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Gorilla Eats Sushi, but that’s not fish

Vegan sushi ghost kitchen stands out in the new Aztec Food Hub

This salmon nigiri isn't really salmon; it's made form the Asian yam, konjac.
This salmon nigiri isn't really salmon; it's made form the Asian yam, konjac.

Over the past few years, plant-based sushi has become a fixture of San Diego’s restaurant landscape. That’s a big win for vegans and the vegan-adjacent, because there’s a distinct pleasure to the ritual of dining over sushi, which would be otherwise lost to those following plant-based diets. Still, I guess it was only a matter of time before this overlapped with another trend: ghost kitchens. The city’s newest vegan sushi spot, Gorilla Eats Sushi, is a virtual restaurant. A sushi bar without the bar.

It opened earlier this year within a new College Area property called Aztec Food Hub. From the street, the Food Hub looks like a locked door with a couple of pick-up windows. The idea is that food delivery drivers can quickly grab take-out orders and go, though hungry passersby may also order from one of a dozen or so virtual restaurants likewise cooking in its own, discrete kitchen on the other side of that door. Wings, burgers, and even Cambodian food are represented.

Aztec Food Hub is a collection of virtual kitchens, behind windows facing a college area sidewalk.

What caught me off guard about Gorilla Eats Sushi isn’t that it’s a ghost kitchen. The surprise here is that the new eatery has embraced a bevy of next generation, plant-based meat alternatives. Or, in this case, raw fish alternatives. So when I pick up an order of salmon nigiri ($4/pair), it looks uncannily like true salmon nigiri. It even has white stripes to emulate the parallel lines of fat that famously distinguish the translucent, coral-colored fish.

What is this “salmon” really? It’s made from an Asian root vegetable called konjac (sometimes konjac yam), which has more traditionally been used to make shirataki noodles, and the dietary fiber supplement, glucomannan. Increasingly, the stuff has been used to emulate the texture of raw seafood, and it only takes a bite of the faux salmon to see why: the texture is close enough to the real thing to second guess its origin.

When in doubt, order a plant-based sushi roll of avocado, cucumber, and faux cream cheese.

In addition to the salmon, Gorilla Eats Sushi uses konjac tuna and shrimp in its nigiri and rolls, giving them the look and feel sushi fans expect. It certainly helps that chef and proprietor Justin Ramirez is a long-time sushi veteran, both in conventional and vegan restaurants. Despite this kitchen’s goofy name, and take-out only status, the food is serious business, with sauces and even rice vinegar made in-house.

Further proof: the rice is on-point, bolstering the case for 100-percent plant-based sushi, even when the faux-fish doesn’t exactly capture, say, that buttery salmon fat flavor. Not that it’s too far off the mark — the konjac “fish” doesn’t taste any less like fish than Impossible or Beyond burgers taste like beef. Served with good sushi rice, soy sauce, nori, spicy mayo, and any number standard sushi ingredients, at least, it works. With the added bonus you don’t have to worry in the slightest whether the fish was sourced sustainably.

For those less convinced by mock meats, fear not: the chef accomplishes great things with fungi and vegetables. Nigiri and maki featuring the likes of tempura asparagus, bell pepper, and shitake mushrooms are all over the menu. And you it’s impossible to go wrong with the Trifecta roll ($8), which simply wraps avocado, cucumber, and plant-based cream cheese.

Truly, the only thing missing from this sushi joint is the dining ritual: the chance to sit at the counter, see the chef at work, maybe opt for a vegan omakase. This too should only be a matter of time. Sushi has always been a street food first, but sushi this good deserves its own place, where customers can go and debate how closely its “fish” resembles the real thing.

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This salmon nigiri isn't really salmon; it's made form the Asian yam, konjac.
This salmon nigiri isn't really salmon; it's made form the Asian yam, konjac.

Over the past few years, plant-based sushi has become a fixture of San Diego’s restaurant landscape. That’s a big win for vegans and the vegan-adjacent, because there’s a distinct pleasure to the ritual of dining over sushi, which would be otherwise lost to those following plant-based diets. Still, I guess it was only a matter of time before this overlapped with another trend: ghost kitchens. The city’s newest vegan sushi spot, Gorilla Eats Sushi, is a virtual restaurant. A sushi bar without the bar.

It opened earlier this year within a new College Area property called Aztec Food Hub. From the street, the Food Hub looks like a locked door with a couple of pick-up windows. The idea is that food delivery drivers can quickly grab take-out orders and go, though hungry passersby may also order from one of a dozen or so virtual restaurants likewise cooking in its own, discrete kitchen on the other side of that door. Wings, burgers, and even Cambodian food are represented.

Aztec Food Hub is a collection of virtual kitchens, behind windows facing a college area sidewalk.

What caught me off guard about Gorilla Eats Sushi isn’t that it’s a ghost kitchen. The surprise here is that the new eatery has embraced a bevy of next generation, plant-based meat alternatives. Or, in this case, raw fish alternatives. So when I pick up an order of salmon nigiri ($4/pair), it looks uncannily like true salmon nigiri. It even has white stripes to emulate the parallel lines of fat that famously distinguish the translucent, coral-colored fish.

What is this “salmon” really? It’s made from an Asian root vegetable called konjac (sometimes konjac yam), which has more traditionally been used to make shirataki noodles, and the dietary fiber supplement, glucomannan. Increasingly, the stuff has been used to emulate the texture of raw seafood, and it only takes a bite of the faux salmon to see why: the texture is close enough to the real thing to second guess its origin.

When in doubt, order a plant-based sushi roll of avocado, cucumber, and faux cream cheese.

In addition to the salmon, Gorilla Eats Sushi uses konjac tuna and shrimp in its nigiri and rolls, giving them the look and feel sushi fans expect. It certainly helps that chef and proprietor Justin Ramirez is a long-time sushi veteran, both in conventional and vegan restaurants. Despite this kitchen’s goofy name, and take-out only status, the food is serious business, with sauces and even rice vinegar made in-house.

Further proof: the rice is on-point, bolstering the case for 100-percent plant-based sushi, even when the faux-fish doesn’t exactly capture, say, that buttery salmon fat flavor. Not that it’s too far off the mark — the konjac “fish” doesn’t taste any less like fish than Impossible or Beyond burgers taste like beef. Served with good sushi rice, soy sauce, nori, spicy mayo, and any number standard sushi ingredients, at least, it works. With the added bonus you don’t have to worry in the slightest whether the fish was sourced sustainably.

For those less convinced by mock meats, fear not: the chef accomplishes great things with fungi and vegetables. Nigiri and maki featuring the likes of tempura asparagus, bell pepper, and shitake mushrooms are all over the menu. And you it’s impossible to go wrong with the Trifecta roll ($8), which simply wraps avocado, cucumber, and plant-based cream cheese.

Truly, the only thing missing from this sushi joint is the dining ritual: the chance to sit at the counter, see the chef at work, maybe opt for a vegan omakase. This too should only be a matter of time. Sushi has always been a street food first, but sushi this good deserves its own place, where customers can go and debate how closely its “fish” resembles the real thing.

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