This week, a handful of D Magazine staff members stuffed their faces with California rolls from various grocery stores in Dallas. It was fun. There were also some very strong opinions about which fish-crammed varieties were superior. Tastes were questioned, voices were raised, and a fistfight nearly broke out when the winner was announced. Thing is, many of the rolls were similar. The exception being the one from Whole Foods which toted real crab meat instead of the imitation kind. Half the tasters loved it; the other half gaged, cringed, complained, and violently rejected it. It was all very dramatic.
So, think grocery store sushi is nasty? Think again.
I got in touch with Andrew Kelley who, prior to opening New York Sub in Park Cities, worked as the regional manager of Sushi Avenue, a chief supplier of sushi to supermarkets. He explained that, regardless of the potential stigmas associated with purchasing raw fish from supermarket display cases, grocery store sushi is among some of the safest to consume.
“The fish is frozen,” says Kelley. “This eliminates any food-borne illnesses.” He explains that a lot of the fish comes from the same place. “It comes from Asia mostly. For instance, it’s caught in Thailand and then shipped frozen. It ends up in a warehouse. Then people are trained, it’s usually people from Burma, to make the rolls and the guys are sent to the stores to make the sushi. It’s like a franchise.” (There’s an informative story about Burmese sushi counters in the New York Times that’s worth a read.)
“I would say that the sushi is basically all the same fish, but the quality of the rice and the vinegar used to season [it] may be the biggest factor in difference. Also, some programs use more fillers like bread crumbs or mayo in the rolls.”
Want to know which grocery store California roll won our taste test? Read on.
B. Tom Thumb
C. Whole Foods
D. Central Market
- Standard California roll.
- This tastes like grocery store sushi. Which is to say that it tastes like it was purchased in a store where one normally buys groceries, such as eggs and milk and tampons, something my wife has been known to put on my shopping list. Why does that embarrass me so much in the check-out line? It really shouldn’t. We’re all adults here, right?
This roll (at least my slice) only had crab and avocado, but it was tight and well-constructed with a good amount of creamy crab. No complaints (except for the lack of cucumber).
- Smushy and delectable. One crunch. Just enough.
- A normal Cali roll, lots of rice.
Appearance-wise, this looks like someone jammed some mayo-heavy coleslaw into a sushi roll. I can’t taste much fish, but the roll holds together well. I dunno. It’s fine.
This is an American size piece of sushi. It’s like a three-biter. Sheesh.
- It was all pretty cohesive which was nice. Super creamy in a good way.
- A lot of cucumber in this one, makes it crunchier.
- This tastes like grocery store sushi. Though I will point out that this grocery store sushi contained crispy cucumber shreds, which was a nice touch by the grocery store.
This roll was loosely formed with the smallest ratio of crab filling to avocado and cucumber. But the seaweed had a nice toasty flavor and the roll tasted fresh. My favorite.
- Not much crab, okay.
They really skimped on the crab salad in this one. And yet! More flavor than roll A. I didn’t expect the balance to work as well as this one did.
I can’t tell the difference between this and D and E.
- The rice to content ratio is not great. There’s so much rice. But it’s fine.
- Crab is less creamy in this one. Has more texture to it and tastes fishier.
- This tastes like grocery store sushi that came from a grocery store where they let crabs walk about in the aisles until they either suffocate and die or are trod upon by careless grocery store shoppers, and then, after those crabs are dead, the grocery store lets them sit in a bucket for a day or two before boiling them and grinding up their meat and stuffing that meat in these sushi rolls. The crabmeat was so dry that it squeaked against my teeth. On the upside: there was lot of dry crabmeat!
My roll had brown rice. The avocado, too, unfortunately had browned. There was no mayonnaise in this one so the crab stood out. But not in a good way.
- Basically no flavor, tastes like cat food.
This one’s crab has an odd, deep-red coloring. Probably because it’s real. And, oh, there is way too much rice. Oh, my god there’s so much rice. The crab flavor is the most pronounced of the bunch here, but the ratio is totally off.
I appreciate that there’s not a whole bunch of mayo in here, but it tastes like they shredded the crab shell and stuffed it in a roll. So dry!
- The most unlike the others, which is a good thing. Definitely fishy.
- This is the only roll where I could tell there was crab. And it actually seemed like real crab, too. It was good! Crabs!
- Has a light aftertaste that I don’t like.
- This tastes like grocery store sushi that was made by a person who was only shown a picture of sushi before being asked to make it, and apparently that picture didn’t show that grocery store sushi should have sesame seeds on it. If you sent me to this grocery store to buy sushi, I would return home with only tampons to prove that I’m mature and not squeamish about that sort of thing. Maybe some Theraflu, too. That stuff is really going around.
The crab filling was moist but gummy and was the least fresh tasting. This is the bottom of the barrel.
- Good flavor and mix of everything.
This one’s relatively non-descript. It’s a little sweeter than the rest, but that’s all I really have to say.
I can’t tell the difference between this and B and E.
- Goes down easy.
- It’s strangely spicy. But also incredibly dull somehow.
- This tastes like grocery store sushi.
Uneven amount of rice around the roll. Filling appears standard but had the last amount of flavor. I’m bored.
Definitely from a gas station.
This one has the best balance—there’s good flavor in the imitation crab, the rice is proportioned perfectly, the avocado doesn’t overtake the rest. I think it would also taste best with soy sauce and a little wasabi, which Catherine threw away before this test because she is evil.
- Ton of crab, basically no avocado or cucumber. I can’t tell the difference between this and B and D.
- There was more stuffing (is that the right word?) than rice which was cool, but it was still pretty boring.
Tom Thumb: 2
Whole Foods: 4
Central Market: 1
The winner: Whole Foods’ real crab roll is the favorite. There you have it. So, how do you feel about grocery store sushi? Let’s talk about it.