SushiSamba Rio Makes it Easy to Go Gluten-Free


[Photographs: Rachel Gillman]

Sushi restaurants tend to be gluten-free friendly, but SushiSamba Rio reaches overachiever status with a double-sided gluten-free menu spanning cooked and raw items. On the first page alone, there are 29 dishes, from flash-fried Japanese river crabs to a tuna quinoa handroll. I relished the feeling of being overwhelmed by options, a rarity when dining with food allergies.

After the server touted the robata grill, I started with a Sea Bass ($16) skewer. The fish, slightly sweetened with a miso glaze was flavorful but not too filling, a tasty warm-up to the meal. What surprised me was the corn pairing of Peruvian kernels. The oversized, nutrient-dense veggies—sourced from a volcanic valley—started as a crunchy companion to the flaky fish, but added their own dose of chewy sweetness. If you can describe the flavor of corn as "layered," this varietal would qualify.


Just as corn fans are more apt to enjoy this appetizer, mushroom lovers will swoon for the Mushroom Toban Yaki ($15). The cast-iron bowl is filled to the brim with a steaming medley of Japanese mushrooms swimming in tamari and ginger ponzu sauce and topped by a poached organic egg. Five types of fungi help vary the flavor and texture, punctuated by citrusy lemon zest and yuzu. Winter doesn't stand a chance against this shroom-filled stew.

While most traditional rolls are gluten free (as long as you avoid tempura, crab substitute or dipping in soy sauce), specialty maki are often off-limits. At SushiSamba Rio, the creative Samba rolls are designed to showcase the restaurant's fusion fare and they even come with gluten-free soy sauce.


Tuna shines in the Neo Tokyo ($14), a spicy roll with aji panca (Peruvian red pepper) topped with sashimi tuna and dotted with a potent ruby colored sauce of pulverized red chili and rice vinegar. For carnivores reluctantly trying sushi, the BoBo Brazil ($14) is a meaty peace offering. Seared wagyu beef is draped over avocado stuffed rolls, enlivened by an aggressive chimichurri sauce. This roll could hold its own at a tailgating bash or cocktail party and I would gladly devour it at either one. The Pacific ($16) is the priciest of the bunch, but delivers a substantial mouthful of steamed king crab and sweet Asian pear wrapped in pink soy paper over a creamy avocado purée. Compared to the bold tastes of the other maki, it's slightly more muted, but the combination of soft crab meat and crunchy fruit certainly works.

One minor complaint didn't come from the actual food, but its presentation. All the plates arrived simultaneously, crowding the table and competing for attention. I would have preferred more pacing, but otherwise the service was attentive and informed.

As SushiSamba Rio approaches its 10th anniversary, there's no sign of wear and tear from the kitchen, which continues to feature exotic ingredients from across the globe. The robust gluten free menu is a strong indication of their culinary chops and effort to serve, and satisfy, every type of eater.

SushiSamba Rio

504 North Wells Street, Chicago, IL 60654 (map)