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New kid on the belt

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    A two-tiered conveyor belt delivers sushi at Sushi San. Patrons can order from the menu if they don't see what they want on the belt or if they want to be sure fried items are hot.
    FTR - Patrons can either order from the menu or pick from the sushi conveyor on Sunday, April 3, 2011 at Sushi San restaurant in Ala Moana. (Jamm Aquino/Honolulu Star-Advertiser).

There was a time when kai­ten, or conveyor belt, sushi was new and trendy and the whole market was up for grabs. These days it’s hard to imagine taking on the giant Genki Sushi, which has top-of-mind recognition when it comes to moveable sushi feasts.

Genki Sushi has accomplished this through a mix of consistency, speed, price and innovation, the constant introduction of new dishes.

With quality of fish served being fairly equal, the No. 1 question directed toward staffers at the new Sushi San restaurant on Kapiolani Boulevard, is, "What do you have that Genki doesn’t?"

For starters, Sushi San offers more cooked dishes, with many izakaya-style selections, though without the alcohol associated with such bar fare as chicken karaage ($2.80) and kaki, or fried oysters ($3.80), or tempura-fried beef ($3.20). In fact, if you’re not in need of a beer or sake, Sushi San is an inexpensive way to get your fill of some Japa­nese favorites that would probably cost you at least $8 elsewhere. If staying within budget is a big concern, the dish that will fill you fastest is the spicy ebi roll ($4.80), a large piece of crunchy shrimp tempura encased in rice.

There is also a trio of soup dishes, and for those who don’t eat fish but want to tag along on the sushi bar experience with friends, there are steak, Spam and bacon options as well.

THE SLEEK new restaurant is housed in the former Territorial Savings building mauka of Ala Moana Center. Owner Jay Kim’s background includes similar kaiten restaurants in Korea.

The double conveyor belt is set high, so unless you have abnormally long arms, you’ll be grabbing from the parade of nigiri directly in front of you.

If you’re a stickler for the freshest dishes possible, the double belt and array of ornate presentations make it hard to gauge how many times a particular dish of sushi has completed a circuit. The only way to see what’s new is to keep your eyes on the sushi makers, who are planted in the center of the room, placing dishes at random as spaces open up on the belt. You can also order any dish you want from servers stationed around the room. This is the way to go if you want plain hama­chi ($3.80), which makes infrequent appearances on the belt, and deep-fried items like calamari ($2.20), which is comparable to Genki’s but generally cold by the time you pick it off the conveyor.

For such a self-serve format — which includes a third conveyor carrying teacups and tea bags to use in combination with hot-water taps in front of diners — it’s admirable that at least five staffers are on the floor at meal times. A lot of full-service restaurants of similar size have less manpower in their dining rooms.

For those enamored by fire, much of the cooking of garlic salmon, salmon steak and garlic maguro ($3.20 each) is accomplished with a hand torch. The two garlic dishes are not as garlicky as the name implies, though I think a lot of people will like the creamy sauce that tops them.

One of my favorite selections was the maguro tataki ($3.20), seared and spiced with fiery shichimi.

Those who like rare beef might enjoy the beef tataki ($3.20), though I never liked the mushy-chewy textures of beef and rice together. SUSHI HERE is suited to those who prefer eating it with their hands. Otherwise, the rice is so moist and loosely packed, every one of the nigiri I picked up fell apart.

More familiar items are preferable to Sushi San’s unique offerings, such as the Honey Moon Roll of rice and lettuce-wrapped bacon ($2.20) and Unagi Box ($2.80), in which the nigiri rice is simply shaped into a square, topped by a smaller-than-usual piece of eel.

There is also a Bacon Roll ($2.80) with rice around a core of sliced bell peppers, but the bacon itself is pale and barely cooked. As I watched pieces of the fatty white pork circling, I debated whether to try it, then heard a girl near me complain that it would have been better if the bacon were crisp. I’m taking her word for it.

Like any new eatery, it’ll take some work to make your way around the menu to find your favorites. But if you take the time, I’m sure you’ll find some crave-worthy bites, even if it takes two trips to warm up to this new suitor for your kai­ten affection.

Nadine Kam‘s restaurant reviews are conducted anonymously and paid for by the Star-Advertiser. Email
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