Lunch in the Loop: Osaka Express
Editor's Note: Whether you're a tourist or an office worker in downtown Chicago, you can get sick of eating at chain restaurants all day. So we've started a series to get you the lowdown on where to find a great and affordable lunch.
During my food writing journeys, I've learned some pretty interesting things. For example, if you say the name Guy Fieri three times in a row, he'll magically appear from Flavortown, shoot you in the face with Donkey sauce, and give you a pair of broken Oakleys to commemorate the occasion. Just kidding. But, just to be safe, don't do it in the bathroom in front of the mirror with the door closed...because you never know. Not that I've tried, or anything. Don't judge me!
Another thing I've discovered is that if you want to learn about new lunch places, ask your coworkers. They might be holding onto some gems you've never known about. Case in point: Osaka Express. I would never have known about this quick-service sushi joint if it weren't for my new coworker, Renée. I had to warn her about my strange habit of buying a sh*tload of lunch, sitting in the corner with my camera, and taking pictures of the food while telling it to look sexy. She helpfully suggested this little tiny sushi restaurant on the corner of Michigan and Van Buren, and so here we are today. Thanks, Renée!
The Green Salad ($3.50) is one of the items she recommended. While she warned me that the iceberg mix itself wasn't going to be stunning, she did say that the dressing would be delicious, and she was right. The greens and tomatoes aren't much to write home about, but the sushi-house style ginger dressing is laced with the savory flavors of soy sauce, ginger, and ground radish. Lots of sushi restaurants carry this style of dressing, but this version tastes fresh and sharp.
In a way, sushi restaurants are like Taco Bell. They take a singular list of ingredients and come up with a thousand iterations using the same components. By the way, I love Taco Bell. I'd marry Taco Bell. That depressing fact aside, sushi rolls can get pretty creative. The Osaka Roll ($9.50), on the right, is an interesting combination of eel, imitation crab, and mayo, blanketed with mango, avocado, and tobiko. Eel and its accompanying barbecue sauce is a strong flavor, and it takes over, but not in a bad way. I'm perplexed by the addition of mango in Americanized sushi rolls, but in this application, it's soft, sweet, tart, and velvety—a lot like avocado without the fat and sweeter.
On the left is the Beethoven Roll ($9.00), this time with mango and avocado on the inside, with salmon, avocado, and tobiko on top. In this case, the mango's flavor doesn't come out very much, but its texture does. The ripe fruit melts away a lot like raw scallop. And that's a good thing.
The Fantastic Roll ($9.50) (where the hell do they come up with these names?) has an overall flavor like bagels and lox; the interior contains smoked salmon, cream cheese, and avocado, while the outer layer is fresh salmon, tuna, and tobiko. I want to hate cream cheese inside sushi rolls, but...deep inside my sad place, I secretly like it. With that embarrassing admission aside, it's actually a pretty solid roll because of the smoked and fresh salmon and the tangy cream cheese. The delicate tuna gets lost, but it's a nice respite from the onslaught of salmon.
The Pay-Roll ($9.50), on the left, is refreshing and light. The interior is built with raw scallop that dissolves away, accompanied by cucumber slivers that add texture and fresh crunch. The tuna, avocado, and salmon on top, all add to the relative mildness of this one. The flavor of the scallop is too delicate to stick around; it's more of a textural thing with some subtle flavor. Also, whoever came up with the name "Pay-Roll" is probably high-fiving themselves into oblivion right now.
My Best Friend's Roll ($9.00) is a full-frontal assault (I'm sounding like Guy Fieri now, dammit) of salmon. Salmon on the interior, with salmon on the exterior, too, along with avocado and cucumber. It's smooth and velvety and dominated by the flavor of salmon, but that's a good thing. I do want to give a shout-out to the rice in all the rolls, though. Unlike other quick-service sushi joints, the rice is actually sticky, fluffy, and light, without too much vinegar. I'm used to dried out grains that taste of sadness, so this is a great detail.
Overall, I have to say I'm charmed by the place. It definitely has an insane number of menu choices, which can make indecision a real pain in the crotch here. As long as you know which components you like, you're all set.
About the author: After a failed attempt at starting a chain of theme restaurants called "Smellen Keller," Dennis Lee traveled the world to discover his true passion. Sadly, midwifery didn't pan out. Now he works in a cubicle, and screws around as much as possible. Follow his shenanigans on Twitter.