I’ve read good things about El’s on some of the review sites I frequent and have heard from friends as well that it’s worth making a trip to this tiny restaurant. So, today I announced to Nancy that we were heading to El’s for dinner. I figured this would also be a good time to try out our new camera and take some shots of the food.
Located at 2008 – 33rd Ave. SW in trendy Marda Loop, El’s is right across the street from the well known Globefish Sushi & Izakaya. In fact, we first heard of it while enjoying breakfast right next door at Belmont Diner several weeks ago. A person on the sidewalk heard us remark about El’s being so close to Globefish and said that they did a good job of picking up the leftover business from across the street just like Belmont did with Nellie’s. Now that we’ve been to both of these places I can assure you that the customers who dine at these two are in fact going there on purpose and not riding on the coat-tails of other restaurants and taking the leftovers.
I’d phoned earlier in the day and inquired as to when would be a good time to not have to wait in the lines that I’d read would most surely be there during dinner rush. The person, on the other end, informed me that shortly after opening would be good. We arrived at 5:35 and things were just beginning to pick up.
I’d read that El’s was a small place and it really is just that. With only a few tables and a small sushi bar, it must be the smallest Japanese restaurant in town and is dark enough to hold a naked sushi party without being seen. We were greeted by the friendly staff, took a seat and began to look over the menu. There was a chalkboard on one wall that mentioned specials but jokingly informed customers that Chef Mike was being lazy today and had not come up with one. The selection of interesting Maki rolls was something else. We had a very hard time deciding what to try, and since this is a place known for its rolls, we did not delve too far into the Nigiri for this visit.
We had yam tempura to start ($8.95). It was on the table in no time and looked very appealing. It was hot and crisp without too much oil. The batter was not too thick and while not the wonderfully light tempura that can be found elsewhere, it was very tasty and the yam was just right.
We also ordered 4 Maki rolls: the Volcano ($12.95), the Rainbow ($14.95), a Jumbo House roll ($18.95) and, at the recommendation of the server, a Tuna Salad roll ($9.95). To that we added some nigiri, 3 pieces of each Torched Toro ($3.50 ea) and Unagi ($2.50 ea). We’d heard of the large portions El’s served and decided that we did not want to repeat the ugly episode we had several months ago when we were forced to take a fair amount home. Sushi, no matter how wonderful, is not good the next day, and we try very hard to avoid leftovers.
The first roll to arrive at the table was the Tuna Salad maki that had been recommended by our server. We liked the look of the roll and thought the use of Mamenori (Soybean Paper) as a wrapping instead of nori was a pleasant touch and one you don’t see often. The flavor was delicate and fresh. Although we found the vinegar based sauce to be a bit overpowering, it was quite a delicious combination of flavors otherwise. If the sauce was toned down a little, this would be a wonderful roll.
With the exception of the Tuna Salad roll, all of our maki and the 6 pieces of nigiri arrived on a single large plate that was pleasently arranged with a large amount of both gari and seiyo wasabi on the side. It was not the stylized presentation you would find in a full fledged Sushiya but was certainly pleasing to look at.
The Torched Toro nigiri was something that looked interesting to us, and since we both love Toro we thought to give it a try. Basically, it was regular Toro that has been slightly cooked using a kitchen torch. Nancy found that the flavor added by this process was not to her liking and will stick to the standard Toro. I rather enjoyed the mild charring and the way it brought out the fatty flavor of the tuna belly and would order it again. The Unagi was very good, and although not as tender as it could have been, it tasted very fresh and the texture was right. The Meshi (sushi rice) was nicely flavored and neither mushy nor too vinegary, although not quite as delicate tasting as one would find in a quality purpose made Sushiya. I’m glad that El’s takes the time to care about this often overlooked part of the sushi experience.
The Jumbo House roll was quite large as the name suggests and was filled with lots of flavors and textures. Nancy enjoyed this roll, and while I did as well, I do feel it suffers from the same over-complexity plaguing many large multi-ingredient maki rolls. Nonetheless, it was very fresh and full of flavor with a drizzle of wasabi mayo to add a slight kick to the taste and what may have been teriyaki sauce for a bit of sweetness.
The Volcano roll worried Nancy a little due to the heat that the name implied, but she and I both were surprised by the subtle spiciness and sweetness that it turned out to have. I think of the 4 rolls, this was my favorite. I love heat, and despite the sauce in this roll possessing a lack of any real punch, it was a excellent compliment to the fish and I would order it again for that reason alone. I do look forward to the spicier maki that I’ve heard El’s does serve but that will have to wait for the next visit.
The last of the maki we sampled was El’s version of the Rainbow roll. A staple of sushi houses everywhere, this colourful combination of different fish is a very popular item. The one we were served was full of fresh tender fish and stands up to any other we’ve tasted over the years. My only problem was the shrimp tail that was left in the roll by mistake, which caught me by surprise while enjoying my final piece. Nothing major and these things do happen at times.
I’m glad we had the chance to visit El’s and the reviewers are right; this restaurant is a little gem of a place. I hope to return and have the chance to sample more of their nigiri in the future. Although this is not a sushi bar, I’d wager that the rest of the food will prove to be just as good as the dishes we had the pleasure of eating this time round. I just wish I could have enjoyed a beer or some Sake, but alas El’s is not licensed as of yet but if enough customers want it I’m sure the owners will do so in time.
Additional thoughts from Nancy …
I loved this little place. It has a feel of a sandwich shop, not a restaurant, so we ended up sitting in a poorly lit eating area at night with a few folding chairs, wooden chairs, and simple tables. I’m sure in the afternoon, the light would just flood this little restaurant with warmth. Nonetheless, it’s a place where you just drop in for a quick bite to eat, not for a full course dining experience. As for my meal, it started with some bad wooden chopsticks breaking in the wrong places. (That annoyed me!) Fortunately, the rolls were delicious. I love it when I don’t have to dip any of it into soy sauce. Just enjoy the flavors and textures as designed by the chef. I was most surprised by the yam tempura. I can’t tell if it was the batter, the light dipping sauce, or the sweetness of the yam, but something about this appetizer was addictive. I try not to be over the top in my reviews, but I couldn’t get enough of it! Next time I pop over to El’s, I’m going to try their tempura green tea ice cream dessert. Interesting sounding, eh? Deep fried ice cream, I assume. If it is too busy in there, just grab a few rolls and head out to enjoy the sunshine in this funky Marda Loop area. Maybe I can suggest to them to put out some benches or a patio set. Hmm.