The economy is in horrendous shape, and redevelopment funding is in serious jeopardy. Despite all of that, downtown Tucson is showing more life than it has in decades. Go figure.
Food-wise, downtown is now home to one of the best concentrations of restaurants anywhere in the city, with old favorites (the Cup Café, the Barrio, Café Poca Cosa, etc.) being joined by a number of quality newer restaurants and coffee shops. However, Asian food was missing from the mix--until On a Roll finally celebrated its much-delayed opening in September.
In the three-plus months that have followed, On a Roll has become one of downtown's most popular places to dine. Every time I've walked by, the place has had a decent crowd. Now that I've dined several times at On a Roll, I understand its appeal.
Well, at least some of it.
On the upside, the décor is urban, stylish and comfortable (although the music--a mild hip-hop/R&B blend on my visits--can be a bit loud). The food is largely enjoyable, with the fish quality often rivaling Tucson's best. The service is friendly, and the vibe is fun and youthful. Heck, on a recent visit Friday evening, the median age at the almost-full restaurant was probably 25 or so. The menu is comprehensive enough, with some bento-box specials ($9 to $14) offered for lunch.
Then there's On a Roll's smaller, yet notable downside: The friendly service sometimes falls apart, and prices are high.
Consider my first review visit to On a Roll. I was enthusiastically greeted as I walked in the door. After deciding to sit at a table rather than either of the two bars (one a sushi bar, the other of the liquor variety), the server brought me the various menus with a smile. (I had to ask for the drink menu, listing the various beer, wine and sake options; On a Roll also offers a full bar.) I half-perused the menu, and half-watched the college-football bowl game on the TV over the sushi bar, before ultimately deciding to order one appetizer (the wonton tuna tacos, $10), one sushi roll (the crunch roll with shrimp tempura, spicy crab, cucumber, avocado, eel sauce and "tempura crunchies," $12), and four pieces of sushi (two pieces of yellowtail, $6, and two pieces of freshwater eel, $6).
That's a decent amount of food for one chap--and all of it was quite fine. The sushi pieces were top-notch: The yellowtail had a buttery flavor and a soft consistency, and the eel was just fatty enough and not too overwhelmed with sauce. The crunch roll was large and tasty; although the shrimp got lost a bit, the avocado, spicy crab and eel sauce more than made up for it. Finally, the four small wonton tuna tacos--delivered last, because either the server put in the order wrong, or I mismarked the order form (the server took the blame)--were revelatory, with the lightly seared ahi and the piquant, green citrus salsa mixing with a mayonnaise sauce (not noted on the menu) and the perfectly crisp wonton shell to create taste-bud happiness.
It was a good meal, with only a few tiny missteps: I was never even offered miso soup, for example, like I was on my second review visit. My bill, before tax and tip, was $34--and that includes no drinks and no dessert. The dilemma: I can get good all-you-can-eat sushi around town at a number of places for $17.50 to $19.95, so is it worth it to pay almost twice as much for a nicer décor and, in some cases, slightly better sushi offerings?
This dilemma was heightened during my second visit (this time with Garrett), which was not quite as enjoyable as my first. Most of the food was again excellent; for appetizers, the mandu (five wontons stuffed with ground pork, green onion, garlic and ginger and then fried, $8) and spicy tuna poppers (two jalapenos cut in half and stuffed with spicy tuna and cream cheese, before being battered and fried; $8) were splendid; the poppers got extra credit for having a nice, hot kick. Garrett's entrée, the big burger ($12), was impressive: A half-pound of Kobe beef was topped with a tempura onion ring and spicy mayo, put on a kaiser roll and served with some perfectly made sweet-potato fries. However, the tomatoes with the burger were extremely under-ripe and should not have been served, and the accompanying thickened soy sauce masked any flavor it came in contact with and went to waste.
Then there was the sushi. On the plus side: The two pieces of snapper ($5) and salmon-egg sushi ($5.50) were fresh and flavorful. On the minus side: The octopus ($5) was rubber-band-like in consistency and did not seem fresh; Garrett's a big octopus fan, and he was disappointed. Also disappointing: my lollipop roll (a whopping $15): "assorted fresh fish" (in this case, salmon, yellowtail and snapper), shrimp, avocado and a crab mix, wrapped in cucumber and then skewered to look like six lollipops. It looked great, but was shockingly bland: The crab mix, which was supposed to be spicy, had almost no flavor; the cucumber ended up dominating.
We decided to try dessert; they were out of the chocolate flourless cake ($9), so we got the banana roulette (warm bananas in tempura batter, served with some good vanilla ice cream, whipped cream and what tasted like Hershey's chocolate syrup, $7). It was enjoyable, but the other dessert we ordered, the green tea ice cream (a rip-off at $6), was terrible: The three scoops had no flavor and an odd texture; it crumbled when touched with a spoon.
Finally, it took us a good 10 minutes to get our bill settled; the servers seemed overwhelmed as the restaurant approached a capacity crowd.
Overall, I like On a Roll. If you're not there at happy hour (4 to 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. to close), the prices are higher than they should be, and the service--while friendly--suffers from minor, but noticeable lapses. As of now, those factors don't seem to be hurting business--and let's hope that they don't hurt business once the newness wears off, because On a Roll fills a niche in our slowly blooming downtown.