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Super Supermarket Sushi

Blast Los Angeles Bureau

Sushi is one of the more affordable luxuries in life. Okay, you can't always have fugu or the rare stuff, but anyone can get unagi or hamachi and not spend a king's ransom.

Despite my fondness for sushi, there's a ritualistic aspect to eating it that's a little formal for my mood sometimes. You have the little dishes and the presentation and hoopla. Sometimes I crave sushi, but I want to use my hands to eat nigiri and watch TV and have a Coke. In other words, the working girl's dinner.

This is where the miracle of supermarket sushi comes in.

In recent years, major supermarket chains have realized that sushi has become a genuinely Californian cuisine and have set up mini-sushi stands in their stores. It's quick, it looks good, it comes in tiny portions, it's low-fat, it used to be ultra-trendy, and it shows that you're hip to other cultures - all hallmarks of California cuisine. Most of the time, the sushi's already made and sitting in neat little plastic boxes, complete with a knob of wasabi, packet of soy sauce, and the green plastic thing that's supposed to represent grass.

I will be so bold as to say that supermarket sushi can be just as good as restaurant sushi, with some limitations. Some things to keep in mind:

1. The variety runs to basic fare: California rolls (real or fake crab), tekka-maki, veggie style, shrimp or plain old tuna nigiri. Don't expect anything special like soft-shelled crab hand rolls or even unagi, although I've seen it on a rare occasion. Even if the sushi chef is there, he's only going to have on hand what the market has. And I can tell you that most mainstream markets aren't going to be swimming in uni.

2. Make sure it's reasonably fresh, since you don't know how long it's been sitting there. Expiration dates mean diddly-squat. Look at the color of the fish; discoloration is a tell-tale sign that it's been there too long. Also, there shouldn't be drops of moisture inside the lid - it ruins the taste.

3. The rice is cold and sometimes hardens if it's more than a day old. Not very tasty.

4. The more gourmet the supermarket, the better quality of fish you'll find.

I've found a couple of markets that have ready-made sushi in the L.A. area, but comparable ones exist in other areas.

Gelson's Market (various locations) 3 out of 4 Gelson's is one of the nicer supermarkets in the area. It's the kind of place with an in-house café and Wolfgang Puck section. Consequently, they're a little more expensive overall. Because the quality of their seafood is great, this is where I go for my sushi most of the time.

The selection is good. You can get yellowtail, unagi, inari, California rolls with real crab (and no mayonnaise), spicy tuna, and more. The California roll is $5.80, while six pieces of nigiri (the usual combo seems to be salmon, tuna and shrimp) run for $7.80. Two spicy tuna hand-rolls are $4.80. The quality of the fish is good overall, but occasionally I get too-chewy tuna that's cut wrong, or the taste is slightly off. But for a quick fix on your way home from work, or if you don't feel like going out and just want to wear sweats and surf the 'Net, Gelson's sushi is the way to go.

Ralph's (various locations) 2 out of 4 Ralph's is the supermarket that you find everywhere. Literally. The stores are part of the largest chain in Southern California. They keep sucking up smaller chains all the time. But remember, being large doesn't necessarily mean better quality.

Ralph's sushi prices are generally a dollar or so cheaper than Gelson's, but the quality of the fish diminishes as well. I've actually seen weirdly-colored yellowtail for sale, more of a tan than the creamy translucence it's supposed to have. The rice seems to be colder and harder than that of Gelson's. If you're looking for a cheap California roll, you may as well go here. Their tekka-maki's not bad, either. At the end of the day, be careful of the raw stuff.

Supermarket sushi can only get better as more people want that quick sushi fix. I wouldn't be surprised if someday soon I can get that soft-shelled crab hand roll.