Growing up, I’ve always spent my summers relaxing, sunbathing and, most importantly, eating with my family in Hawai’i. A favorite family restaurant was always Genki Sushi, a revolving sushi bar known for its light but satisfying hand rolls and good vibes. My family always treasured the eatery because though Genki had many locations, none were located on the mainland. It was a special treat reserved for those two weeks we spent in Hawai’i every year.
When I heard during spring quarter of last year that the sushi bar would be making its journey to not just California, but to Mainplace Mall in Santa Ana in June, just minutes away from school, I knew I had to eat there this summer to make sure it wasn’t just a dream.
And, fellow Anteaters, within a few bites I was immediately woken up, though not in the epiphany-induced way I imagined upon visiting my childhood restaurant.
My disappointment didn’t stem from the atmosphere, nor the service. Located in a seemingly abandoned corner of the mall near JCPenney’s and detached from the food court, Genki Sushi gives off a diamond-in-the-rough impression that is further exemplified upon entrance. The restaurant’s walls and doors are made of glass, clean and modern, so as to draw curious shoppers in with what the insides have to offer: a cheery red-and-white art decoration theme that boasts of Americanized modernity and nothing of the traditional Japanese food they serve, although the staff compensates by yelling “Irashaimase!” which means “Welcome!” in Japanese, every time a customer enters. The staff is young, friendly and all smiles, and even amongst the crowd that fills the restaurant, an empty table is always available to seat immediately with no wait necessary. Even the revolving belt that carries the rolls around the restaurant is organized: signs with pictures and descriptions of the sushi following are detailed and helpful for those who are sushi amateurs. The whole restaurant is a modified and amplified version of the one back in Hawai’i, which is something I don’t mind at all.
Where Genki Sushi fails to meet my expectations, however, is in the actual food. A positive is that there is a wide variety of plates to choose from, from over 40 different rolls and hand rolls to tempura and chicken plates for those who have an aversion to sushi. The prices are another plus for those with gaping wallets; plates are color coded at prices starting at just $0.99, and nothing on the bar is higher than $4.99. My family enjoyed twenty plates for a total of just $41.
However, all connections between my old childhood haunt and this new stylish hangout were severed once I tasted the food. Just about everything I took off the bar lacked freshness; it was as if the staff weren’t replacing their dishes quickly enough. The tempura batter on the tempura crab roll was soft with age when it should have been crunchy, although the crab was flavored well. The crispy chicken was cold, dry and hard to swallow. The rice in all of the rolls was hard.
However, when I took a hesitant bite of the popcorn shrimp roll I specially ordered after not finding it on the bar, I found the spicy mayonnaise that coated the shrimp to be spicy and smooth, and the shrimp itself to be popping with freshness. I also ordered the traditional California roll, whose crab meat and avocado was well-seasoned and crisp. For dessert I once again opted for ordering mochi ice cream over hunting for something off the bar, and I found the strawberry and mango mochi to be pleasantly soft and pillowy and the ice cream that was cradled inside to be delightfully fruity.
Satisfied with mochi ice cream and in the mood for more sweets, I proceeded to order the red bean pancakes. The two pancakes were small but packed with buttery flavor, and smashed in between them was a layer of the sweetest red beans I have ever tasted. They filled me up quickly and eased the negative attitude I held against Genki before ordering.
It seems like the trick with the Genki Sushi in Santa Ana is to order off the menu, rather than to grab food off the bar, which is anything but accommodating. However, I’m relieved that Genki is capable of delivering fresh sushi and original and filling desserts.
In short, Genki Sushi is a restaurant I’d love to return to for a light summer lunch with friends, as long as we order off the menu and not take food from the bar. While in the end Genki Sushi satisfied my food cravings, it did nothing to bring back the nostalgia for the fresh and simple food of my younger years.