Sushi. It just ain’t cheap is it? Nor sure should it be. The ultimate haute cuisine which has supplanted French as the go to splurge for the culinary jet, set along with those of us who get by pay check to check, seldom serves up regrets until you see your monthly credit card statement. Heck, there are some places now that command such a price(and warranted indulgence) to the point where contemplating dining out is budgeted along with airfare for a vacation. So can you get sushi for cheap? Not really but you can certainly get a decent meal for $50 or less. Enter Ichiban in North Austin, a place where a homesick ex angeleno (me) can scratch the sushi itch for less than $40. This is how you do it.

*note each course was for two people. prices reflect that split.

The Vitals:
the spot: Ichiban 7310 Burnett road Austin TX 78757
the eats: oysters on the half shell topped with caviar and ponzu sauce
the bucks: $10 (enough for two)
course one

If you are looking to start off your sushi dinner with a bang, go for oysters on the half shell. To be honest, it took me a few years before I put two and two together and realized that this classic steakhouse appetizer would just excel at a sushi restaurant. I mean, you know the oysters are gonna be fresh because the whole restaurant is banking on a quality fish supplier. Added bonus, it’s nice to escape the traditional oyster accoutrement of mignonette, horseradish and cocktail sauce; the latter being almost criminal when applied to quality oysters. At Ichiban they like toss in a little flair with the caviar but the play here is the ponzu on top, the citrus laced Japanese dipping sauce adds savoriness to these briny bites of the sea.

The Vitals:
the spot: Ichiban 7310 Burnett road Austin TX 78757
the eats: ikura nigiri
the bucks: $3
course two

For some, sushi means California rolls at a joint that advertises chicken teriyaki on the moniker. For me it is all about getting down with the flavors of the sea. Which means more than just getting down, it means getting downright funky. Hello salmon fish eggs, aka Ikura. I just adore these big ‘n meaty fish eggs and the way they explode in your mouth. I also love the taste of salt and since Ikura is soaked in a brine of soy sauce, sugar, sake and dashi(a stock made from fish and kelp), I’m pretty much an Ikura fan boy. It’s a fine way to commence the nigiri part of the sushi dinner and you get to compare and contrast the many flavors of salmon by following up with . . .

The Vitals:
the spot: Ichiban 7310 Burnett road Austin TX 78757
the eats: salmon toro nigiri 
the bucks: $3
course three

Pretty much the first word I look for on a sushi menu is “toro”, which literally translates to tuna belly. But sushi restaurants frequently use the word “toro” to refer to other fish bellies, and on this occasion at Ichiban it meant salmon belly. Off the bat I gotta say that going Ikura and then Salmon toro is a killer one-two punch at the sushi bar. First you are sending a message to the chef’s that you ain’t here to play with games with amateur offerings like a dragon roll, you are about the omakase business. Second, you are opening yourself up to a grand back and forth of sushi eating: the briny bite and the fatty finish. Ikura, thanks to some help from the dashi and the soy sauce has got a serious umami punch that just accentuates the briny flavors of the salmon caviar. But when you go salmon toro, you are getting that butter buttah baby. I could eat a plate of this stuff right here and my freakin’ 5 year old often does. This is exactly the kinda of gateway sushi that will take you farther down the well, or should I say ocean and lead to something like . . .

The Vitals:
the spot: Ichiban 7310 Burnett road Austin TX 78757
the eats: spanish mackerel nigiri 
the bucks: $3
course four

Mackerel, especially saba, could be the most downright funky you can get at a sushi bar. Some people are put off by it and while I wouldn’t knock down a sashimi platter of the stuff, in the right context, that strong “fishy” flavor can be exactly the kind of refreshing break your sushi feast needs. Look, we all know sushi doesn’t exactly stick to your ribs. You are in it for the experience of so many different flavors, from small bites, in a single meal. Now in that context, I say bring on the mackerel. Beyond just having a strong fishy flavor, mackerel is often regarded as an opportunity for a sushi chef to show off their skills because its preparation includes many hours to cure the fish with salt and vinegar. I tend to order Spanish Mackerel, which is milder than others but still offers that distinct, unmistakeable mackerel taste. That first bite immediately informs you that eating fish and tasting strong flavors, are par for the course. And this is a good thing.

The Vitals:
the spot: Ichiban 7310 Burnett road Austin TX 78757
the eats: yellowtail nigiri 
the bucks: $3
course five

I’m no fisherman but I do have a tale to tell about yellowtail. Once I was 24 years old and found myself in Ensenada, Mexico on a weekend trip to fish the waters of Baja. Like many plans that involve other 24 year olds, the fishing part never materialized but I did do a fair sharing of alcohol and taco consumption. Literally on our way out of town, a few guys coming off their boat asked us if we wanted any fish. We walked out with a cooler full of yellowtail tuna that I proceeded to grill for the next three months. It was a heck of a stash to have in your freezer: line caught yellowtail tuna. But I was also only 24 years old and only knew the fine art of slapping a hunk of meat fish on a Weber. If only I had the cajones to break the fish down to a sushi loin or at least make a ceviche. Which brings me to yellowtail sushi, which like salmon, tuna or albacore is a crowd fav for most sushi goers. The piece we got here was border line toro; I mean look at the ribbons of fat running through that piece of nigiri. Of course yellowtail is only a go to if the joint is bringing it with that fish, and on multiple visits to Ichiban, they do bring it with the yellowtail, in fact at Ichiban, the yellowtail is a true must order. If only I could have brought a sashimi knife down to Baja way back when.

