So I have mentioned my addiction before. Sushi. It started as just something I did socially, with friends, just so they wouldn't have to indulge alone. And then something flipped. I had some gooooood stuff. In LA. And now I think about it all the time. I need more each time, and I am spending money I don't have in its pursuit. I neglect my family (or at least my dog's evening walks) in order to go out and score, and when I am at rock bottom and really jonesing, I do things I am ashamed of. Like order it from Chinese restaurants. I ignore the rubbery-ness and awful-ness of certain sushi go-rounds and even mediocre tuna with red pepper flakes triggers a binge.
Vacation is no different. The month I spent in China for work was torture. I did Sushi in China once, even though years of living in Asia should have made me wiser. I can still hear the dialogue in my head.....'But it's the nicest place in Beijing, where the Japanese Ambassador eats. Surely this would be ok'. Rationalization. I knew better, but maybe the inklings of the addiction were coming through even then. 'I will only have a few pieces.' Bargaining. I should have seen it coming. How did it end? With me puking at the sight of the 4 cases of beer the Irish guys ahead of me in line were bringing on the trans-siberian train the next day, coming off the worst night of sick in my life.
Anyway, my two trips to Portland this summer offered no respite from the craving. Fortunately, I have a boyfriend who is not only indulgent, but also encouraging of my little problem. He likes his sushi too. He had been talking about a little place in Portland for ages that was supposedly great and cheap. Keep in mind, however, that as he hates most things about DC, everything in Portland was both 'cheap' and 'great' in comparison. Add to that the fact it was in a strip mall, suspiciously located next to a Petco, and I was wary. Still, not many crack addicts complain about the quality of their rocks, especially when they are far away from their home dealers, so I hardly resisted trying it.
When I first walked into Sushi Hana in Tigard, just south of Portland, I saw a basic sushi-go-round. It took a few seconds for the real magic of the place to become evident. Like any sushi-go-round, Sushi Hana uses little colored plates to show how much various items cost. Unlike basically any other sushi-go-round, however, the most expensive little plate is $3! Most are between $1.50 and $2.50. Add to that the Monday happy hour special during which all plates are $1.50, and you have one of the best deals ever.... basically all you can eat. And eat I did. Although no match for the boyfriend's 19 plates (which blew the mind of our tiny waitress), I did a respectable 10. For under $25.
All you can eat is great (my favorite for the DC area is Matsutake in Ballston), but a good deal alone wouldn't justify the longing that I currently am feeling for Sushi Hana.
No, what was most remarkable about Sushi Hana was the quality. The sushi was fresh, the rolls creative and well-constructed. Unlike too many buffets and sushi-go-rounds, the chefs were selective about what was put on the belt- they didn't put out things that would go off too fast, and had a remarkable sense of just how much of anything was desired at a given time. Of course if you wanted anything in particular, they were not only receptive to, but actively seeking out requests.
This brings me to the final reason Sushi Hana is almost enough alone to pull me back to Portland for keeps, and the title of the post. Throughout the meals, a chorus of 'Mas Nigiri' or 'Hand-roll por favor' accompanied the methodical activity of the sushi chefs behind the counter. Normally, hearing your sushi chef shout to the kitchen in anything but Japanese is a reason for concern. Of course, there are the one-off all-you-can eat situations for which, as my best friend puts it, 'quantity has a quality all its own'; even these places, however, usually hide their non-Japanese sushi chefs in the back (along with, thankfully, the prep area... not visible is basically equivalent to sanitary for this girl).
Sushi Hana chefs were amazing, however. They were clearly in love with their work, and every time I went there, they seemed genuinely happy to be alive and making sushi. And I went there three times. In one 10 day trip. Yea, I like the place. I can't imagine how it must feel to be a super talented sushi chef who happens to be from Guatamala, but I imagine its not great. Like an Alaskan surfer, or a Laotian tight-end. No one expects your talent, and it must be infuriating to constantly surprise people. These chefs, however, have found a home, and for that, I am grateful. Not as grateful as if they were my dealers back home, but happy nonetheless.
Of course, now that I have had the pure stuff, it will take me a bit to get used to the expensive home brew here in DC again, but, as my visit to Kyoto Sushi last night proved, I can't stay away long.