Conveyor-belt sushi restaurants, or kaiten-zushi as they're known in Japan, are big business these days. You might not think so when plates of sushi are priced at just $2 each, as they are at Little Tokyo's Kula Sushi, the newest and most ambitious kaiten joint to hit the L.A. scene. But arrive on a Monday night and you'll see just how big it is — waits of over 30 minutes are not uncommon, even when you factor in the high turnover rate that comes with customers being served via rotating belt.
If you've never been to kaiten sushi before, the conceit is pretty much what you'd expect. Premade sushi rolls out of the kitchen on a motorized track that circles the dining room, with tables of customers picking off the plates they desire while the unwanted ones circle the track like lame mules. Kula has more than 300 locations in Japan, and seven locations in L.A. County, including this newest one in Little Tokyo's Japanese Village Plaza. Its size and popularity ensure that it has one of the highest turnover of any kaiten sushi place in town, which is what you tend to look for when picking a place where raw fish comes covered in little plastic domes.
On a usual night Kula is filled with an assorted crowd: a group of high school kids pooling their cash to buy the maximum amount of food possible, an elderly couple out on a date. You could conceivably finish an entire 10-course meal in about 15 minutes — the belt is almost never empty — but most customers seem to turn it into a leisurely experience.
How is the sushi? It varies. There are about a half-dozen variations on the fried California roll, covered in fried items and several permutations of a creamy or sweet sauce. There are gunkan-maki, little lozenge-shaped sushi that usually comprise the best bites available. The piece with a dab of uni, despite its melted ice cream appearance, isn't too bad. Neither is the piece with a spoonful of tiny red ikura, or the one draped with slices of glossy raw shrimp.
Other items don't fare so well: The Spanish mackerel tasted waterlogged and appeared to have been hacked with the world's dullest deli slicer, and while the squid with shiso leaf sounds intriguing, it turns out to have the unappetizing chew of a length of garden hose. Surprisingly, the wasabi is real, though there's a good chance that the bright red tuna might have been gas-treated to preserve its color.
But through it all — even the little sesame-covered fried mochi balls you can grab for dessert — the sentiment seems to be, “Well, it's only $2,” which could very well be Kula's mantra. The sushi is not great, by any means, but it's far superior to what you'd find at, say, Whole Foods, or even some of the lower-rung Korean or Japanese sushi spots.
In the end, that might be kind of the problem. The globalization of sushi, a subject that even the film Jiro Dreams of Sushi touched on briefly, is unfolding in a major way. While conveyor belt sushi has been extremely popular in Japan for several decades, only in the past couple of years has it caught on in places like South Korea, Australia, Indonesia, Singapore and, increasingly, China. Whether most people care to realize it or not, inexpensive sushi incentivizes overfishing practices and puts strain on an already restrictive market.
But how can anyone resist at $2 a plate? Places like Kula offer a chance for those who might not be willing or able to pay for expensive omakase to sample sushi, albeit on a much lower tier. Is it sustainable? Put it this way — someday we might explain to future generations the concept of kaiten sushi the same way that we might regard coal-powered factories or Great Plains buffalo-hunting. For now, though, fast-food sushi looks like it's here to stay.
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