871 G Street, East Village
Sushi fanatics on a tight budget in SD have been lining up at one of three Sushi Deli restaurants for years, expecting to dig in to some reasonably good fish at reasonably good prices. So when Tokyo Deli opened in East Village this spring, it was an easy assumption that it would be something similar. It’s not.
When you walk in, you realize it’s designed more for sushi fanatics who just want to grab maki rolls and nigiri and head home to mack on raw fish in the privacy of their own living room. In that sense, I even anticipated it would be like a shop dedicated to supermarket sushi — the kind you find ready-made and packed into little plastic containers with squeezeable packets of wasabi horseradish and soy sauce, ready to grab and go. While the take away at Tokyo Deli does resemble these basically good but not fantastic packaged dishes, it’s not that either.
The best way I could put it is, it’s like a sushi bar without the bar. Yes, there’s a tiny dining room with a few seats for those who can’t wait till they get home to nosh on ahi tuna, yellowtail, and salmon, but for the most part the restaurant has been left out of this restaurant.
This deli is really more of a sushi counter. Japanese plastic food art is on display — it looks exactly like sushi rolls and nigiri or poke rice bowls, but they’re just mock-ups showing you what the food looks like, packaging included.
But the food is made to order. I arrived at the end of the day, about five minutes before closing, and worried that the to-go order of fish would have suffered a long day of tepid refrigeration. Instead, the man behind the counter took my order and then turned into a deft sushi chef, producing fresh fish seemingly out of nowhere and quickly assembling it.
You won’t find specialty rolls here or any fish outside of the aforementioned big three. By cutting down on overhead such as furnishings, square footage, and variety, Tokyo Deli can serve basic but tasty sushi at reasonable prices. Five pieces of nigiri go for 7 to 10 bucks; standard five-piece rolls are about the same. For a quick sushi snack you can grab a couple of “sushi sticks” for $2.80 — a sliver of fish and masago roe wrapped tight in a hot dog size tube of nori and rice.
But to me, the nigiri was the real deal here. For what amounts to two bucks or less per piece, it’s some tasty fish. It’s not quite a bargain sushi spot, just a business model that counts on guys like me who want a sushi fix every so often without breaking the bank. I will be back.