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Sushi burrito assembly at Uma Temakeria.
Sushi burrito assembly at Uma Temakeria.
Robert Sietsema

The Sushi Burrito: When Is a Burrito Not a Burrito?

Senior critic Robert Sietsema goes on a fact-finding mission — and gets slightly upset

You’ve got to admit that even though the idea of a sushi burrito is somewhat repulsive, it’s also a bit thrilling. All the recent chatter about them made me wonder exactly how the idea would be executed: Certainly there would be the usual giant, wobbly flour tortilla, firm but also a bit sticky, sealing itself up nicely as it’s rolled. Would the raw fish be cut in long strips or chopped up, and would it be good fish or the mushy crap left over after making sushi and sashimi?

But what else would be in the sushi burrito? Rice, certainly, and probably beans, but would the condiments — in a true fusion of Mexican and Japanese — be salsas, or soy sauce and wasabi? Or even a mixture? To answer these pressing questions, I set out on a sushi burrito fact-finding mission, beginning with the mother of all sushi burritos at Pokeworks, just down West 37th Street from the Chick-fil-A. I’d heard the place was popular around lunchtime, so I descended from the Eater headquarters at Bryant Park just before 11 a.m., when the place opens for the day. Imagine my surprise to find a line already snaking down the block.

I stood in that line for one hour and 15 minutes before reaching the order counter. On the way I passed a signboard touting the Poke Burrito, though inside the store — which was narrow and gleaming white, like an emergency room — the thing was alternately referred to as a Pokiritto. At the end of the room beneath a neon Pokeworks sign was an L-shaped counter with a series of tubs filled with various fish and other ingredients, many in a Japanese or Korean vein. In addition to tuna, salmon, chicken, and tofu cut in small cubes, there were cucumbers, avocados, seaweed, canned crabmeat mixed with mayo, bright orange fish roe, pickled ginger, sesame seeds, and others. One also had to choose a preset flavor profile for any bowls, salads, or Poke-rritos ordered.

Robert Sietsema
Robert Sietsema

The line at Pokeworks and a Pokiritto.

These profiles are termed classic salt, umami shoyu, ponzu fresh, sriracha aioli, wasabi aioli, spicy ginger, and sweet chili gochu. I was disappointed to see no Mexican ingredients, or indeed much of anything that might go into a burrito. Furthermore, it dawned on me as I saw one of the cooks rolling ingredients into a sheet of dried seaweed that he was making a poke burrito with no tortilla, either. WTF, Pokeworks? How the hell can you call a maki roll — not dissimilar to the ones you might find at a salad bar or lower-end sushi joint — a burrito?

This was a clear case of culinary identity theft, with Mexican-Americans and burrito lovers everywhere the victims. Nevertheless, still jonesing for a burrito, I was forced to do the best I could by trying to select the most burrito-like ingredients. My choices included chicken, cilantro, green onions, rice, onion crisps, and — trying to achieve some chile wallop — the spicy Korean sauce called gochujang. Unfortunately, it was way too sweet, and I ended up with what you might call a ketchup burrito. It was really terrible, and once again, had nothing whatsoever to do with an actual burrito. And it cost me $10.50 plus tax while only half filling me up.

Dejected, I decided to seek out another place that hyped its sushi burrito. I landed on the southern end of Chelsea at the original location of Uma Temakeria, a fast-casual concept from All’onda chef Chris Jaeckle. Lucky for me, the line was short. I got to the front of it in five minutes. Like Pokeworks, the place offers very little seating. A fanciful interior features wallpaper patterned with green and blue vines. Constituting a substantial part of the brief menu of mainly sushi rolls, was a choice of three "Chef’s Sushi Burritos," described on a chalkboard behind the counter.

Robert Sietsema
Robert Sietsema

Uma exterior and Uma-ritto.

It was immediately obvious that these burritos, too, were really just overhyped maki rolls. I picked the Uma-ritto ($10.50), which came stuffed with salmon, tuna, mayo made with fermented bean paste, cucumbers, carrots, sesame seeds, and tempura crunchies. The ingredients seem more interesting than the roll turned out to be. Once again, I was flummoxed by my attempt to get something that deserved to be called a sushi burrito.

I’m assembling a list of other places that offer sushi burritos, and I have four already. But somehow, I believe they’ll all turn out to be maki rolls. Ultimately, there’s something evasive and slightly dishonest about these places using a term like sushi burrito. Burritos are well known to be big bulging flour tortilla packages that constitute more food than you can eat at one sitting, while these fall far short of being a full meal. They also partake of the glamour of sushi, even though in practice they represent that sainted Japanese invention reduced to its lowest common denominator.

Sushi should be freshly cut by a fish expert and handled with reverence; at these places fish is pre-cut and then dumped helter skelter into tubs. Moreover, the fish is concealed inside a roll with a cacophony of other flavors, so you really don’t taste it. Aesthetics aside, I would be concerned of the freshness and preparation of the raw fish: Should you trust your health to an assembly line where the raw fish you consume isn’t even visible?

Of course, these flaws would also be inherent in a true sushi burrito. But somehow, curiosity and love of real burritos might cause me to set aside my trepidations.

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