Riding the Sushi-Go-Round in San Pedro

July 11, 2008

If I lived in a city where exciting new restaurants are a dime a dozen, I might turn up my nose at a place where the serving method arguably outshines the food.

But I live in San José, and I’m a sucker for a spot that offers something unusual – especially when one element of the restaurant appears to be unique in the world. Iwaa Sushi, near Universidad Latina in the eastern suburb of San Pedro, caught my eye as I passed by. Sushi rotating on a metallic conveyor belt? Computers at every table? I figured it was worth a try.

The shiny new restaurant, which sits in a recently built bank of shops targeting U Latina students, has a bare-bones, contemporary decor, with green Formica tables and lightbulbs hanging from simple black cords.

It took us a while to notice our surroundings, however, because a waiter immediately seated us and launched into an orientation session. At the heart of the restaurant is a winding belt used to circulate a constant parade of small sushi platters. The waiter explained that the plates are color-coded by price – orange, green, red, yellow and blue, from cheapest to priciest – and we had only to grab the sushi that tempted us; the waiters would tally up our total at the end based on our empty plates.

I’d never tried this, but as I later learned through a quick Google search, that’s only because I’ve been eating sushi under a rock, so to speak. Conveyor belt sushi, called kaiten-zushi in Japan, was first introduced in Osaka in 1958, and has become popular around the world. However, the Costa Rican-owned Iwaa offers an added twist: each plate’s cover also contains a microchip. As the plate approaches your table on the conveyor belt, the computer screen at your table, thanks to the frequency from the chip, displays a photo of the sushi that’s on its way, as well as its name and ingredients – great for people with food allergies, or just picky eaters.

According to our waiter, this particular variation on kaiten-zushi has never been implemented anywhere else, even in Japan.

I was initially skeptical, as I tend to think of Tokyo as a place where you can get a triple bypass at a vending machine, but ultimately quite impressed. The innovation has even garnered Iwaa a feature on CNN En Español.

The circulating plates are only part of the restaurant’s menu. With a click of the mouse, you can access the rest. All dishes are grouped by the same five price levels as the kaiten-zushi, ranging from ¢950 to ¢2,950 (about $2 to $6). Again, by clicking on a photo, you can see the full list of ingredients, choose the quantity you desire and place your order, which goes directly to the kitchen. You can also see whether your orders are pending or on their way, and keep track of your total bill.

When you’re done playing with your computer and grabbing sushi from the belt, it’s time to taste, of course. I should admit that I’m an avid sushi enthusiast, but not a connoisseur – that is, I’m pretty happy with some wasabi, ginger, soy sauce and decent rolls. Nothing I tasted at Iwaa made my eyes roll back in my head with delight, but I definitely got my fix.

The standard rolls – tuna, eel, various U.S. cities – are here, as are some more unusual selections. I enjoyed the satisfying Rainbow Roll (¢1,950/$3.80), wrapped in large swaths of salmon, marlin and tuna, with big strips of avocado inside. Portions are fairly small here: four pieces of sushi per plate, eight of the smaller maki and two of nigiri. I like this: It allows the customer to try several rolls, rather than spending everything on one giant serving.

I avoid sushi containing cream cheese, but here I decided to take the waiter up on his recommendation of the Breaded Tokyo Roll (¢1,450/$2.80), with salmon, cream cheese and cucumber, covered in crispy crumbs and very lightly fried – sushi that Paula Deen could love. I have to admit, it was tasty.

Also on the menu: simple noodle and rice dishes, salads and dumplings, and plates of plain sashimi. Soups are cheap (¢950/$1.80) and include miso, chicken and veggies in broth and the Iwaa Soup, with veggie tempura and thick udon noodles. The beef teriyaki proved to be very tough, but our waiter was responsive to the criticism, offering either to have a new dish prepared or to remove it from our bill.

Iwaa Sushi is a good choice as a lunch spot or for those who want a quick sushi fix. It’s not conducive to a romantic evening out, since you spend most of your time gazing lovingly at the computer screen instead of each other. (Also, sake lovers beware – because it’s across the street from a public school, the restaurant does not have a permit to serve alcohol.) However, the low prices, experiment-friendly portions and fun technological twist make this one gimmick that’s worth a second look.

Location: 400 meters north of Muñoz y Nanne supermarket in San Pedro.

Hours: Monday through Saturday, noon to 10 p.m.

Phone: 800-SUSHIYA.

 

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