Tue 27 May 2008
<<EDIT 5/21/09: A year later, we’ve revised our review. Check out this post for an updated take on Sushi-Zen.>>
Full disclosure: I was a Johnny-come-lately to the sushi revolution. I grew up in a landlocked square-state and the seafood my mother served rarely ventured beyond smoked salmon, which I still love. As a teenager, I decided raw fish was simply gross and weird and certainly not something I’d deign to put in my mouth. Never mind that a Bennigan’s Monte Cristo – which is a fancy pants name for a fried club sandwich – was deemed delicious and worthy of going out of my way to attain. Regardless, I carried this unfortunate no-sushi-zone attitude with me through college in San Francisco (That’s right, no sushi in San Francisco! Seriously! What wasted foodie potential. What was my problem?) and the early days of living in Washington, DC.
Luckily for me and the sushi restaurants who regularly enjoy my pocket cash, this is about the time Mike stepped onto the scene. Mike’s father regularly travels to the DC area for work and the two had dinner together at least once a week. Sushi-Zen was their favorite spot. They were initially attract due to the convenient location, about halfway between Mike’s bachelor pad and his father’s Fairfax, VA office but quickly grew to love the menu options and relaxed family atmosphere. About two months into our relationship, Mike invited me to join them for their Monday night get togethers. I argued my sushi policy and he listened patiently but ultimately encouraged me to join them and “try at least a bite.”
“They have chicken teriyaki and other stuff on the menu, so you won’t starve,” he assured me. Alright fine. But I also didn’t know how to use chopsticks. “I’m sure that won’t be a problem. They have forks.” I didn’t realize it at the time but this was the beginning of a trend in our relationship: me being obstinate and silly and Mike patiently breaking down my poorly conceived rebuttals with good old fashioned logic. It’s pretty infuriating, I gotta tell you.
As usual, Mike’s instincts were on target and I became a sushi convert with one bite of their volcano roll – a spicy roll with shrimp tempura and avocado. Since then, my sushi tastes have evolved to borderline adventurous and chopstick-enabled. Mike and I are both sushi geeks and could happily eat a dish multiple times a week. It’s become our version of comfort food, celebration food and a beacon to weary travelers looking for a non-greasy meal in a strange city. An all you can eat sushi restaurant in the Palermo neighborhood of Buenos Aires, Argentina was the perfect antidote to our “No mas carnes” tourist whimpers. A Latin-sushi fusion joint in San Diego kicked off a great long weekend.
Over the years Mike and I have tried to sample some of the bold name sushi places sprinkled throughout DC, from Sushi-Ko in Glover Park to Sushi Taro in Logan Circle to a very recent trip to Sticky Rice in our own backyard. Each has a unique offering and advantages. Looking for an authentic, food-forward dining experience? Head to Sushi Taro or Kaz Sushi Bistro. Need a quick tobiko fix before a topless bar? Can’t beat Sushi-Ko’s for sushi-to-stripper proximity.
Sure, there are plenty of high end, uber authentic sushi experiences to be had in DC and we’re glad they exist. But if we just want a great, simple meal without pretense, Sushi-Zen keeps pulling us back. Sushi-Zen offers a full menu but we never crack it open. For us, Sushi-Zen is all about rolls, sashimi and temaki. I realize sushi rolls are an Americanized version of “true” sushi but they’re still my favorite. I love the combination of flavors and the way a talented sushi chef can pack new combinations together with just the right balance.
Located in an unassuming strip mall off Lee Highway, this is an honest-to-goodness family place often packed with toddlers, pre-teens and their parents. It’s exciting to me to see young children sampling raw fish and finding their favorite sushi dish; I’m sure they won’t move to San Francisco and ignore this entire food genre. Unlike other spots in DC, you can show up to Sushi-Zen in anything from work clothes to shorts and flip flops and be comfortable. In our many visits there I’ve seen countless folks come in straight from the gym to grab a carryout order.
Mike and I will continue to explore sushi options throughout the DC metro area, sampling the latest, the highest rated and the holes in the wall. But for me, sushi will be about my first love – the first bite of “weird” raw fish at Sushi-Zen that got me hooked.