Ah, sushi—that most delicate and indulgent of dinners (or, if you’re an absolute daredevil with a death wish, the most dangerous thing to grab from a Walgreen’s end cap). Sushi places have been a staple in America since the 80s; born from post-war cultural cross-pollination and the subsequent proliferation of sushi bars in L.A., now you can throw a geta at any major city and hit a dozen trendy sushi places with high-quality food and even higher price points.
The tradition for these sushi bars is to order a la carte, a party of four throwing down $100-200 at a fancy sushi place for a variety of maki (rolls) and nigiri (fish over a single lump of rice). But what if I told you there was a better, more cost-effective way to gorge on those delicate parcels of fish and rice, and turn your next group dinner into a game of thrift and survival?
Enter the all-you-can-eat (AYCE) sushi restaurant. Instead of paying per sushi, you plop down a flat fee—most price points hover around $20-25 a person—and you get “unlimited” sushi from simple unagi to ostentatious rolls stuffed with a dozen ingredients.
There are those all-you-can-eat restaurants laid out as a self-serve buffet. But more likely, you’re given a paper menu with all of your options—rolls, individual sushi, appetizers, soups. You write down how many of each you want, hand it to the server, and await for your sushi to arrive. If you want more after you finish that, just fill out another slip and start the process over again. This repeats until you’re full or the manager kicks you out. Here’s the rub: What you don’t end up eating, you have to pay extra. That third shrimp tempura roll just too much for your rapidly-expanding stomach? That’ll be $12.99.
To get the most out of an all-you-can-eat sushi buffet is to abandon all your inhibitions at the door and strategize.
As the self-appointed Sushi Buffet Champion of America (based on a judging body consisting of my wife, several close friends, and anyone else who just wanted me to shut up about it), I’ve developed a handful of tips for you to get the most out of your twenty-some bucks. I even consulted Neo—a seven-year veteran of AYCE sushi buffets and the daytime manager of Chicago’s Sushi Tokoro—for some expert guidance on my sushi-hacking journey.
Neo notes that most people who make it far in AYCE sushi order less in the first round, just to gauge how much they can take. On average, most parties do two rounds: One preliminary round, then a second, larger round that lets them go wild. That’s the way to go, honestly; gauge your appetite and get your faves out of the way in round one, then clean up in round two.
What’s the longest Neo has seen someone go for AYCE sushi? Four hours, he says, for a party of five that did four rounds from the late afternoon to the early evening.
Neo notes that most people get 2-4 appetizers in their first round of AYCE sushi; younger people skew towards hot or fried foods like gyoza, while older folks will go more for simple/chilled stuff like seaweed salads or edamame.
My suggestion, though, is to skip that altogether—get one appetizer if you really want to prime your stomach, but otherwise save that real estate for the higher-margin sushi.
Here’s how I tend to do my rounds: Use your first round to order 5-6 of your favorite nigiri, and a few smaller maki rolls just to get started. This way, you can scratch that raw fish itch* and amp up for a maki-centric second round where you all can share your favorite monster rolls.
*If your raw fish itch becomes more literal than figurative, consult a doctor.
If you’re going for quantity over quality, feel free to stick to the smaller, more austere rolls—classic California or spicy tuna rolls that don’t fill you up much.
But if you really want to get the most for your money, spring for a few of the restaurant’s specialty rolls; a la carte, those might run you $14.95 or more, so imagine getting multiple for a cool twenty. Not only do you give the place a chance to show off their unique rolls, but you can also wring more monetary value out of your sushi excursion. Go for the soft-shell crab, the broiled eel, the scallops.
Not that you should every feel guilty about running a restaurant out of business with your gluttony. Neo notes that because his restaurant buy ingredients in such large amounts, the smart AYCE sushi places can turn a good profit. Eat with abandon—you won’t be bankrupting the restaurant.
Those Philly rolls packed with cream cheese? Skip them. Be judicious with sushi that’s doused with mayo too, such as spicy tuna or anything with the word “dynamite” in the name. Sometimes, too much sauce goes way too far, and you just end up feeling heavy that much quicker.
It’s tempting to cram an entire all-you-can-eat buffet into a rushed evening dinner. But if you really want to do it right, bring your friends and family and try for a late lunch or early dinner, say 2-4pm. That way, you’ll have the run of the place, a faster turnaround time on sushi (which is made on demand for you by the sushi chefs), and you can even take time to digest before going in for another round of rolls.
Sure, the end goal of your AYCE sushi experience is to eat just enough so you’re not charged a penalty—but unless that sushi restaurant’s a real hard-ass, they’ll let one or two extra pieces slide. That said, you might consider packing some two-ply napkins and a backpack. You go ahead and put two and two together.