By LINDSAY SAKRAIDA
To a foodie, the news that the owners of Sogo Sushi on Monmouth Street spent four years preparing for the opening of their new restaurant wouldn’t be terribly surprising.
After all, there are so many factors to consider, not the least of which is, well, the menu.
But it might astonish even diehard gourmets to learn that Sogo owners Irving and Saufen Chen devoted most of those four years to the perfection of just one item: brown rice.
They had a good excuse. Brown rice sushi is a very tricky staple, indeed.
“Most restaurants have failed at brown rice sushi because it’s hard to make, and people only buy a little and don’t always like it,” says Irving.
The biggest problem is that traditional preparation methods leave brown rice either too smushy or filled with a crunchy center.
But Sogo Sushi performs a neat balancing act with its rice, allowing it to be delicate yet firm. An experienced restaurant manager, Saufen spent the aforementioned four years experimenting to get the rice just right.
Why the obsession? Brown rice is far better for you than white, much as wheat bread is better than white. There are many more fibers and more nutrition left in the grain when it isn’t refined within an ounce of its life. And it doesn’t break down into loads of blood sugar like white, as illustrated by a story Irving is fond of telling.
“[I know] a chef with diabetes, and she didn’t have sushi for like ten years, because every time she ate white rice sushi, her sugar count would go right up,” he says. “But when she had the brown rice sushi, her sugar count didn’t change at all.”
Still, the Chens know they’re dealing with a product of dicey repute.
“Some customers are afraid to try it,” Irving says. “Maybe they tried it some other place, and they didn’t like it. But if they’re willing to try [our version], they will love it, because it’s totally different.”
To conquer that reluctance, Saufen is known to reel in the wary with a free sample. At her suggestion, we tried the sunshine roll crab wrapped in salmon and lemon and found it an excellent place to start.
Of course, nobody eats sushi for the rice alone. Chef Gaoxue Yan has spent seven years in sushi preparation, and the variety of rolls demonstrates his skill. Of particular note are the startlingly flavorful vegetarian options, such as the avocado, spinach, and asparagus roll, which present a wonderful array of textures.
The produce is mostly local, coming directly from Sickles Market “you can control the quality because you look at it and know it’s good,” says Irving and the fish is always fresh.
Despite the general public resistance to brown rice, Sogo Sushi has been thriving, the Chens say, perhaps due to a sizable population of health-conscious Monmouth county inhabitants. In fact, the restaurant is doing so well that the Chen’s are convinced they will move from their primary entrepreneurial endeavor a computer networking store to open another restaurant soon, much larger than the flagship store, which has a handful of chairs and caters mostly to take-out purchases.
Also, in a few months, customers will be able to order online, a service Chen hopes commuters will use for convenient pick-up when they step off the train or bus en route to their homes.
The restaurant is modest and easy to overlook, but it plays to no pretension, letting the the food speak for itself. It’s a healthy alternative that, unlike so much of its ilk, doesn’t taste like one.
“People say it’s risky because we don’t have white rice,” Irving says. “But maybe it’s time to change people’s attitude.”