They were all revolted. "What?" "That sounds awful." Huh? "What about Japanese food could possibly lend itself to all-you-can-eat?" And here I thought it was obvious: all of it! What's the matter with you?
As I got to thinking about it, though, I realized why. There really is a dearth of good Japanese food around here. I've heard of exactly one Japanese restaurant that people speak of fondly here, and as such it's packed even on a Wednesday night. It's also really expensive -- I've been to another branch of theirs in an upscale food court and I saw prices as high as $5 for a simple seaweed salad, and $13 for an Alaska roll (or something comparable to it). I've been to other places, and they're either crap or expensive. People are just conditioned to believe that Japanese food is boutique fare, where you are not meant to do anything as gauche as get full. I've asked around, and nobody knows of a good place in San Francisco either; if you can't find it in San Francisco, where will you find it?
For example, after thinking about this for a while, I had a crazy craving for some sushi, so I decided to try a little stuff at the place just north of campus. Things got off to a decent start with the miso soup, but the California roll was lacklustre. Or so I thought at first; as I kept eating, it went from lacklustre to flat-out bad. I also ordered the "fried tofu with teriyaki sauce" thinking it must be agedashi tofu. It wasn't. It was just fried tofu with teriyaki sauce.
This annoyed me, and then it saddened me. I just can't get good, cheap Japanese food around here. I can barely get one of the two. It's not like Vancouver, where you can get 18 pieces of sushi and miso soup for $7.
So when I said all-you-can-eat Japanese, the first thing that came to mind for my friends was not Japanese food, but the Sizzler with raw fish. Now, I love the Sizzler, but that ain't right. I wholeheartedly agree: Japanese food should not involve a sneeze guard.
Intrigued, I asked some Vancouverite friends for their opinions. Everyone agreed: we basically see good Japanese all-you-can-eat as our God-given right. It is more than a meal: it is an event, one which you plan around, look forward to, prepare for rigorously, and tell stories of after the fact. It is a way of life.
Well, not really.
I then asked other people, from other parts of North America. My sample consisted of one Montrealer, two from Florida, several from LA, one from Texas, and one from New Jersey. I asked them: what comes to mind when I say "all-you-can-eat Japanese"? Generally, they bring up little places that they know with crappy food that's clearly been left out for too long, buffet-style complete with sneeze guard. The Sizzler, with raw fish. I'll say it again: that just isn't right.
In the early days of all-you-can-eat Japanese food in the Lower Mainland, yes, there were buffets. Without sneeze guards, even. And for a long time, the sushi really wasn't good at all either. The rice-to-filling ratio was always skewed way too far towards rice. I've heard awful stories about the fish they would use in one particular restaurant, and yeah, it was to be expected. Come on, it's all-you-can-eat.
Gradually, though, things started to change. One day there was just the crappy place with too much rice in their sushi and fish that is best if you really don't think about it, and then the next there was the crappy place and another place, one with sushi that was at least an acceptable facsimile of the full-price version. Not only that, but they had more than just salmon and tuna sushi available. Their tempura was actually crisp and fresh. That place didn't last long, but clearly change was in the air and before long, more and more places started appearing.
Now, good all-you-can-eat in Vancouver isn't the exception, it's the norm. The buffets have long been replaced by a much more civilized system where you write your orders on a sheet and they bring them to you -- no sneeze guard necessary. The sushi can be expected to be at least 80% as good as the non-AYCE version, and even the crappier places have now raised their games. Some places are just amazing, like the one and only Jiro, near Broadway and Main. This, of course, is the place with the story, which all of my friends at home have heard.
And here's that story*.
Here are a few tidbits about all-you-can-eat Japanese in Vancouver. This is mostly for the benefit of my American and otherwise not-Canadian friends, and I ask my experienced friends to contribute, comment, and correct.
- The service method, while definitely an improvement over the buffet style in terms of hygiene, is not perfect. You will find that the second round is slower than the first, and the third is slower than the second, and -- if you make it this far -- the pattern continues. Moreover, you can reasonably expect to get no more than 80% of the things you ordered in any given pass. This generally works out for the best, though, and so you let it slide.
- An inexperienced all-you-can-eater should never be placed in control of the ordering. They inevitably become trigger happy. Worse, they will order things like nigiri sushi, cucumber rolls, and other such things containing more rice than not-rice. This is a rookie mistake and must be avoided. There are only a handful of times in my life where I have been in serious, bloated discomfort after a meal, and 50% of them result from this. (GRAHAM. JIM. JOWEN.)
- You will find that if you order large quantities of certain items, the amount you receive will be far less. This is the well-understood Law of Fours, which states that if you order n of any item, where n>4, you will receive 4 of said item. Not knowing anyone who actually has worked in an all-you-can-eat restaurant, this law remains unproven; however, empirical evidence shows that it holds for a wide variety of items, including (but not restricted to) rolls, sashimi, short ribs, tempura, teriyaki, gyoza (fried, deep-fried, vegetable, and prawn), and karaage. The only items that you will reliably receive all of your requested quantity of are items whose servings come in individual bowls, such as miso soup, sunomono salads, and spinaches gomaae and ohitashi.
- For a short period of time in 2002-2003, the Japanese place in the UBC village went all-you-can-eat. I remember this time period very fondly, but I still don't know what possessed the owners to think this was a good idea on a university campus. They used to tape memorable receipts on the wall near the entrance. One receipt was easily two feet long. Once I came close to this sort of quantity with
JowenVictor (EDIT 11:19PM, sorry Victor), Derek, and Cecile; because we were frequent customers, they let us stay well beyond the alloted two hours. There was me and three other people whose aggregate mass was approximately 320 pounds, and yet we still laid a hurting on that place that I don't expect to ever equal again. Another memorable receipt was at first glance very short, but when you read it, it was damned impressive. One customer; one miso soup; four salmon sashimi; forty California rolls. That's 120 pieces of sushi.
- One must be careful not to over-order, as they charge for wasted food. This leads desperate eaters to do such devious things as sneak food into the bathroom to throw away, and stuff the extra food into the teapot. (GRAHAM. JIM.)
- Nobody, nobody, orders the white rice. If you order the white rice, you are an idiot.
- A good roll a) should have a very even curvature all the way around, b) should have at least a 50% filling-to-rice ratio, c) have good, flavourful seaweed. In my experience, a roll that is not round, but square-shaped with rounded corners, is not going to be good. The roll I got at that place just north of campus? Not round.
Last time I was home, I didn't get a chance to, and all of this talk has made me really eager to get back on the AYCE horse. So, I would like to announce that this summer, while I am at home, we will be visiting Jiro, and we will be doing it more than once. Please, get in touch with me if you wish to join us.
* Incidentally, I told some of my friends this story, but I think I may have overemphasized the gunplay and theft aspects of the story, as now they just think we're reckless idiots for continuing to go there. But they don't understand. I mean, the odds of us actually being there while any serious crimes are being committed are pretty low, and the food is really really good.
Current Music: Peter Adams - The Disappeared