Feeling fishy
Our food writer 'takes one for the team' on a tour of Durango's sushi

Feeling fishy

Mmmmm... nigiri at East by Southwest./ Photo by Sinjin Eberle

Sinjin Eberle - 04/07/2022

Opinions about sushi range from rank repulsion (Raw fish? Disgusting!) to absolute obsession. Having grown up on a farm in a small, western Colorado town, my opinions about sushi did not take shape until after college when I was living in Albuquerque. My more “cultured” friends coaxed me away from familiar burgers and green chile enchiladas to Asian-inspired restaurants. Gradually, I became bolder, learning what I liked, and, quite honestly, what I was scared to try (salmon roe, no thanks!). Then I moved to Denver and got to dine at the likes of Sushi Den, its sister restaurant Izakaya Den, and Sushi Sasa. I was hooked. When I traveled to coastal cities – Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Portland – I would seek out their top-notch sushi establishments. 

Now, my mouth waters when I think of the silky, delicate texture of perfectly prepared raw tuna, yellowtail or salmon, laid on a soft pillow of rice with just a dip of soy and wasabi. Assuming the ingredients are fresh, sushi is the pinnacle of taking simple components and combining them in beautiful, flavorful and healthy meals. The umami (yeah, say it: “oooo-mommy!”) punch to the tastebuds can be addicting.

When I moved to Durango in 2013, I found the sushi options here leaner than in larger cities, but not disappointing. The newest arrival to our sushi scene was brought to my attention last month when my girlfriend brought home ramen and poke bowls from Akami Poke and Noodle Bar, in the Albertson’s parking lot. After devouring both delicious bowls, I hatched the idea of a Durango sushi tour for a Telegraph column. I know – it’s a hard life being a food writer! For the tour, I would sample dishes from each place, but then try a common denominator – the ubiquitous spicy tuna roll, an obvious choice. Game on!

Akami opened in 2021 as a food truck but is now located at 309 W. College Dr. Walking in at lunchtime, I was struck by the prompt, engaged greeting I got and the clean, orderly layout of the dining room. That day, the patio was too cold, but it should be great in spring. The menu is posted on a board above the kitchen, and you can see the staff hustling in the back as orders come in. Since I already tried one of their awesome ramen bowls (shoyu ramen with pork belly, egg and vegetables) and a crave-able poke san bowl (tuna, salmon, crab and veggies), I went for appetizers – shrimp shumai steamed dumplings, crispy veggie egg rolls with a sweet chili sauce, and the requisite spicy tuna roll. The shrimp and fish were fresh, vibrant and firm. I especially liked the shrimp shumai, with a steamed cabbage base. The spicy tuna roll had just the right spice level for a heat wimp like me.

On the other end of downtown is Rice Monkeys, a fast casual concept for sushi, rolls, and noodle and ramen bowls that opened in 2012 in the 1000 block of Main Ave. The space is small and intimate with additional outdoor seating provided by the seasonal bump-outs. I’ve probably had more ramen and rice bowls from Rice Monkeys than all other places in my life combined; they are always hot, fresh and satisfying. The fish is great and the staff energetic and friendly. Unique to Rice Monkeys is their amazing pho bowls. The flavors in the dark meat ginger chicken pho literally jump out of the bowl. Their spicy tuna roll has cucumber, avocado and Japanese 7 spice.

In 2017, the owners of Rice Monkeys created Pop Sushi to give Durango diners a more expansive and traditional restaurant experience. Since opening on Florida Road, Pop Sushi has been my frequent choice, with plenty of nights either sitting at the bar with the sushi chefs, at a table with friends, or out on the patio. The menu features a variety of rolls and a wide selection of fish for nigiri (raw fish over rice) and sashimi (naked, sliced fish), always fresh and artfully prepared. They have a small selection of poke and ramen bowls, but the selection of maki (rolls) is the star of the menu. It keeps choices interesting over time for sushi newbies and seasoned pros. The spicy tuna maki packs a little more heat,  but not over the top. Pop’s presentation of this classic is artistic and refined. The bar is well stocked and excellently tended, with arguably the best sake selection in town.

East by Southwest on College and E. 2nd Ave. is a Durango icon. On a recent Saturday night, the dining room was bustling, with both the cocktail and sushi bar nearly full. Taking my seat at the sushi bar, I was greeted immediately by a friendly, playful server who was on top of everything I needed as was the sushi chef across from me. I ordered a selection of nigiri – yellowtail, tuna, salmon and octopus, along with pork dumplings and my spicy tuna roll. The fish was great, as it always is, but what really set the meal apart was the crisp, elegant presentation of the meal and the quality of the rice. In sushi, the rice is one of the hardest parts to get right. Chefs may toil for years over rice before they even touch a knife. At “East By,” as it’s known to locals, the rice’s flavor is prominent, and its texture fresh and succulent. Next level! I’m not sure how they do it – perhaps a little more mirin (a low-alcohol, sweeter sake) or a bit of vinegar? I’ll have to ask their secret next time.

It may surprise you that a sushi-loving foodie like me could be so delighted by the offerings in our land-locked mountain town. Whether you crave poke over rice or raw fish or varieties of rolls, Durango is lucky to have four great establishments. Get out there, and try something new!

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