Sometimes bringing together two polar opposites works: creamy, fatty peanut butter and tart, acidic jelly; nerdy, awkward Ross and sexy, flighty Rachel. In the case of the Cowfish, an outpost of the home-grown North Carolina-based resto, it's burgers and sushi. And it works. In the midst of celebrity-branded restaurants and kiosks slinging theme-park kitsch, the Cowfish at Universal CityWalk, now occupying a sprawling three-story space with more than 500 seats, fills the need for a kind of off-the-wall, inventive cuisine that borders on delightfully weird.
Visit during prime dining hours and there's sure to be a wait, especially at 6 p.m., when both Universal theme parks close and throngs of families pour from the park exits. If you're stuck in the first-floor waiting area, claim an LED touchscreen and create your own virtual fish. The check-in process is a bit of a mess, since the hostess stand isn't immediately apparent from the entrance to the main dining room, but once there, scan the matching screens that line the walls to see your custom horned cowfish "swim" by.
The centerpiece is a backlit bar boasting premium sakes and spirits used in giant 10-ounce martinis and spiked milkshakes, like the Chocolate to Dive For ($12), vanilla ice cream laced with Amaretto, Godiva chocolate liqueur and malt. Alcohol abstainers can bask in a brainfreeze and the glow of a childhood flashback while sipping the P Double-B and J Shake ($6), an unctuous concrete of peanut butter, banana and jelly blended with vanilla ice cream.
Enthusiastic 20-something wait staff, effusively friendly but not overly chatty, are willing to walk first-timers through the lengthy fusion menu. There's a section for burgers, one for sushi, and a selection of bizarre combinations requiring a suspension of disbelief. Case in point: The Pittsburgoo-shi Sandwich ($18). It's not so much the slices of tender filet and peppery pastrami, the french fries or provolone that fill the sandwich that require the leap of faith, but what serves as the "bun": two spring roll wrappers filled with sushi rice and kani (akin to surimi), folded and crisped. There's a pleasant fishiness on the nose when bringing the sandwich to the mouth, but after the first bite, you'll be hard-pressed not to go in for another. Choose a side of spicy-sweet Thai cucumbers as a perfect foil to the rich sandwich.
The Rise and Swine Burger ($15), cooked to an even medium, is breakfast on a bun: a beef patty topped with a runny fried egg, cheddar and a porcine duo of crisp bacon and Black Forest ham. Burgushi rolls, the ultimate fusion of burger and sushi – like the Buffaloooo-shi ($17), filled with chipotle bison, fried green tomato and feta, rolled in crispy tempura flakes – take adventurous eaters out of their element.
The one glaring misstep is only apparent to fans of the original Cowfish in Charlotte: the menu's omission of the Mary Had a Little Lamb burgushi roll, a brilliant concoction of Greek olives, ground lamb, capers, feta and red onions, rolled into sushi and served with tzatziki. If I had one disappointment during the meal, it was that my craving for this favorite went unfulfilled.
Aside from that, whether you hold annual Universal passes or only make it to CityWalk when there's a decent show at the Hard Rock Live, Cowfish's plethora of outré offerings makes eating at the theme parks fun again.
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