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Street Food and the Sea

Umi Star has a cool space and great cocktails,but needs to learn to chill on the condiments

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The current street food movement reminds me a lot of the fusion cuisine movement of the '90s. It started out as a great thing, and then was largely (and often poorly) overdone by masses of well-intentioned chefs trying to hop on the bandwagon of the latest and greatest food movement. Eventually, it became just another everyday part of our culinary lexicon. When Chili's is serving Southwestern egg rolls, you know fusion cuisine is no longer a movement.

Thankfully, I have yet to see street tacos or some horribly bastardized version of Sonoran hot dogs on the menu at Applebee's (though I'm sure they're probably coming soon). However, in my experience, street food is better from street vendors than from restaurants. Tucson's latest Asian street food-style restaurant, Umi Star, does a relatively good job replicating the experience, but has some relatively serious roadblocks to overcome.

Umi Star (umi means "sea" in Japanese) is a very cool space. And by cool, I mean it's got that "Ooooh, neat!" factor. However, it's also very austere, cold and warehouselike. The Umi Star folks took over the former Cartel coffee shop space—on the Campbell Avenue corridor between Grant Road and Glenn Street—and turned the big, open, glass-and-concrete coffee shop into a big, open, glass-and-concrete restaurant. Parking is terrible, although the seating is ample, though less than comfortable.

Umi Star has a super-small selection of beers and sakes. The cocktail menu is where you should spend your time. All of the cocktails are $8 ($6 during happy hour, weekdays from 5 to 7 p.m.) and there is a nice range of options, from sweet to refreshing. The owners obviously take pride in their cocktails, and they should. The Smokey Pistola and the Dublin Donkey Punch were particularly fantastic.

We picked a smattering of sushi on our first visit—the menu is about half sushi and half tapas-like items. The spicy lobster roll (eight pieces for $10, or $8 during happy hour) came out first along with the sushi burrito (two larger pieces for $6). The lobster roll was not spicy at all. In fact, it was completely bland. I'm not sure if they forgot to put in the chili plum soy sauce, or if there was so little that the flavor was undetectable. But the cucumber, avocado, lobster and tempura flakes gave the roll a nice contrast of textures.

The sushi burrito was tasty, but way too heavy on the cream cheese and cucumber. And there wasn't nearly enough crab or shrimp tempura. The "sushi salsa" was a nice addition, giving a much-needed kick to counteract all of that cream cheese. Just as Ted and I were finishing off the two rolls, our server delivered some escolar nigiri ($6), and informed us that they had run out of the Spanish mackerel nigiri we had ordered ($6). So I decided on some tuna nigiri ($6) instead. Moments later, the server dropped off a yellowtail nigiri ($6), which was actually ordered as yellowtail sashimi ($14).

I've definitely had better sushi in Tucson. It wasn't terrible, but the fish was sliced far too thin, so the balance of rice and fish was way off. The tuna seemed fresh enough, but the escolar had a definite tinge of fishiness. The yellowtail sashimi (once it finally arrived, after we had finished everything else) was fresh but the pieces were awkwardly thick. At the end of the meal, our server delivered the spicy edamame ($4, or $2 during happy hour) with chili paste and brown sugar. It was messy to eat but tasty enough. And it would have been nice to have had it at the beginning of the meal while we were waiting for our sushi to arrive.

My second visit suffered from many of the same issues as on the first. My friend Grace, visiting from Chicago, and I decided to go for the tapas-style menu items, so we ordered a laundry list of dishes. I was positive it was going to be too much food for two people, but the portions all ended up being quite small.

The sushi bruschetta ($8 for four pieces) was the first to arrive at our table, and it was by far the best dish that we ordered. The crostini were herbed with a faint blue cheese taste, and topped with a small tower of finely diced bigeye tuna and a squirt of aioli. They were absolutely delicious, and quickly devoured. Hot dogs ($6 each) and Asian street tacos ($6 for two tacos, $5 during happy hour) appeared at our table next, though I would have preferred the edamame hummus ($4) or the smoked eel ($9) before the tacos and hot dogs.

The tacos were unimpressive and were swimming in aioli, which overpowered the cucumber, ginger cabbage slaw and the meat. The chicken was moist and had decent flavor, but the beef tri-tip was bland and chewy. The hot dogs fared a bit better. The "Ned" beef dog was overpowered by way too much spicy mustard, but I enjoyed the textures of the fried onions and shredded nori. I thought the "Rhyno" pork dog was delightful and playful, with basil aioli and a pickled veggie mix with carrots, onions and radishes that was topped with cilantro. But Grace wasn't a fan of the basil aioli in the blend.

Our meal ended with the edamame hummus and the smoked eel. The menu said the hummus came with taro fries and wonton chips, but ours came with just four wonton chips, which weren't enough for the hummus, which we both found to be quite boring. We ended on a high note with the smoked eel, which consisted of four or five eel pieces topped with whipped avocado, goat cheese, a candied macadamia nut and fruit puree. It was delicious, though nearly impossible to eat with fingers or chopsticks. And apparently they don't keep any forks on hand ... I think that disqualifies it as street food.

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