Serious Eats: Chicago
The Vegetarian Option: Sushi Samba Rio
Much like the endless beaches of its namesake city, there's some solid people-watching to be had at Sushi Samba Rio in River North. On a recent evening, late in the week, a seat on the sidewalk at this place was privy to the glittering procession of arrivals: cab after cab pulls up, fancy folk disembark, and group photos are taken before going inside. One could likely sit there with nothing but an ice water and be pretty contented by the scene, but that would miss out on an even more stunning attraction at Sushi Samba: the food. And, of course, that'd also be creepy.
Yes, let's turn our attention to the menu instead, where I was pleasantly surprised to find a number of options for vegetarian eaters. Sushi Samba may be known for seafood and robata-grilled beef, but meatless options come in a variety of forms. You can kick off your meal with a green city roll ($9), from the menu's selection of signature Samba Rolls. As the name implies, this roll is abundantly fresh and veggie-driven, with sweet corn, green bean, avocado, and asparagus wrapped in nori and sushi rice and sprinkled with sesame seed. A generous pinch of green tosaka seaweed accompanies the roll, bringing an interesting texture into the mix. The tosaka is at once smooth, juicy, and jelly-like, yet has a vegetal snap that recalls the sweet crunch of the fresh vegetables in the roll.
Sushi Samba's menu also draws from Peruvian cuisine, evidenced by its quinoa-filled hand rolls, or temaki. While some quinoa temaki contain fresh fish, the yasai ($7) is filled with avocado, snow pea shoots, sweet potato tempura, and a rich sweet soy sauce. The range of flavors is delightful, as is the taut snap of the edible "paper" cone. The firm, nutty quinoa provided a hearty base. And although the avocado got lost a bit, I couldn't miss the brown-sugar sweetness of the crispy-skinned tempura sweet potato, which was enhanced by the malty, molasses-y, almost chocolatey flavors of the intriguing, syrup-thick sauce.
My only complaint about Sushi Samba's vegetarian fare is that these are—as the photos indicate—fairly light bites for the price you pay. But then again, part of the price, I imagine, goes toward your ticket to the show.