23 December 2010

A great place for your sushi fix in Denver

Chain restaurants are bad, right?  We can all agree that Applebee’s, Chili’s, and the like should not be encouraged to keep pushing out mediocre fatty food with our money.  Local is best, but there is this hybrid, the “local chain”, that poses a philosophical problem.  I grew up in Chicago and then moved around the Midwest in college, and it was in Michigan, Iowa, and Indiana that I learned Chicago is the home base for a lot of national chains.  But when I moved to Denver, all tucked carefully away on the other side of the Mississippi in a much less populated part of the country, I learned about the local chains that you only find in Colorado and maybe western Nebraska or Wyoming.  For me, it was a no-brainer: I had the convenience of a chain location and the consistency in food quality that is implied, and greatly appreciated on the road in an unfamiliar location, but I was still supporting the local (albeit statewide) economy.  I still prefer the really local when possible, but I will take a  trip to Rockbottom Brewery any day over Arby’s.

Since I moved here in 2006, some of these local chains have gone viral, and now my parents email to tell me about the new noodle place (Noodles and Company) or Chipotle that just opened near Aunt Joan’s house.  But some chains remain a tight community, as is the case of Sonoda’s Sushi.  They opened in the Denver area over a decade ago and are going strong in their tacky (I say this with affection), tribute-to-the-80s basement location in LoDo on Market street along with the 6th Ave & Broadway location and their suburban sites in Aurora and Park Meadows.   The fish is good (though their claim that “If it was any fresher you’d have to catch it yourself” is always dubious in this landlocked state) and so are the drinks.  I suppose if you don’t like sushi you can enjoy their wide variety of cooked items, but why would you do that?  Just kidding—their menu is huge.  I won’t think less of you. 

Sushi rolls cover the spectrum from clean and traditional to adventurous fusion influences, but they do tend toward the traditional end, meaning that if you like covering up your sushi with lots of crunchy bits, you won’t have too much choice.  When I first started drinking coffee, I didn’t really like it but I was in college and everyone was going to those insipid B.O.-filled hippy zones with acoustic music and I wanted to fit in.  So I would order a coffee (this was before the days of Caramel Macchiato and the like) and put so much sugar in it that the level of the drink was higher when I finished.  My friend Stephanie Pedretti  would  call everyone’s attention to my beverage while I was preparing it to taste less coffee-like and we all had a good laugh.  But I digress…

I really like sushi, and I want to be able to taste the fish and enjoy its texture, is what I’m saying.  And I really like Sonoda’s sushi chef in LoDo.  They make good use of their eel, which is difficult to find around here, the crab is always real (and delicious), and they have an entire vegetarian sushi menu full of enticing combinations, rather than just the usual “veggie roll” which ends up being avocado and carrot.   The house sake, served warm, is also very good.  

I do also appreciate that when I am at Sonoda’s (at least on Market Street), the food seems to be more important than the décor.  Sure, the place is clean, and I have no problems parking my fanny on the toilet seat, but the place is a little dorky.  Enormous, deep blue aquariums behind the sushi bar make me feel like I’m in an episode of Miami Vice circa 1986, and the giant checkerboard floor looks like it’s been there (though well cared for) since the ‘50s.  Coupled with that “junior high party in Kristen McKenna’s basement” look of the random cement pillars scattered around the room and the pop music piped in a little too loudly to hear your waitress, the truly fantastic food and friendly service become even more special, like you’ve stumbled into a secret gem no one knows about and it’s all just for you. 

It’s not all there for you, of course, so plan accordingly.  Happy Hour is Monday-Friday 4:30-6pm (and at the LoDo/ Market Street location, also Friday & Saturday from 10pm-12am), featuring 2 for 1 drinks—that includes large carafes of sake—and a 15-20% discount on food.  You won’t be the only one there. 

And don’t worry—I’ve cut the sugar out of my coffee.

I bought a lot of sushi the other night...please buy my book and help a seafood snob.