Cheap Eats: Sumo Sushi

We all know sushi has gone the way of many ethnic cuisines: it has been Americanized and diversified, split into fast, authentic orders in small bars or aesthetically exciting plates served in large and trendy spaces reminiscent of laser lit European nightclubs. I don’t know the detailed history of sushi’s ascendance in America, but sometime after its birth in the 1970s and boom in the late 1980s, numerous sushi spots have become synonymous with stylish interiors (multi-colored lighting systems included), and many Americans have become sushi connoisseurs, creating hierarchies for the seasoned diner who knows his or her way around a sashimi salad and the novice who struggles with California rolls. Multiple dollar signs are also part of the equation. So where does one go in Philadelphia for a little bit of everything: quality food, good ambience with fixed lighting, and great service, all for a reasonable price? Enter Sumo Sushi.

At its Washington Square West location, Sumo is one of the cleanest restaurants I’ve ever visited. The place even smells fresh. Though my friends and I have mixed feelings about its dim lighting, this isn’t an issue at night, where its proximity to Broad Street (Sumo is around the corner on Pine) provides enough natural city lighting. The place isn’t large, but it’s spacious enough for groups. We were the second large party to arrive there, joining a talkative group of girlfriends toasting a recent engagement (Sumo is BYO). We didn’t have enough time to reflect on the interior before the lively hostess/waitress met us with loud and welcoming hellos. She is the only waitress in the restaurant, and she managed all tables that evening swiftly and attentively. She is one of Sumo’s plusses all by herself, offering free tea (to her, charging for tea just isn’t right) and asking whether our table would prefer separate checks (yes, please), dividing two bowls of edamame between six people as if it were custom. At Sumo, perhaps, it is.

Since I’ve been to Sumo twice now, with two different groups ordering from two separate pages of the menu, I can cut to the chase. What makes Sumo unique are its Chef’s Special Rolls, delicious, well-crafted, and at an average price of around $11, with regarded spots—Izumi, Umai Umai, Raw—coming in a few dollars higher at their cheapest. But where Sumo’s prices are low, the quality of the food is not. One friend ordered the Volcano Roll, one of Sumo’s most popular, an “oversized” spicy tuna, cucumber, avocado, and tempura crunch soybean-wrapped roll served with the chef’s special sauce for $10.95. Though “a little secret,” our waitress spilled its contents: a mix of eel sauce, wasabi, and spicy mayo. Another friend had the Fancy Salmon roll of eel, cucumber, and asparagus inside, salmon and avocado on top, and eel sauce and tobiko on the side for $11.95. A resounding mutual observation was the appropriate fish to rice ratio. Sumo chefs give you the fish you pay for, whole and not the seemingly julienned fillings engulfed by rice that I’ve received at other restaurants. Meanwhile, I enjoyed the Crystal Roll of spicy tuna, crunch, and avocado inside and topped with spicy scallop and tobiko for $12.95. The extra dollars are worth it. I like rolls that don’t need soy sauce to flavor it or additional wasabi to make a spicy roll strong. Lastly, though another friend opted for regular maki, his shrimp tempura roll (shrimp tempura, avocado, cucumber, and masago) received repeated praise, priced at $5.50. It’s $7 at Zama and $9 at Morimoto.

Sumo’s regular maki has its hits. The yellowtail crunch roll ($5.50) includes apple (a pleasant surprise), and vegetarians in the group extolled the sweet potato roll ($4.50). But otherwise, I found my maki slightly disappointing. If you’ll let me be your guide, stick to the special rolls in the evening, and pick the hit maki for your choose-any-three $10.95 Happy Lunch Special before 3 pm. It’s hard to choose from the extensive list of well-priced special rolls, but it’s comforting to know you’ll be back to try the others.

Sumo Sushi [Official]

337 S Broad St.