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Minneapolis’ sushi conveyor belt restaurant: All gimmick, or actually good?

We're going off the rails on a Sushi Train.

We're going off the rails on a Sushi Train. Lauren Haun

It’s not every day that an offer to review one of the city’s most Instagrammable restaurants flops into my inbox.

I usually stick to places that don’t have a wait time or even a smidgen of hype, but Minnesota finally got a conveyor belt sushi joint (they’ve been popular for decades on the coasts), and now Sushi Train is popping up everywhere from local newscasts to your kid cousin’s Snapchat story. So, the deed must be done. Bring me to the Big New Shiny!

We arrive early on a Friday evening and are ushered to the only table that isn’t packed, a two top by the front door with a perfect vantage point of the whole marvel. The massive conveyor belt snakes through the entire dining room and rolls directly past each table, with little plates of seaweed salad, maki rolls, and thick slabs of sashimi encased in shining dome plastic lids. As my eyes twirl at every handsome platter, the host explains the game: Each plate is a different color, which corresponds to the price of the dish. After eating everything off the plate, they’re stacked high, so the server can tally up the bill at the end of the feasting. There’s also a menu on each table if you want to order a particular piece of sushi or a bowl of ramen or other hot appetizers from the kitchen.

He leaves us with a pair of menus, and as I scan the drink list my body starts to bop along to the upbeat electronic music thumping over my head. I’m feeling giddy from all the inviting plates gliding around the room, and I decide to order a lychee flavored sake, which arrives a few minutes later in a martini glass with two blaze-red maraschino cherries. The drink is coy with sweetness, and the cherries give me a whiff of nostalgia for Shirley Temples. It sets the tone as decidedly cute, a mood only deepened by the sight of perfectly spiral-rolled crustless peanut butter and jelly sandwiches grooving down the sushi line, awaiting a picky kid.

Normally, at a buffet situation, I try to strategize or pace myself, but unfortunately I arrive absolutely ravenous to this table perched next to a slow-moving conveyor belt of rice goodies. The reptile brain has complete control, and I’m snatching stuff from the belt left and right. First, a plate of octopus nigri, which are quite tender and easy to chew. That’s a surprise—typically, sushi restaurants cook octopus to more of an “al dente” texture so they maintain a pleasant, almost cartilage-like crunch. I wasn’t expecting them to be soft, but reflecting upon it, maybe they think it’s wise to cook to them to a less cartilage-y, more palatable texture for a Middle North audience.

Lauren Haun

Lauren Haun

Sushi plates are dancing past my right ear, and it seems almost like a fever dream. I deep breathe and remember my budget in an attempt to restrain myself from grabbing every salmon sashimi that winks at me. A wave of thick rolls starts moving my way, and I choose the most bombastic, ridiculous ones: Golden Mountain. These are massive gloopy triangles, bursting with wet mayo filling and covered with even more sauce. The Golden Mountain name is a nod to the edible yellow soy paper wrapping instead of the traditional nori seaweed, and the menu states that the Golden Mountain combines spicy crab, eel sauce, spicy tuna, cucumber, and green onion. It’s a very over-the-top roll, but unfortunately I was getting neither exciting flavors nor heat. If something is labeled “spicy,” I should feel a bit of something, but this didn’t have any kick from the spicy mayonnaise or the crab or the green onion.

I grab a plate of tuna nigiri—since it has just the rice and fish, there’s nowhere to hide. I attempt to eat the piece in one bite, but it was a bit oversized and chewing the whole thing was a bit of a workout. The flavor was fine, but it would be great if they could be eaten in one piece instead of having to take two or three bites, which is socially awkward, especially since I’m fumbly with chopsticks. Adding another empty plate to the stack, I next picked a yellowtail and scallion roll: an absolute classic, packing plenty of flavor without gloopy sauce or tempura bits.

The sweet potato maki roll was the best thing I ate, and it wasn’t even on the menu. The potato was perfectly cooked with a bit of bite, coated with my beloved eel sauce. I could eat an old boot if it was covered in that shiny, sweet, brown magic. This roll was interesting texturally, and held up well on its voyage around the dining room. Plus, it offered some variety from the vegetarian options of either cucumber or avocado or cucumber AND avocado rolls.

In my hunger haze at the beginning of the night, I ordered a plate of vegetable tempura and a plate of fried tofu from the menu. They arrived 10 minutes into the sushi demolition experience, and we scooted around the epic plate stack to accommodate the two platters. The tempura was fresh from the fryer and the vegetables were well cooked, but needed a quick toss in salt (or at the very least, they should have been salted when they left the fryer). The batter was thick for a tempura and tasted a bit of raw flour. The fried tofu was also quite bland, and could similarly use a few tweaks to the seasoning, because when done well fried tofu is one incredible bar snack. (I see you, Hai Hai.) The sauces served on the side were smoky and sweet, but couldn’t make up for the lack of flavor missed by underseasoning the other parts of the dish.

Lauren Haun

Lauren Haun

With a few platefuls of food stacked in my belly, my rational brain turned on and I started thinking. The conveyor belt was a thrilling element in the dining room, but I noticed the overhead lighting was a bit sparse in an awkward corner, poorly compensated for by a lone flat-screen TV. I wish they would rip that conversation buzzkill off the wall and hire a group of graffiti artists to come in and coat everything with crazy-style letters dipped in wasabi green, surrounded by piles of pink pickled ginger. The exterior of Sushi Train is modeled after NYC subway signage, and they could keep that vibe going with something that will really pop on the ’gram when people photograph their pile of sticky, empty plates and conveyor belt full of cute food.

As for the sushi itself, I found the sauces to be a bit sloppy, especially since the rolls aren’t going to be eaten immediately, and heat and time will cause things to sliiiide. Sushi Train needs to find some creative solutions, potentially making sauces thicker so that they can withstand the (up to) 30-minute train trip. Or maybe introduce a sauce squeeze bottle caboose, where people can apply their own drizzle or full on glop if they so choose? Or maybe I should just get over the fact that the Midwest loves it gloopy, and I’m a stick in the mud who wants things lightly dressed, satisfied with a mere whisper of sauce. Temperature is also an issue, as a lot of the bigger rolls had condensation on the inside of their lids, likely due to the residual heat of the freshly fried tempura items inside the roll. This condensation will cause even the most perfectly crisp tempura shrimp to go limp.

In a culinary sense, Sushi Train is pitching right down the middle. The flavors are familiar—it makes no attempt to push boundaries or thrill—but the presentation is fresh. It recalls the now-defunct Ichiban Steakhouse just a block away, which took a basic stir-fry and made it into a knife-show audience pleaser.

Yesteryear’s giant flat tops with flying shrimp are the crab salad-stacked sushi roll choo choo trains of today. It’s a dining experience that shouts FUN FUN FUN in big flashing lights, and nitpicky culinary criticisms aside, it’s an enjoyable experience to revel in the simple pleasures of slow-moving sushi and the bouncy happy vibes of tables filled with friends, elbow to elbow, stacking empty plates high.

If they could make tweaks to the seasonsing of the fried foods, allow time for tempura items to cool before adding to the larger sushi rolls, be more precise when applying sauce and creating each roll, they would easily shift up from “okay” to “awesome.” Minor effort on these issues can provide massive results.

Overall, Sushi Train is a perfect place to take your relatives from Nebraska when they’re in town and hankering for a downtown evening, or if you want to revive that part of you that could just let go and enjoy a bit of fun.

After you take some footage for your followers, that is.

Sushi Train
1200 Nicollet Mall, Minneapolis
612-259-8488