Country of origin: UK
Locations worldwide: 39 in the UK and US
NYC locations: One, in Times Square
Wasabi is just one of the latest imports to plop down near Times Square, yet despite the emphasis on Japanese food, the UK chain has more in common with nearby get-em-in-get-em-out Wok to Walk than Ootoya, an oasis in the neighborhood scrum.
Wasabi's selling point is individually wrapped pieces of sushi, which yes, kind of goes against the traditional a la minute ethos. Then again, it's not quite vending machine-level either (though that would probably win novelty points). Most office workers aren't seeking out omakase on their lunch breaks, and this operation is very much geared toward that harried audience—I know, because I work just one block away and the crowds were so thick on Wasabi's second week in business that I could barely squeeze in the door, let alone snap human-free photos.
It's easy to see why it's so popular. You get to pick and choose rolls from a shelf, similar to the tongs-and-trays approach of many Chinese and Korean bakeries—taking what you like, ignoring what you don't—and the prices are pretty cheap for the neighborhood, as low as 75 cents for two cucumber hosomaki to $3.50 for as many hamachi nigiri.
Salmon (two for $2) and Tuna (2 for $2.50) nigiri were serviceable, and the rice was well-seasoned with sweetened vinegar and surprisingly non-mushy for having been sealed in plastic. One benefit to the lunch mobs is the constant turnover with racks of sushi frequently being replaced.
There's no harm in going less traditional with poultry-centric futomaki like the Chicken Katsu and Teriyaki (two for $2).
You can also choose a hefty, vegetarian Gunkan topped with seaweed salad (two for $2.50) or the ika salad (two for $3.50), which combines squid and bamboo shoots in a sweet gingery soy dressing.
Noodle soups are also an option, and for the time being more weather-appropriate. Spicy Chicken ($4.95) has a tart Sriracha heat, which is the predominate flavor because the broth is a little wan, and is packed with spinach, bok choy and skinny rice noodles that the menu refers to as soumen but aren't somen at all.
Perhaps due to the packaging, the sushi feels more like snacks. The real value may lie in the bento boxes—if you can get one. I went closer to 2 p.m. on one visit to avoid the rush but that meant only chicken teriyaki was left. A second time, chicken teriyaki was once again the only choice so I acquiesced, grabbing it and getting in line. Of course, that's when the pork and chicken katsu, both naked and bathed in Japanese curry, were replenished. At that point, it seemed like poor line etiquette to swap.
Not that there's anything wrong with chicken teriyaki, plus it's a good amount of food for $7.95. The seared chunks of thigh meat sit on a pile of sautéed cabbage and edamame with a few weird little nuggets woven in that look like chicken but are actually potato. Tiny pickle coins are tucked into the corner. The sauce isn't as salty or sweet as you might expect from a glaze, and taken in conjunction with the purple rice, the meal projects unexpected healthiness, a plus or a minus depending on whether you prefer your fast food austere or junky.
About the author: Krista Garcia is a freelance writer and reformed librarian. Being obsessed with chain restaurants and Southeast Asian food, she would have no problem eating laska in Elmhurst and P.F. Chang's crab rangoon in New Jersey on the same day. She blogs at Goodies First.