Conveyor belt sushi, Fat Fish, Los Angeles

One of my earliest food memories is of my grandpa and dad taking me to the Automat in New York City. Single servings from tuna sandwiches to cheesecake sat on individual plates behind tiny glass doors along a wall that seemed, to my four-year-old eyes, impossibly long. You put in coins in the slot next to each item, pulled the door open and took your dish.

Well, it’s a new millennium, and it’s LA, and that means conveyor belt sushi. Chefs prepare and plate cuts of sushi, then place them on a slow-moving conveyor belt reaching every seat. Patrons take the plates they like, color-coded so you know that, for example, the pink plate costs $5.

Conveyor belt sushi (aka. kaiten sushi in Japan and “sushi train” in Australia) was invented in Osaka in 1958, and for most of the time since it was considered a fun and inexpensive – if somewhat low rent – way to eat. Its popularity exploded after the bursting of the Japanese economic bubble in the 1990s, and it’s now gaining traction in the US.

Several restaurants around LA serve it, including in expected neighborhoods like Little Tokyo and Sawtelle Boulevard in West LA. At Fat Fish in Koreatown, the sushi isn’t for purists, and I find it hit or miss depending on the craft and creativity of the chef. Selections range from basic nigiri sushi (plain fish on rice), to deep fried nigiri topped with spicy tuna, to California rolls with salmon draped over the top and drizzled with spicy mayo and teriyaki sauce. Green salad, seaweed salad and Vietnamese spring rolls might also go by. In other words: some of it wouldn’t be recognized as sushi in Japan.

Still, Fat Fish is usually lively and quick, and did I mention inexpensive? From 5:30pm-7pm, all plates are half-off the color-coded price. It’s even cheaper ($2 per plate) during happy hour from 7pm onward. There’s also a Fat Fish in West Hollywood, but no conveyor belt.

Lest sushi in Koreatown sound like an oxymoron, sushi is big in Korea too, and it often feels to me that more sushi restaurants in LA are run by Koreans than by Japanese.