The Vitals:
the spot: Ichiban 7310 Burnett road Austin TX 78757
the eats: bluefin tuna nigiri 
the bucks: $3.50
course six

Honestly maguro, aka tuna, could be the hardest sell for me at a sushi restaurant. Often times it is just bland compared to the belly cut or even similar cuts of yellowtail, albacore or salmon. Bluefin tuna is an exception. We all know(or should) that bluefin is horribly overfished to the point where it is endangered and comes at a staggering price. Two fine reasons why I should skip this course all together. Certainly food for thought, but I would be lying if I didn’t say that sometimes my food lust goes against my better judgement. I guess my big issue flavor wise with regular old tuna sushi is that it tastes too lean, but bluefin doesn’t. In fact it offers a deeper, meatier zest than its smaller cousin, ahi tuna. Bluefin is pricey for sure but not too bad at Ichiban and certainly small potatoes when it comes to getting bluefin toro, which can absolutely break your budget.  So if you are willing to fork over your morals for a morsel of sublime tuna and keep your budget intact, this is certainly the sushi for you.

The Vitals:
the spot: Ichiban 7310 Burnett road Austin TX 78757
the eats: wagyu tataki
the bucks: $4
course seven

It was at the Ferry Building in San Francisco (the OG food hall by the way), where I first tried “beef sushi”. It kinda sounds weird to say, it kinda was weird to type, but when you factor in that by “beef” we are talking wagyu: that coveted sirloin massaged and fed like royalty(or a Kardashian) except that instead of being groomed for the gossip rags, you are in fact being groomed for my dinner plate. This wagyu is also seared and soaked in a ponzu sauce, a preparation known as tataki; so now the idea of eating beef and rice with chopsticks should seem as obvious as eating steak with a steak knife. I found the tataki to be a perfect move after the bluefin tuna, where both pieces of sushi emphasize meaty, beefy overtones. Plus it’s wagyu and I’ll take any bite of the world’s most coveted beef for under $5, any day of the week.

The Vitals:
the spot: Ichiban 7310 Burnett road Austin TX 78757
the eats: escolar nigiri
the bucks: $2.50
course eight

If you wanna talk bang for your sushi buck, escolar is your jam. Sushi restaurants really love escolar because it’s cheap and the taste is unmistakably buttery, its texture, silky. Now I can’t talk about this fish without mentioning that some sources claim it is high in mercury and should not be eaten in large quantities. Well, this is sushi and unless you are dropping a $100 a week on your sushi fix, we can chalk up overconsumption of escolar has “high class problems”. One thing I don’t have a problem with is the sweetness this fish offers as well. You will also notice a little cooked garlic on top. Not bad at all for $2.50.

The Vitals:
the spot: Ichiban 7310 Burnett road Austin TX 78757
the eats: albacore nigiri
the bucks: $3
course nine

Right around here is when my wife will be coming close to throwing in the towel so I like to order some sushi that serves as my insurance policy that I will be walking out the door full. Albacore is a perfect choice because I find the sear, which every sushi restaurant I’ve come across does, delivers a contrast of textures, pairing a hearty steak like crust with a tender center that practically melts in your mouth. This is one piece of sushi that perfectly toes the line between buttery and meaty. And it is just flat out reliable. If a sushi restaurant blows it with the albacore, call the health department and then head over to Ichiban.

The Vitals:
the spot: Ichiban 7310 Burnett road Austin TX 78757
the eats: uni nigiri
the bucks: $6
course ten

Of course you gotta save the best for last. If I was stupid rich, like private boat where my private helicopter could land on rich, you best believe I would be serving uni out of a bucket. I supposed if you have read this far into the post, that you feel the same way too. Sea Urchin is indeed divine and I can gauge the really great sushi restaurants from their uni offerings. With a taste that is at once buttery and briny, uni is oh so delicate and needs the substance provided by sushi rice and the slight umami of the nori wrapping to really relish this food fully. It goes without saying that good uni makes for great meals but in our context Cheap Eats, decent uni is, and always will be, a special treat. And this treat doth cost. Which is why uni is practically my dessert when it comes to sushi, I always, I mean always have it last. And it’s always worth it too. Unless I order it twice. If only I was stupid rich.

And folks that brings us to the grand total of $36 for 10 courses of real deal sushi. Of course this doesn’t reflect beers and sake, which are kinda givens if you drink alcohol, but this is a path, a roadmap if you will, to experience a sensation of sushi flavor whilst not breaking that bank. Bang for your Sushi Buck thanks to a spot that offers solid quality at an approachable price. Proof that you don’t need to be stupid rich to enjoy even a taste of that uni good life.

But I wouldn’t mind taking a look at a boat that could fit a helicopter. Especially with a bucket of uni on board . . .

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