Belly up to the bar.

The sushi bar that is, because Reno has made a name for itself as the all-you-can-eat (AYCE) sushi capital of the world.

This heavily discussed phenomenon is hard to pin down. In just the last two decades, this small, high-desert town once more famous for divorce and gambling has started a trend that is beginning to change the tide of how this traditional Japanese fare is consumed in the United States. I remember one lonely sushi restaurant in town when I was a kid, and it was a joint that has since fallen out of favor.

While the cuisine has exploded in popularity throughout the valley and far beyond, Sushi Teri is now closed. It was in the Smithridge Shopping Center, and rather than having me elbow in with the other kids over cheap pizza at my friends’ Chuck E. Cheese’s birthday parties, my parents and I would all walk over to our favorite spot for dinner together afterwards. “Your daughter eats sushi?” the owner would implore.

“My kids are Japanese, and I can’t even get them to eat sushi.” But as such a young kid, I had no idea that what I was eating was in any way strange or different. I loved it, and within a few years my parents were ordering all-you-can- eat because I could demolish so much raw fish.

Growing up, this was the norm, so naturally I was shocked when I learned that this method was not only extremely uncommon, but far from the traditional practice that accompanies such an ornate food in its root culture. Nonetheless, I didn’t understand the value, and I’d been spoiled with the opportunity to try so many things each time I had it.

I found it completely unreasonable to pay full price for each a la carte item I ordered. Whether or not it actually started in Reno, we may never really know, but we can bet that the public was in accordance with me on this one. Though Sushi Teri has long since closed its doors, Reno is not for want of sushi restaurants.

We now have 27 sushi restaurants in town, as best I can figure, throughout the greater Reno/Sparks community, and all of them other than Mermaid’s Sushi Bar at the Reno Mens’ Club offers an all-you-can-eat option. Many even offer specials on top of their all-you-can-eat rate, such as the local’s discount at Ichiban’s or the insane drink specials offered at Sushi Rose on Monday nights.

Quail Egg Shooters are made with Ponzu sauce, a raw quail egg, tobico (flying fish roe) and soometimes garnished with green onion Kaitlin Oki/Nevada Sagebrush

Quail Egg Shooters are made with Ponzu sauce, a raw quail egg, tobico (flying fish roe) and sometimes garnished with green onion
Kaitlin Oki/Nevada Sagebrush

All-you-can-drink sake and beers is a steal when the dinner price is only about $21. Reno is far from any ocean and it is an arid, alpine desert, not at all suitable for fish farming.

So why has this Pacific island cuisine flourished in such an unusual locale? Could it be the casinos?

Are suppliers dodging import taxes on fish as it is shipped into Nevada to be distributed throughout the country?

The jury is still out. Either way, the market for sushi restaurants has become so cutthroat that businesses open, close and exchange hands on a regular basis. Furthermore, this keeps the quality high, because with so much supply, only the best restaurants stay in business.

For example, Yen Ching was a sushi restaurant on Moana that has since closed because it was just not up to par with the competition.

Though their all-you-can-eat lunch special was only around $13 with tax, and even came with free dim sum, the fish was never fresh, and the sushi was just never that good.

The building was also a bit dingy and uninviting and the sushi bar was almost always empty. Another factor that keeps local sushi restaurants on their toes is the all-you-can-eat crowd in and of itself.

Restaurants apparently have a hard time staying in business at all without this option—except for the Reno Men’s Club, but it has strippers.

One of my all-time favorite spots in Reno is Wasabi, and I talked to the owner, Joon Kuture, the last time I was in to get his take on how this trend happened here. “Reno is crazy, you cannot do anything without all-you-can-eat here,” Kuture said. “You won’t survive, but there is no all-you-can-eat in California really.”

He confirmed that Sushi Teri was Reno’s first sushi restaurant, and added that 17 years ago, there were three, but that even then Sushi Teri was still the only one that did all-you-can-eat. “Then 12 years ago Sushi Club opened, and they did all-you-can-eat, and now you can’t do sushi without it,” Kuture said.

He explained that while Reno does have an excellent sushi culture, the quality is, in fact a little lower, but not necessarily because we are a ways from an ocean. “With all-you-can-eat, it’s a little different,” he said. “It can’t handle fresh fish, so they use frozen. Whenever you order fish, they are all frozen here.

Fresh is a little higher quality, but all of it is the same condition here (in Reno).” He also mentioned that most of the local restaurants get their fish from the same few companies. He said he uses Sierra Meat and Seafood Company and that there are two or three other common sources based out of California.

Finally he gave me some insight, or even advice, on one item on some local sushi menus that he doesn’t recommend. “There are some restaurants that use fresh water fish, but there’s too much bacteria in them, and it’s not good,” he said. “They do not care about their customers, because they serve it anyway.”

Kuture refuses to serve fresh water fish such as striped bass in sushi at his restaurant. “It’s too dangerous,” Kuture said. “You cannot use fresh water fish.” Despite the unlikely location of Reno’s sushi fever, however, we have some incredible places to try it here, and they all specialize in something a little different.

Some, like Wasabi, have more authentic Japanese food, while others rely more on the Americanized version that utilized fried rolls with lots of sauces and cream cheese. Ichiban features rolls that include filet mignon, and Hiroba even has one with banana.

At some places you can even top off your meal with a sweet fruit and whipped cream dessert roll, but I prefer a quail egg shooter or a sip of sake or both. Kanpai!
Juliana Bledsoe can be reached at bledsoe7@sagebrush.