Tucked between a nail salon and a dry cleaners off Hillsborough Road in Durham, Rockin' Rolls Sushi Express would be easy to miss at first glance if it wasn't for the cheesy font on its sign—an homage or a rip-off of the typeface popularized by Hard Rock Cafe.
Walk inside and you're greeted by upbeat pop singles and sleek, modern décor: walls painted a matte black, faux leather booth seating, and large, peculiar photographs on the walls that show surrealistic wasabi and salmon bisected into halves. It's a conveyor-belt sushi restaurant, but unlike any other I've been to before.
One long belt winds through the body of the restaurant, circling rows of booths made for big groups of diners and counters with chairs for those who prefer to eat alone. Clear, plastic windows against the roving belt can be opened and closed by the customers, creating a barrier between the tables and the moving plates of sushi. (Personally, I like to leave my window open.) Just a few weeks after Rockin' Rolls opened in September, I added it to my rotation as a go-to lunch spot.
At twelve dollars per person, the all-you-can-eat sushi is no doubt affordable. The last time I went to Rockin' Rolls, the dining room was filled with families, couples, police officers, and college kids who I realized had consciously picked the sushi spot over the Mexican place or the Chick-fil-A in the same shopping center.
The idea was born when a sushi chef out of Osaka couldn't keep his restaurant staffed enough to meet growing demand; a belt was the quickest, most efficient way to get food to customers. Created by inventor and restaurateur Yoshiaki Shiraishi in 1958 (he got the idea from a beer-bottling factory) conveyor-belt sushi was initially rejected by traditional sushi makers who spent decades perfecting their craft. Part of the allure of sushi restaurants, which began as outdoor carts and later morphed into indoor sushi bars, was watching master chefs prepare delicacies in front of you. There was an aspect of showmanship and pride in being a sushi chef. Some of that essence was lost when the conveyor-belt style became mainstream, and it has become further diminished in restaurants like Rockin' Rolls.
As a Japanese child raised in the South, I found this very modern iteration of sushi dining—the one exhibited at Rockin' Rolls—perplexing. In the late nineties, sushi was still a new fad—an exotic experiment—with mostly non-Asian people questioning the safety of eating raw fish and scrunching up their noses at the idea of grilled eel. My father was trained as a sushi chef when he first immigrated to the States. So the general disdain for a food I loved, and which sustained my family for years, was hard to swallow. It may be irrational, but I want this new wave of sushi fever to match my own experiences and ideals of what sushi is about.
Conveyor-belt sushi is known as kaitenzushi or mawaruzushi in Japan. The first time I experienced its joy was on a trip to my mother's hometown of Niigata. I was ten years old. Friendly, but robot-like women greeted us at the door of a bright and cozy restaurant. A rectangular belt snaked through the restaurant, moving past our booth, where my mother, grandparents, sister, and I had squeezed in. We snatched up brightly colored lumps of yellowtail nigiri and perfectly formed tuna rolls. A touch screen set just above the moving belt outlined offerings like hotate and mouthwatering toro at market-price. Even as a kid, I remember distinctly feeling the balance that existed in the restaurant, its aura both of nostalgic Japanese tradition and modern efficiency. And while it had an undeniable air of mass production, it didn't feel as impersonal as Rockin' Rolls.
At Rockin' Rolls, the booths are too high to see the line of sushi chefs cranking out roll after roll, nigiri after nigiri. There's no dialogue or appreciation between you and the makers of the delicious food you're consuming; there's no relationship.
One of my favorite restaurants in Chapel Hill is an old standby that I've written about before. Kurama Sushi and Noodles Express, a smaller, family-owned establishment, has an entirely opposite vibe. Cramped and worn from decades of service, it employs a much shorter belt, which revolves at the center of the restaurant. Customers can also sit at the sushi bar where the owner, Hiro, fills orders. That's usually where you'll find me, taking the opportunity to speak my native tongue with Hiro, something I seldom get the chance to do outside of talking to my own family. We'll talk about anything—the weather, UNC—while I watch his hands make repeated movements, moving intuitively after all these years, forming my lunch. It feels homey and connected. The food is good, and so is the conversation.
At Rockin' Rolls, the sushi is endless and plentiful. The rolls are delicious. There's all you-can-eat salad, edamame, and miso soup, too. But to me, something is lost in its hyper-efficient, sleek, stripped-down system. I love going there because it's a great deal, but its lack of personality leaves me feeling lonely. Maybe it's the mostly dark décor, or that the chefs are too far away to talk to. But there's nothing familiar to remind me of my favorite mawaruzushi experiences as a kid.
Maybe I'm being too critical of Rockin' Rolls. Maybe the restaurant, at face value, is a gateway to classic sushi for a flourishing foodie culture willing to try it all.