Conveyor belt sushi is making a comeback in the region at Kura Sushi, starting first in New Jersey, with one in Fort Lee and another in Jersey City. Kura is a growing Japanese chain that seems to be wildly popular, with lines through the parking lot when I peeked in the Fort Lee location. Around the U.S., there are 44 locations already and another on the way in Flushing.
This fast-food franchise at 525 Washington Boulevard near North Garage Driveway is as automated as it gets, with customers joining a waiting line electronically just outside the front door; orders for other Japanese food like noodles, soups, and tempura are placed via a touch screen once you are seated; and a robot named KuraB the Kurabot that delivers beverages. (The plates on the belt, we were told by a very nice server, are held in domes named “Mr. Fresh.) As one finishes a serving of sushi, the plate is launched into a narrow slot that counts the $3.70 plates as it swallows them, as if by magic.
The last time we saw conveyor belt sushi, there was one just north of the Empire State Building. Genroku Sushi appeared in 1974, serving sushi from a metal belt with hinged plates that snaked around the room hugging a horseshoe-shaped lunch counter.
The conveyor belt approach to sushi had been introduced a decade earlier to Japan by Taiwanese businessman Kin Syo Chin. People loved Genroku because the belt provided lunchtime entertainment, as plates of sushi passed by again and again. So they weren’t grabbing stuff that had been sitting out, regular patrons learned to request their sushi be made fresh by chefs who stood at the end of the room.
Back at Kura, sushi that passes by on the belt, offered in 66 varieties, is often just as wilted as it was at Genroku. A friend and I ate lunch there this last weekend and found the sushi sometimes acceptable, but more often repulsive. Many offerings are nori rolls oozing mayo and heaped with crunchy crumbs, so that the fish itself can be hard to find. Sometimes innovative sushi works, but it’s somehow less appealing at this price point.
A spicy popcorn-shrimp roll had three tiny shrimp thickly breaded that was sodden rather than crunchy. Meanwhile something called a Texan roll for no apparent reason contained fish that we couldn’t identify. Avoid anything labeled “crunch” or “crunchy” because the elements often resolve themselves into a gooey amorphous heap, as in the salmon golden crunchy roll, shown at the top. This is one of several offerings smothered in a thick red sauce like a cross between gochujang and ketchup.
Cream cheese also takes the stage, ruining some decent eel in the nigiri section of the menu, which also offers a Philadelphia roll, a more common use of cream cheese in bad sushi. Even when the plates hold nigiri sushi, it is often flawed. The mackerel looked funny, like a badly lit photo of itself, and the filets were miniscule compared to the usual. Arriving one piece to a plate rather than two, the belly tuna was so white that it seemed all fat. Can a piece of toro be too fatty? I think so.
To be fair, there are also some good things that go rolling by, and you could probably tell which things without coaching from me, just by their appearance. Premium American beef is two pieces of nicely marbled raw meat, delicately seared on the edges and wearing fried garlic chips bravely on its breast like war medals. The plain tuna nigiri sushi is also good, as is a salmon skin roll with bonito shavings waving in the breezes generated by the belt. But a bowl of watermelon was the very best thing we tasted.
As a place to eat sushi, Kura is abysmal. However, it’s also cheap and great entertainment. And lunch for two was less than 50 bucks.