Rolling Through Vancouver's Olympic-Size Sushi Scene

By Remy Scalza
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, July 26, 2009

It's hard to say what was going through the minds of Vancouver's Olympic planners when they came up with the mascots for next year's Winter Games. To serve as one of Canada's ambassadors to the world, they picked an earmuffs-wearing Big Foot that looks like Chewbacca. The city's Olympic brain trust could have saved themselves a lot of trouble by recognizing a real symbol of Vancouver: a big piece of sashimi.

While most of Canada may be better known for maple syrup and Molson, Vancouver can easily lay claim to one of North America's most vibrant sushi scenes. Sushi restaurants here are as ubiquitous as Starbucks and generally cheaper. Shop around and -- for about the price of a Grande Caramel Macchiato -- you can get a dynamite roll and some nice salmon nigiri and maybe have change left for a miso soup.

"There are probably more sushi places than hamburger joints," says Stephen Wong, a leading Vancouver food consultant and chef who has spent 20 years surveying the city's restaurant scene. "Even in New York you don't have as much sushi per capita."

Blame it on a combination of geography, history and sensibility. Tuna, salmon, crab and shrimp -- all modern sushi essentials -- are caught in abundance off the British Columbia coast. Japanese roots run deep in the city, and sushi fits right into Vancouver's fat-phobic, carb-conscious West Coast vibe.

Still, raw fish might never have caught on if not for one man. "When I came [to Vancouver] in 1971, there was no such thing as sushi," chef Hidekazu Tojo says from behind the sushi bar at his namesake restaurant on the city's south side. "If you ate raw fish, you were treated like a second-class citizen."

Times have changed. Tonight, a highflying set of locals and international tourists crowds Tojo's. The restaurant is marooned on a commercial drag just across the bridge from Vancouver's high-rise-studded downtown. No matter. Night after night, sushi cognoscenti stream in to see the master at work.

Over the years, Tojo has served rock royalty such as the Rolling Stones and real royalty such as the emperor of Japan. But his main achievement may be pioneering a distinctly Vancouver strain of sushi. "When I first came, we couldn't get fish from Japan," Tojo says, "so I decided to use local fish." Small in stature -- he clears the sushi bar by only a few inches -- Tojo is a force behind the counter, shouting rapid-fire orders in Japanese, slicing fish with aplomb and sipping what may well be sake from a bamboo cup. "I used salmon skin in place of barbecued eel," he says, "and also tuna, which had never been done before."

Even today, when almost anything from the briny deep can be flown in overnight from Tokyo's Tsukiji market, the menu at Tojo's is fastidiously local. Dinner is an omakase, or "chef's choice," affair. Tojo starts me off with the tuna tataki. It's a simple dish, just a chunk of fish marinated and lightly seared. After the buildup, the potential for disappointment looms. But the tuna, sweet and as tender as a rare filet mignon, is exceptional.

In quick succession, Tojo parades out some heavyweights of the Vancouver sushi scene: the British Columbia, or B.C., Roll (a maki of barbecued salmon skin and fresh salmon that has been pirated by most sushi joints in the city); seared Pacific scallops tucked inside morel mushrooms; then a piece of delicately smoked sablefish in light broth.

But the showstopper is another simple plate: a single steamed spot prawn. Caught locally, spot prawns are the darlings of the gourmet seafood circuit. This one is as firm as lobster and tastes nearly as sweet. I ask Tojo what his secret is.

"I get them from Steve at the Fisherman's Wharf," he says. "They come fresh every day." The next day, still full from a meal at Tojo's that went on for several more courses, I visit Steve. The Fisherman's Wharf is another piece of the Vancouver sushi puzzle. Improbably situated in the heart of the city, on an inlet in the shadow of downtown skyscrapers, the wharf is the first stop for mom-and-pop fishing boats loaded with the day's catch of scallops, prawns, tuna and salmon.

I find Steve -- whose full name is Steve Johansen and who runs Organic Ocean, a small fleet dedicated to sustainable fishing -- at the wharf, reclining in a beach chair. A nearby sign for spot prawns reads "Sold out."

But I'm in luck: Another boat is due within the hour. While we wait, Johansen -- who wears mirrored sunglasses and has a punchy, glazed look that must come from 45 straight days of deep-sea fishing -- explains the difference between spot prawns and plain old tiger prawns. "Tiger prawns are farmed in Asia in about three feet of dirty water. I call them sewer prawns," he says. "We catch spot prawns in 500 feet of water. The taste is just incomparable."

By the time the prawn boat arrives, at least 20 people are waiting. They surge forward, money in hand, like so many drinkers swarming the lone bartender at a busy club.

"People fight over these prawns," Johansen says. "It's really like a drug."

But at $10 a pound, the addiction is a costly one. And as tasty as the prawns are, the real virtue of Vancouver's sushi scene arguably lies not in fancy restaurants serving gourmet ingredients but in far more humble settings.

"The top sushi places in New York or London or Vancouver are really no different," says food consultant Wong. "They're all fantastic and quite expensive. . . . Vancouver is special [because] there are places where you can walk in and get incredible sushi for very little money."

You just have to know where to look. Venture beyond the spiffy, modern downtown -- south along Main Street or east on Broadway -- and you'll quickly find yourself in the city's sushi heartland: immigrant neighborhoods where Japanese restaurants are lined up three to a block and sandwich boards advertise 18-piece, $5 lunch specials.

Not all the sushi restaurants in the 'burbs are Japanese-run, and you may not find your favorite cuts of uni, tako or fugu. But the sushi is fresh, flavorful and cheap. And there are diamonds in the rough.

"One of my favorites is just a little hole in the wall," says Mia Stainsby, a food writer for the city's leading paper who has spent 16 years sampling local sushi. "There's always a line-up, and it's always lively."

She's right. The line outside Toshi Sushi, which is on the ground floor of a nondescript office building in the bohemian SoMa neighborhood, is 15 people deep on a Tuesday night. A wooden, unsmiling hostess stands guard just inside the entrance, keeping customers from slipping by.

When I finally sit down with some friends, after about an hour in line, there's hardly enough elbow room to maneuver a pair of chopsticks. But after the first plate of sushi it doesn't matter. Prices -- about $4 for a large maki -- are cheap enough to try everything: rolls with salmon and big chunks of mango; nigiri combos heavy with a rainbow of local fish; even such Japanese classics as whole roasted squid.

We're still eating when, at 9:45 on the dot, closing time is announced. The lone server in the restaurant reappears, sets down the check, then waits until a credit card appears. It might not be the kind of red-carpet treatment you'd expect from an Olympic city. But good sushi isn't about making friends.

And it helps that the bill comes to around $20 a head.

Remy Scalza is an international travel and food writer based in Vancouver for the 2010 Winter Olympics.

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