If you’ve eaten sushi before, you generally know what to expect: raw seafood and, uh, rice? Truthfully there’s so much more to it than that, but that’s the average restaurant patron’s take. So then, what makes the difference between this place and that place and the other? It all comes down to the quality of these two components and the execution in putting them together tastefully.
For those of you that are uninitiated, there are two restaurants, or perhaps schools of thought, when it comes to getting sushi on Franklin St. in Chapel Hill: the Spicy 9 and the Kurama. The Kurama fan appreciates the beauty in a simple thing done correctly. The Spicy 9 fan craves complexity and innovation and always asks for more (don’t worry, you’ll understand these cryptic descriptions soon enough). I won’t lie to you, I am typically of the Kurama mindset and if you had asked me which restaurant I prefer before the 28th of March, I would have instantly answered with Kurama. However, I dined at Spicy 9 on that evening, and now my faith is shaken. Here’s why:
My date and I split the “Pick and Roll” and the “Stop Drop and Roll” (~$15 for 8 pieces, but they are buy one, get one free), as well as the “Rolls Combo” featuring tuna and salmon rolls alongside a California roll ($11 for 20 total pieces). The “Stop Drop and Roll” was filled with fried soft-shell crab, avocado, and cucumber, then topped with a big strip of tuna and drizzled with eel sauce and spicy Japanese-style mayonnaise. The “Pick and Roll” featured tuna, salmon, hamachi (yellowtail), asparagus, and scallion, topped with crunchy tempura flakes and eel sauce. I also had a Kirin Ichiban on draft ($4).
Firstly, the rice here is good if unremarkable. As ridiculous as it feels to type out flowing descriptions of white rice, the minimal number of ingredients in sushi means that each must be perfect. Spicy 9’s rice has obvious flavor but does not overpower, and its texture is solid but tends towards over rather than undercooked. Fortunately it is not gummy or sticky, and instead mushes slightly more than I would call ‘perfect.’ I don’t have a ton of high-end sushi experience, but I do know that sushi is more satisfying when you can chew and notice and taste the individual rice grains in your bite. The temperature of the rice, however, was perfect: experts seem to agree that body temperature is just about right and Spicy 9 nailed it.
The biggest surprises of the night for me were the simple rolls, and let me bore you with why: my previous meals at Spicy 9 have been good, but I have a bad habit of letting my preconceptions of a restaurant interfere with what I’m tasting. I have this negative attitude towards “American” sushi, where every roll is topped with 10 different things so that you can hardly taste what you’re eating, and before this meal I had basically written Spicy 9 off as an American sushi place. However, that doesn’t mean that I should hold it against them, as the tuna and salmon here were as good as any I’ve had in NC. And you could actually taste the sweetness of the crab in the California roll! Any and all bias I had against Spicy 9 was unfounded once I could taste that their ingredients were high quality, as I could with their tuna, salmon, and California rolls.
The “Stop Drop and Roll” was a great example of a roll that manages to balance the American tons-of-toppings approach to sushi with its delicate Japanese origins. Each component was noticeable and unique, from the crispy crab and cucumber progressing to the smooth avocado, and the big chunks of tuna topping the roll meant its awesome flavor was always present as I chewed. The “Pick and Roll” was a bit of a contrast, in that the roll’s sheer quantity of additions seemed to muddle all of their flavors. The hamachi in particular was delicious, but it was difficult to discern in some bites. Plus, the tempura flake topping was tough to actually balance on the roll. While I thought the “Stop Drop” was a must-try, I thought the “Pick and Roll” was a little ineffective.
Spicy 9 is an affordable and accessible restaurant. While they specialize in sushi, they have just about any quintessential Asian-American dish on the menu as well. Their low-key atmosphere supports date nights as well as catching UNC games at the bar. Whether you are a sushi beginner or know your way around raw fish, Spicy 9 is sure to satisfy. I’m looking forward to returning to Kurama, the other restaurant/school of thought soon as well, so I can’t wait to compare the two with fresh eyes and fresh taste buds.
Nathan Griesedieck is a UNC-Chapel Hill graduate and Raleigh native who works in the transfusion service at Duke University Medical Center in Durham – a true-blue Triangle foodie in every sense of the word(s). He spends most of his downtime either learning and thinking about food, or in his (tiny) kitchen making it for his girlfriend and best friend, Sarah. You can find him on Instagram (@n8greasy).