West Ashley, 1975 Magwood Drive
It helps to speak a little Spanish at Koi, the first local sushi joint I’ve seen with Latino guys banging out California rolls by the boatload. It’s an interesting concept, with a sort of a cross-cultural fusion, an ethnic blend that seems to show up in the food — the first indication came in a complimentary bowl of fake crab meat slivers topped with hot chiles and a sprinkling of crunchy “tempura” batter that presumably are the crumbs from the fryer, ingeniously recycled. However they make them, they personify the cool touch of a place that sorely lacks any vestige of Japanese authenticity, but somewhat makes up for it with spicy inventiveness.
If you somehow hopped the Pacific to Japan, learned the language, got a visa to stay longer than three months, weaseled your way into a Japanese sushi restaurant, and convinced the chef to hire you on for the purpose of learning his art, you wouldn’t touch a piece of fish for three years. You would cook rice, lots of rice, and you would learn the process to cool it in a big cypress tub with a flat paddle and dress it with rice vinegar, salt, and sugar until it became what the Japanese call shari. Only after having mastered this would you move on to four more years of selecting and butchering fish.
Something tells me that the two guys behind the sushi bar haven’t spent the last seven years in Japan; in fact, they told me as much. The senior chap came to sushi from a stint on a hibachi grill after figuring that “learning sushi was the way to move up.” If he took his talent to Tokyo, they might feed him to some sumo champion, or at least make him learn how to cook rice properly, but in the suburban environs of Charleston, the approach of Koi keeps the tiny strip-mall space packed with large crowds, screaming kids, and the lingering smell of miso and burnt sesame seeds.
Koi can provide a decent meal, if you are smart about what you order. They also run a busy take-out business. This is not fine dining; it’s a typical Asian joint devoid of anyone who looks even remotely Asian, plying the Americanized landscape of sushi. Aim for the seats at the left-hand side of the little sushi bar in the back, bathed in the cool breeze of an oversized air vent and serenaded by the cool trickle of a cheap tabletop cascading fountain. Although you probably don’t have to wear shorts to survive a meal, it can get a bit warm in there, unsettling for a sushi joint. Follow a few basic rules for ordering and you’ll come out fine:
Don’t order the hibachi entrees. Hibachi, or the annoying chop-chop routine at the heart of every “Japanese” steakhouse in town, is rarely any good when the little showman makes it right there in front of you, let alone when some guy flips your food behind the wizard’s curtain. If you sit in a place and smell the stench of burnt sesame seeds, don’t order from the flattop.
Stay away from the tempura. If you want great tempura, go down to Shi Ki next to the Blockbuster on East Bay Street, where the sweet potatoes and fresh asparagus come with an ethereal crust unlike any of the doughy, overwrought stuff caking the whole broccoli tops at Koi. Even the best Japanese places often have trouble serving great tempura, it’s a delicate art — and not one prone to success in a budget joint.
Embrace the sushi and go with the ethnic flow, but be careful. Messing with these Latino boys could leave you a burning heap of hibachi grill char on the pale gray carpet. They have a propensity for heat and wasabi in a very un-Japanese sense. Forget the subtle balance of the fish’s umami with the salty, sour, sweet, and bitter. They will blow your head off — like when they run out of salmon roe. Check your sushi or the little jokester might have served you some gunkan-maki (battleship sushi) with an oversized powder keg below. In my case, the “substitute” for the soft, salty salmon egg was a flying fish roe that had been soaked in faux wasabi (horseradish paste dyed green). The effect of inattentively downing the whole thing in one bite almost sent me to the mat. Sushi at Koi, I decided, was a contact sport, very American indeed.
Their rice tends toward mushiness (most likely improper cooling) and the surprising absence of any wasabi beneath the nigiri-sushi (fish over rice) or within the maki-sushi (rolls) can make for some bland stuff. The tekka-maki (salmon roll $4.50) needs a kick, and I’m sure that the boys will oblige in the future. The more successful dishes take the heat and run with it, while eschewing the rice. My favorite was the Sashimi Spicy Tuna ($7.50), a large roll that replaces the rice with cucumber, wrapped beside some chopped spicy tuna in a classic nori (black seaweed) sheet, and then envelops the whole thing in another layer of sashimi tuna. It is poorly rolled, almost falling apart on the plate, but ingeniously (and judiciously) hit with a liberal sprinkling of hot chile and served with a sly smile.
I’m intrigued by such experiments. I think we need more places like Koi, and to hell with everything having to be some kind of ultra-snazzy, über-authentic, nose-in-the-air panorama, or plastic simulacra replete with fortune cookies, cooks dressed like 19th-century samurai warriors, and flaming onion towers.
Koi is different and, like a multi-ethnic swizzle stick, has the potential to stir the pot. I hope they go further. I want sushi tacos on soft tortillas with sprinkles of nori and crunchy tempura crumbs, fried quail eggs (which they already offer) on top of steamed fish cakes with a spicy tomato chutney, udon noodles with chicken and hominy, perhaps a bit of tripe thrown in there, too. Unless they’re going to send their chefs to Japan, they aren’t going to beat the natives at their own game — they’d better push forward with what they’ve got.