The first time I remember being aware of sushi as a phenomenon was in the mid-'80s, when Molly Ringwald unpacked her Saturday-detention lunch in The Breakfast Club. Sushi has been eaten in Japan since the 7th century and was originally a way to preserve (by fermentation) two of Japan's prime culinary commodities: fish and rice. It wasn't until the 18th century that a clever young chef left the fish raw and the preparation started to resemble what we eat today. Sushi was a practical solution for Japanese diners, but by the time it reached Hollywood in 1985, it was all luxury and indulgence. When Ringwald, as Claire, snootily laid her sushi on the school table, it stood as a symbol for chic excess; only the very adventurous or stupidly wealthy would let something as obscure and as expensive as raw fish past their lips. Oh, how times have changed. Sushi is a commoner now, situated among the herds of burger joints, burrito bars and Chinese takeouts on main drags.
Take Sushi Hatsu, for instance. Sushi Hatsu opened its doors downtown in the 1990s in the wave of cheap neighborhood outlets that followed the discovery of sushi as an "experience." Sushi Hatsu didn't test Orlando's taste, but it offered the goods for cheap to early initiates. It was never among the fabulous sushi spots, and, frankly, it couldn't be. But it's a solid example of "yet another sushi joint" that shrugs off the pretentious past and does just enough to please the masses.
None of the starters we chose were worth the trouble. We should have skipped the goma ae ($4.25) a heap of wilted spinach drenched in sesame oil. The first bite was mildly satisfying, but then I detected an off note, something sweet that tasted kind of like hazelnut coffee creamer. At that point I placed my chopsticks on the table and picked up my water glass to guzzle. A few minutes later, when the cold seaweed salad arrived, I hungrily grabbed the sticks and dug into the worst example I've ever tasted of this usually delicate green concoction. This one was massacred by tough strands and vinegar gone bad.
By the time the sushi arrived, I wasn't expecting much, but it was actually quite tasty. We tried some perennial favorites, such as the California roll ($4.30), pieces of octopus ($2.20) and tuna sushi ($2.40). All the fish was fresh with a sweet, clean finish. The tuna, a deep red fillet atop snowy rice, was especially good. I tried the vegetarian roll ($3.70) with lettuce, carrots and cukes, which tasted like a garden salad wrapped in nori. Likewise, the buffalo roll ($6.10) reminded me of another American staple: the chicken wing. With tempura shrimp and a heavy dose of Tabasco-y heat, this roll, the Super Bowl snack of sushi, was surprisingly satisfying. Of the special rolls, the volcano ($12.95) was our favorite a ring of avocado-wrapped California rolls surrounding a mountain of lightly spiced conch and crab salad fluttered with a colorful array of sweet and spicy sauces.
Sushi Hatsu also serves cooked Japanese favorites and many Korean dishes, including kimchee ($3.95) as well as bi-bim-bap ($9.95), hot bowls of vegetables, meat, rice and egg. Although this rundown downtown spot might not have the best sushi in town, it would still be a fine choice for bringing as a snack to detention or the like.