: The Soft Shell Crab ($11.75), fried crab paired with cucumber and burdock.
630 Embarcadero, Morro Bay 772-1410
The ambience at Harada, with dark walls, Asian furnishings and eclectic serving dishes, can't be beat. Across the street from the bay, the fish is fresh and the restaurant feels authentic.
We like: Any of the sushi boats (starting around $20) because they're easy to split and you get to try a variety of fish. We don't recommend a house roll here because there are few and they are quite simple. That's one of the reasons this place is a sushi purist's hot spot.
We also like: The teriyaki dinners. For less than $20, you can get a couple simple sushi rolls, miso soup, salad and a flavor ful piece of meat.
722 Pine St., Paso Robles 227-4860
The sister restaurant of Tsurugi is next to the Paso Robles train station, making it an ideal spot for an afternoon of sushi and people-watching.
We like: Seared Albacore and Black Pepper Roll ($11.50).
We also like: The shrimp tempura hand roll or any of their wide selection of nigiri.
* * *
Sushi: Rice wrapped or topped with a slice of fish or other garnishment
Sashimi: Sliced or prepared raw fish with no rice
Tempura: Seafood or vegetables battered and deep-fried
Wasabi: Green and spicy Japanese horseradish Sake: Rice wine