The ingredients — slender matchsticks of carrot, leaves of pickled cabbage, pudgy wedges of avocado, golden tubes of tempura shrimp — are piled so high, I have no idea how the guy behind the counter will squeeze it into the modest square of nori covered with seasoned rice. It seems like a circus trick: the sushi burrito as clown car.
But squeeze it he does. In fact, no matter how outrageous that stack of ingredients, the sushi roller at Buredo always manages to cram it into the seaweed sheet, like a middle-aged jock willing himself into old jogging tights. Never mind that the seam on the sushi burrito/jogging shorts always bursts the moment it’s forced into action. Both the aging jock and the sushi burrito can still cling to the fantasy: The former remains an athlete in his prime, the latter is tied to traditional Japanese sushi culture.
I don’t know how to classify the food at Buredo, which D.C. natives Travis Elton and Mike Haddad opened last summer on 14th Street NW (with a second shop planned for Dupont Circle). The sheer size of the rolls places them on the Chipotle end of the sushi-burrito spectrum. The nori wrapper and vinegared rice drag the rolls toward the maki-sushi side. The lack of subtlety pushes them back toward bulging burrito territory (although just barely, given the cartoonish, hair-metal personality of some maki rolls). The occasional use of raw fish and tobiko roe swings them back the other way.
Ultimately, I view the rolls at Buredo as more burrito than sushi. I think this for a number of reasons, but mainly because the rolls have no structural integrity. Every damn one falls apart, like an overstuffed flour tortilla that spills its guts no matter how you bite into it. But because each is also designed to be a meal unto itself, the rolls have little sense of balance. One bite, you might get a mouthful of braised pork shoulder, the next you might get all carrot sticks and cucumbers. These logs are as much about loud aiolis and sauces as they are about fish, seasoned rice and toasted nori.
They also happen to be, by and large, delicious.
Elton and Haddad almost spaz out if you compare their brand to the other monstrous sushi-burrito mutants that threaten our urban habitats, and I think I understand why. Despite sharing certain characteristics with their fishy, wide-mouthed peers — health consciousness, rolls sold as self-contained meals, an infant’s delight with messy food — their Buredo concept is far more refined than that of many of their competitors. The menu is not some fast-casual free-for-all, in which customers can create a junior-high cafeteria dare rolled up in seaweed. These rolls have been carefully engineered.
In a political climate in which many Americans fear the rise of autocrats, or anyone with a hidebound agenda, a fast-casual concept without vast customization might sound downright fascist: You’ll eat our sushi burritos, and you’ll like them! But you’ll have to excuse my totalitarian tendencies if I say that customization at fast-casual shops is overrated. It’s too easy to throw away cash on semi-gag-worthy grub. For me, part of the thrill of dining out is experiencing a kitchen’s creativity.
Haddad and Elton worked for months on their compact menu, first with Tom Madrecki, the man behind Chez Le Commis, and later with Khan Gayabazar, the former Fujimar chef who now leads the kitchen at Buredo. Once you take a bite of their meticulously workshopped burritos — or, more precisely, once you can take a complete bite, with all the ingredients together — you’ll immediately grasp that real pros are responsible for the fusion-oriented flavor combinations.
My favorite rolls involve sashimi and shellfish, which may reveal my bias for pairing vinegared rice with fish. The superb Beatrix doubles down on sashimi with slices of raw yellowfin tuna and salmon, which spoon inside a nori wrapper with some cool, clear and crunchy garnishes. The Sofie forces tempura shrimp to shack up with warring parties: avocado slices and Sriracha mayo, the ying and yang of creaminess. The Pai Mei drips more liquid than a busted radiator, but it pairs slices of fresh salmon with pea shoot leaves and tiny spears of asparagus, these spring flavors slightly goosed with pickled red onion.
When a sushi burrito fails, it does so mostly at the hands of an employee who prepares it. The Crazy 88 flits from rich, brawny pork to stinging kimchi slaw, the two never quite serving as the counterweights necessary for a balanced roll. This is a recurring issue, the result, I believe, of a burrito line that relies on intuition and speed over precision and measured portions. Compare the Buredo approach to the one at Maki Shop, where the six-ounce rolls rely on equal portions of protein, vegetable and rice. The balance is built into the bite.
Buredo has only a few sides to pair with its nori wraps. I shouldn’t be surprised at how much I like the brown rice chips from Riceworks: The company, after all, mixes ground white corn into the snacks, which go down like tortilla chips for sake swillers. When you order miso soup, you’re handed a bowl with diced tofu, green onions and julienned carrots and jicama at the bottom. You add the cloudy soup from a push-button dispenser, which coughs out the perfect amount of liquid, practically the only precise measurement in the place. Of course, I’d be happier if machine miso weren’t sweet and mealy with root vegetables.
A common theme runs through your experience at Buredo: a Tokyo-like excess. You sense it in the “Blade Runner”-meets-Washington mural from artist Patrick Owens. You taste it in the house-made orange-ginger snickerdoodle (with Chinese five spice), which is about four ingredients more than necessary. You feel it in the crush of humanity at lunch, where a long communal table in the center of the space allows customers to gather over their mid-day meal. Collectively, they’re all pressed together — in their own kind of sushi burrito.
825 14th St. NW. 202-670-6770. eatburedo.com.
Hours: Monday-Friday 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Saturday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Nearest Metro: McPherson Square, across the street from the restaurant.
Prices: $4.25 for miso soup, $8.85-$11.75 for sushi burritos.