Listen: I’m sorry. All-you-can-eat sushi is an abhorrent concept, and I’m actually sort of ashamed to be writing about it again. But a nut-free restaurant is a nut-free restaurant, and I don’t really have the luxury of being as choosy as I’d like.
Sushi’s tough, though. Bad sushi and those who swear by it make me irrationally angry, but I can’t shake this perverse compulsion I have to try out every nut-free Japanese restaurant I come across. It doesn’t matter that the vast majority of these places are so obviously the exact type of thing that riles me up; I read about them, tell myself I’m not interested, and then find myself there within a month or two. The food’s a joke, but I don’t care. More often than not, I end up becoming a regular at these godforsaken places. It’s insane, and I have no idea what’s wrong with me.
…Let’s move on.
I first read about Yuka on this list of New York City restaurants that offer all-you-can-eat sushi deals—a list I was reading because, as I said, there’s something wrong with me. Yuka was one of the least expensive options on the list, so I gave them a call, and sure enough, they’re pretty much nut-free. There are no tree nuts or tree nut products in any of their dishes, but they do use peanuts in a roll or two of theirs. Fine by me—so on a particularly boring Sunday night, my boyfriend and I made the trek uptown.
The restaurant’s small and dark, with string lights and origami birds hanging from the ceiling. Tables are very close together—we ate about six inches from the couple next to us, both of whom kept (literally) overflowing their own glasses with canned Coke. In all, though, the atmosphere wasn’t particularly unpleasant; it was just…strange.
All-you-can-eat was indeed available—at $23.95 per person, which is a pretty good price. Your whole party doesn’t have to go for the all-you-can-eat deal, but be warned: If one person does, and the waitstaff catches the others sampling off the all-you-can-eater’s plate, all will be charged the full all-you-can-eat price. This rule—along with the others, which concern time limits and fees for leftover food—was printed on paper and secured under a layer of glass on our tabletop, along with a partial menu, a beer ad, and a sushi identification chart. Weird, but whatever.
Ordering is done with paper and pencil, which is straightforward enough (though certainly a little less fun than ordering via iPad). You can place as many orders as you’d like, but Yuka will charge you for the food you leave behind, so make sure your eyes and stomach are in-sync, lest you end up on the receiving end of a few contemptuous side-eyes. Overall, Yuka is pretty similar to most other all-you-can-eat places; there’s one real rule, and it’s “be reasonable.” If you can handle that, you’ll be fine.
Anyway, I guess I’ve avoided talking about the food itself for long enough. I hate to say this, but…it’s actually all right. It isn’t good, mind you, but it’s tolerable—and even enjoyable, if you’re prepared for what you’re getting yourself into. The sushi is better than Kikoo‘s, better than Marumi‘s, and generally just better than I’d expect of a) all-you-can-eat Japanese and b) the particularly unpleasant stretch of 2nd Avenue on which Yuka is located. And although the variety of fish isn’t all that wide, it isn’t oppressively narrow, either.
We ordered three rolls—salmon, tuna, and shrimp tempura—and a whole bunch of nigiri, too. When it comes to rolls, I like to keep it simple, especially when I’m eating at a restaurant I don’t (yet?) trust, and that isn’t just because I have food allergies. In my mind, it’s pretty tough to disgust-ify something as simple as a salmon roll, but a roll with eight different components? That’s a whole different animal—one I’m not willing to bet on.
When we started to eat, the first thing I noticed was the temperature of the rice. Unlike most sushi joints toward the worse end of the spectrum, Yuka’s rice isn’t even the slightest bit cold. In fact, it’s almost too warm, but when it comes to rice, I’ll take too-warm over too-cold any day. Most of the fish is an inoffensive room-temperature, but some pieces are inexplicably cold, which is very off-putting, to say the least. For the most part, though, temperatures are solid. Such a relief.
That first night, our rolls surprised me. Salmon and tuna were simple and pleasant, and shrimp tempura was refreshingly no-nonsense. I’ve gotten used to restaurants putting some crazy shit (ranch? RANCH?!) in their shrimp tempura rolls, but the folks at Yuka seem to know better. They use shrimp, avocado, rice, and seaweed—no cucumber, which was strange, but fine by me—and it’s actually not half bad. (If you’re trying to strategize, though, stay away from this one. It’s the most filling thing I’ve eaten at Yuka.)
Truthfully, the nigiri was even more surprising. The salmon was buttery; the squid was nice and firm, without bordering on tough; and the shrimp was sweet, though a bit boring. The whitefish and the yellowtail were both very cold and very bland, but I got over it. I was paying less than $25; what right did I really have to complain?
And that’s the thing: I expected very, very little of Yuka, so naturally, I ended up with a better meal than I’d prepared for. Perhaps that’s why I don’t find myself descending into an irrational fit of rage every time I walk through Yuka’s doors—well, that and the whole unlimited-food-for-cheap thing. For what it is, Yuka is actually pretty great. It isn’t high-end, and it’s full of misguided Upper East Siders, but you know what? It’s cheap, it’s easy, and it’s satisfying—and it’s way, way better than most other sushi at its price point.
Find Yuka at 1557 2nd Avenue, between 80th and 81st. It’s pretty far uptown, but that’s fine—you can use your train ride to mentally prepare yourself for the absurd amount of food you’re about to (try to) choke down.
[Sorry about the lack of photos in this post. I tried, but I couldn’t get a single decent picture of the food itself. It’s dark in there, and things move really quickly. I’ve failed you; try Yelp.]