If you are planning to propose marriage any time soon, I have an idea for you. Take your beloved to Sushi Train, the new conveyor-belted Japanese eatery in Lions Head. You're going to need to recruit an accomplice. (You can call me. I love this kind of stuff.) Ask the accomplice to sneak the engagement ring onto one of the tiny plastic color-coded plates circulating the restaurant through the refrigerated monorail system. (I suggest a red plate, since that's where the premium-priced items are served.) Then, when you're whispering sweet nothings and watching the plates go by — crunchy shrimp, tuna with avocado, California roll — boom! Diamond ring! Will you marry me?
Yes! A thousand times yes!
Honestly, that's how I feel about Sushi Train, even without the bling. As a fellow diner recently said, "This is about as much fun as dining can be."
Let me start off by saying this: If you've dined recently at Nobu or Sushi of Gari, or supped shoeless in a private room anywhere in Asia with a defending Iron Chef, please keep it to yourself. We're not talking about seared toro with lotus root or uni with citrus blossoms right now. We're talking about better-than-supermarket sushi, priced reasonably and delivered in a really fun way.
Also, if you dined at Chef Yang's Chinese buffet, the predecessor establishment run by the current owner, erase that experience from your visual and olfactory memory. The Yang team reworked the store, which floats like an island in the Stein Mart parking lot, into a dazzling room appointed with intriguing lights and tiles and comfy colorful furniture.
The pan-Asian menu sprawls from bento boxes to hibachi, with whistlestops along the way at noodles and rice. The centerpiece, of course, is the sushi train. More like a stainless-steel moving sidewalk for fish and rice, it winds through the room inside a refrigerated glass tunnel, like a longer version of Snow White's glass coffin, or what might happen if Rube Goldberg were asked to fashion a Lazy Susan out of a Habitrail.
If you're dining alone or with one or two people, you might want to sit facing the train. If you're with a larger group, however, it's probably better to pick a table that abuts the train. That way, you can appoint someone at the head of the table, with access to the glass tunnel, to act as table captain. I offer this advice after two experiences with kids. The first time, I positioned myself as captain and doled out the plates on a need-to-eat basis. It was perfect. The second time, our party of five faced the train, and it was mayhem, with kids plucking $4 plates out of the tube as fast as I could yell, "Scrape that wasabi out of your brother's ear." With so many tantalizing delicacies — fluffy cilantro sprigs and deep-fried ebi (shrimp) tails — chugging by, you can see how things can get a little crazy.
While I'm acting all motherly, let me offer a little more advice: Don't get carried away by the train. It is fun to pluck tapas-size servings from the conveyor belt — in the same way that it's inexplicably fun to flag down a dim sum server or chase your duffel bag around an airport luggage carousel — but it can get pricey. Consider this: A red saucer with three or four slices of roll costs up to $4 on the train. Meanwhile, a lunch combo of three entire rolls, plus choice of soup or salad, is $9 when ordered from the menu. (That's close to 20 pieces of sushi, and the yellowtail with scallion was as good as we have found anywhere.)
In our experience, a sound approach was to mix and match a medley of cooked and raw, from train and menu. That way, you have plenty of food on the table, so you can wait for the better plates to pull into the station.
From the Chinese lunch menu, Mongolian beef was a generous portion of thin, tender tags of beef tossed with an unsubtle abundance of sliced white onion and served with fried rice and choice of salad or soup (egg drop, miso or hot-and-sour). It was not a destination dish, to be sure, but as part of a larger family-friendly meal, the sweet-and-salty profile was a hit with younger diners. Similarly, orange peel chicken was a heavy-handed and sticky treatment of fried chicken nuggets and steamed broccoli, which our young people devoured.
Meanwhile, we adults kept our eyes on the prize, namely an endless stream of fresh sushi passing by our table. (Here's a challenge: See if you can get through a meal without a single reference to Lucille Ball in the chocolate factory.)
The train carries an admirable array, from straightforward salmon nigiri to elaborate rolls such as the Sunshine (shrimp tempura and avocado topped with spicy tuna, kiwi and barbecue mayo); Titan (spicy tuna and avocado topped with salmon and spicy mayo); and Pacific (salmon, tuna, yellowtail, avocado, asparagus and cilantro wrapped in pink soy paper).
The standout in our experience was the Samurai roll (spicy tuna and avocado topped with tuna and salmon and a finely chopped mango salsa). A whole roll ordered off the menu is $11, while three bites from the train is $4.
Conversely, the most disappointing was the spider roll, whose over-sauced innards of fried soft-shell crab were saturated and mushy by the time we rescued the dish from the rails.
But overall, it was a successful trip aboard the sushi train, at a price well below what we usually pay for so much maki. We'll be back often, for lunch and dinner — with and without kids. With the right ordering and seating strategies in place, Sushi Train is a perfect family restaurant.
Who knows? If my engagement-ring-on-the-track scheme succeeds, it could also be the perfect place to start a family.
Sushi Train serves lunch and dinner daily. Wine, beer and sake are available.