Who needs a menu with pictures when the actual dishes are floating past your table on a carousel conveyor belt?
Yamato Sushi Train & Grill leaves little to the imagination with Omaha’s only sushi train.
If you like what you see, just grab a dish. It’s a fun sushi experience that was first developed in Japan and has become popular in my hometown of Hong Kong.
I visit Yamato Sushi Train & Grill for a Thursday date night. As the steady stream of sushi plates make their way down the conveyor belt, a waitress explains that the color of each sushi plate indicates its price: black plates cost $5, purple costs $4.5, red costs $4, orange costs $3, and green costs $2.5.
Tongue-tied? Don’t worry. You don’t even need to know the name of what your heart desires. But be careful that you don’t grab too many items. The final bill adds up quickly with a stack of empty plates on the table.
Desserts are available on the sushi merry-go-round on Fridays and weekends, in addition to the otherwise daily train of maki rolls (where all ingredients are rolled into a sheet of seaweed), gunkan maki (where a strip of seaweed wraps around the rice ball leaving room for toppings), uramaki (where the seaweed holds fillings in the inside and the rice is on the outside), sashimi (slices of raw seafood), and appetizers (such as seaweed salad and edamame) for lunch and dinner service.
We snag a plate of uni (sea urchin) followed by salmon roe gunkan maki to start things off. Fresh sea urchin tastes sweet and creamy with bright and vibrant shades of yellow-orange. Yamato’s sea urchin is decent and pairs well with the juicy, red-orange salmon eggs bursting with saltwater flavor.
We wait and watch for the next plate to tantalize our grabby fingers. We catch octopus sashimi with lemon ponzu sauce, spice-rubbed seared ahi tuna sashimi, seaweed salad, inari sushi (rice ball wrapped in a tofu puff), Omaha roll (with spicy lobster, cucumber, avocado, imitation crab, and mango sauce on top), eel cucumber roll, and a Naruto roll (avocado, salmon, and tuna wrapped with a slice of cucumber).
We also order miso soup and a bowl of pork ramen noodles with tonkatsu (a pork bone-based) soup from the waitress.
Tuna and octopus sashimi plates are highlights of the meal. Rubbed with Nanami seasoning (a seven-chili pepper mix), the ahi tuna sashimi was seared on the outside and rare on the inside. Drizzled in lemon ponzu sauce, the octopus tastes light and refreshing with slices of lemon placed between the slices of sashimi.
When asked about the most popular dish in the restaurant, both waitresses and the shop manager boasted a wide variety of menu options. The waitress recommends the bento box for its value—at $11.95, diners can select a chicken, beef, shrimp, salmon, or tofu main dish to go with side dishes including California roll, shumai, miso soup, salad, and rice. Shop manager Alex Walker says the fried rice at Yamato Sushi is “addictive” and also suggests the lo mein and pad thai.
Walker says Yamato receives shipments of seafood from both coasts three times a week. Although Yamato’s owner also runs the La Vista restaurant Dragon Café (serving Chinese and Japanese cuisine), also with sushi on the menu, the two venues are very different from a design standpoint. Contrary to Dragon Café’s traditional Chinese-inspired interior design, Yamato is going for a decidedly Japanese vibe with simplified, modern décor.
Hygiene and efficiency are a top priority in any establishment dealing with raw ingredients. Yamato does not disappoint. The sushi train is even enclosed with a clear roll-top lid (a feature not typical at the sushi trains I’ve experienced in Japan and Hong Kong). Walker says the train is cleaned two to three times every day.
Although dishes on the sushi train were sometimes lacking in their presentation—some rolls were not as tightly rolled as they should have been—this restaurant is a must-try for local foodies or folks looking for an entertaining, fast, and convenient bite to eat.
Sushi Train from Japan to the World
In Japan, Yoshiaki Shiraishi is credited with inventing “rotation sushi” to solve his staffing problem in 1958. He was inspired to deliver “no-frills sushi” on a conveyor belt after visiting the Asahi Brewery. Dubbed “sushi innovator” by The New York Times, Shiraishi perfected the art of sushi train operation at a speed of 8 centimeters (approximately 3 inches) per second to ensure safety without sacrificing efficiency. The concept was an instant hit at the Osaka World Expo in 1970. His restaurant, Genroku Sushi, expanded rapidly between the 1970s and 1990s.
Genroku Sushi was introduced to Hong Kong—where I was born and raised—in the early 1990s, a time when Japanese pop culture was taking Asia by storm. Marketing its sushi at HKD $10 (approximately USD $1.28) and HKD $15 (USD $1.91) per plate, Genroku Sushi was a popular hangout for high school and college students as well as local families seeking inexpensive foreign food.
Unlike traditional Japanese restaurants, rotation sushi was accessible to the mass public with a price point comparable to fast food. Sushi train chains mushroomed across Hong Kong as my generation grew up playing video games from Japan, watching J-Drama, listening to J-Pop, buying Japanese fashion and cosmetics, and learning to speak Japanese. Genroku Sushi contributed to introducing the culinary art of Japan, inspiring many to pursue travel, study, or work in Japan.
Although Genroku Sushi has lost its international footprint and can only be found in Japan today, the conveyor belt sushi concept it pioneered has gained popularity around the world. And in the fall of 2017, a sushi train finally arrived in Omaha in the form of Yamato Sushi Train & Grill.
Visit yamatosushitraingrill.com for more information.
This article was printed in the May/June 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine.