Thursday, December 31, 2009

SushiFest - Part IV: A Matter of Convenience

After the surprising upset that 7-Eleven enjoyed during my Char Siu Bao Challenge, I thought we should take a closer look at the unseeming little convenience store.  Actually, I do like taking mainland visitors to 7-Eleven.   The mere fact that they have char siu bao to begin with, is a prime indicator that the 7-Elevens in Hawaii are not anything like their somewhat ghetto counterparts on the mainland.  In fact, from what I understand, our 7-Elevens are run much more like the 7-Elevens in Japan than the ones on the mainland.   This would explain the surprisingly high quality Japanese (and local) convenience store snacks you can easily find at 7-Eleven, including our iconic spam musubi.

Spam Musubi from 7-Eleven
When visitors come from the mainland, I love taking them to 7-Eleven, just to unhinge their notion of what a convenience store can be.   Ours are clean, well stocked, and not the magnet for muggings and robberies that the ones on the mainland are.   Instead of ancient hot dogs that have been rotating on their warmers for and inestimable amount of time, the products we have are usually made fresh that day, with a timestamp to prove it.   Sure there are familiar favorites, like Slurpees.   But there is a wide variety of dim sum, musubi's, sushi, and crack seed.   The best part of course is being able to get any of these items, at any time of the day.   When hanging out with my friend Erich in college, we would often make 1AM Jones Soda runs, frequently in remote parts of the island, just to enjoy our availability to do so.  

Admittedly, I love a Slurpee as much as the next guy.  In fact, when I was little, I generally liked Slurpees better than Icees.   As great, as a strawberry / coke mixed icee was, the air to liquid ratio in an icee always yielded a product that was just a little too insubstantive for my taste.   By that reasoning, I always preferred the slushies over at the Jolly Roger in Kahala (where Kahala Zippy's is now), to either Slurpees or Icees, especially the grape slush floats.   Mixing the vanilla ice cream with purple slushie created a beautifully thick lavendar drink that was as creamy as it was icy, and the blending of those textures was always so provocotive to me.  However, since Jolly Roger closed many years ago, the Slurpee is a worthwhile replacement.   Indeed, the there have existed many more flavors of Slurpee than any of the others, including lychee, pina colada, and banana.  

Okinawan Sweet Potato Manapua from 7-Eleven
What makes our 7-Elevens so interesting however, is not the Slurpee that can be found anywhere, but the plethora of local food they serve.   I've discussed how a spam and egg musubi make a terrific breakfast on the run.  Their redondo's hot dog musubi and lup cheong manapua are far more local representations of the hot dog than a Big Bite.   In fact, in addition to the basic manapua, which was surprisingly well received by the manapua taste testers at my mom's office, they've got a wide assortment of manapua fillings.  My wife is particularly fond of the somewhat elusive, Okinawan sweet potoato manapua, with it's sweet, creamy, purple filling that has just the perfect smooth texture.   But the one local snack item that 7-eleven does particularly well, is their sushi hand rolls.

Sushi from 7-Eleven
Surprisingly, I like the sushi hand rolls at 7-Eleven better than just about any temaki sushi, at even the most exclusive sushi restaurants.   Just what makes them so good?   It's the rather ingenious way of wrapping the rice and the nori separately while it is sitting in their refrigerated display.   Like the McDLT, which was famous for keeping the "hot side hot and the cold side cold", keeping the rice and nori separate insures that the nori stays crispy.  Let's face it, from the moment the sushi chef touches the nori to the rice, it begins to get soggy.  It depreciates even faster than a brand new car.   But this is brilliantly minimized by the sushi wrapping system at 7-Eleven.

Unwrapping Sushi from 7-Eleven
To open a sushi from 7-Eleven, you first break the seal on the side.  Then unroll the nori, exposing the rice which is wrapped in the inner cellophane.  Then, you peel back the inner cellophane to expose the nori envelope.  Finally, you roll the rice yourself into the waiting nori, and lift it off of the outer cellophane.  Whoever designed this system was a packaging genius.  The very first bite into the handroll, as your teeth puncture the nori and sink into the rice below, is almost like having your friend hold up a sheet of paper while you punch holes through it with your fingers.  It yields the most incredibly satisfying crunch, that no other sushi has anywhere.  The only thing I have to worry about is my cats, who are adore the nori even more than I do.  From the moment I break the seal on the outer cellophane, they appear out of nowhere and instantly shove their faces into mine, hoping for a bite.

Sushi from 7-Eleven
The rice is also nothing like what you'd expect from a convenience store sushi.   Sitting in a refrigeration unit all day, you'd expect the rice to get cold and hard.   But somehow, the units are at exactly the right temperature, that while the rice is chilled, it never gets hard.  It is still perfectly soft rice (softer than some room temperature rice at other sushi restaurants I know of), with just a subtle hint of the sushi vinegar (not nearly as overpoweringly sour as other sushi restaurants I know of).   With good rice and good nori, the sushi is just superb.

Sushi from 7-Eleven
7-Eleven also has a great variety hand rolls to choose from.  My favorite is their classic tuna salad with cucumber.   I would rather have this than any tuna sandwich any day.   They also have a nice salmon salad and a crab & avocado California roll that comprise their core line-up.   However, in addition to their regular triumvirate, I have seen flavors like shoyu tuna, spicy tuna, konbu, kalbi, bbq chicken, wasabi tuna, and many other special, transient offerings.

Ito En Oi Ocha Green Tea from 7-Eleven
Of course to wash down all of this sushi, a Slurpee just wouldn't do.   But again, 7-Eleven offers up an appropriate accompaniment.  They have a wide assortment of the yummy drinks from Ito En.  The different local fruit flavors of Ito En's Aloha Maid, like guava and passion orange, are classic island favorites.   You wouldn't even want to drink a Starbucks's Frappuccino bottle after tasting Ito En's Royal Mills Iced Cappuccino.  There's not even a comparison, the Iced Capps knock the Frapps completely out of the ballpark.   But to accompany the yummy sushi, it's got to be Ito En's Oi Ocha green tea.   Although, it's available at 7-Eleven, I have to buy their green tea by the caseload from Costco.  It has such a nice, perfectly balanced roasted tea flavor that is just so refreshing and easy to drink when chilled, I go through it like water.

Sushi from 7-Eleven
7-Elevens in Hawaii really are a unexpected find when it comes to local food.   What you'd think is a matter of convenience, really becomes a matter of local pride.

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