I was in college the first time I tried sushi. I'll never forget the sinus explosion and watery eyes brought on by my first hit of wasabi. I was hooked.
The early buzz on Yoo Mae, downtown's newest sushi joint, was rockin' sushi and huge lunch specials. Needless to say, I had to see for myself.
The Yoo Mae logo, painted boldly onto the front windows, inhibits people-watching but doesn't stop the restaurant from being well-lit. Bamboo trim lines the walls and ceiling, and a large U.S. map hangs next to the small sushi bar. (More on that later.)
A friend and I both opted for the Bento Lunch Box ($6.50), a unagi roll (eel, for $5.50) and gyoza (pork dumplings, for $3.50). The gyoza arrived nicely steamed and, we agreed, perfectly browned, with a sauce that offered a spicy kick. While the unagi was beautifully presented and sweetly delicious, my friend thought the pieces were a little big for her taste. Not an issue for me.
The Bento held a salad, tempura, a couple of pieces of California roll and a choice of meat and rice. My ribbons of beef, drizzled with teriyaki sauce, were well-cooked but appeared a little gray in color. I couldn't help but envy my friend's chicken, which had an appealing char, yet was divinely juicy. And although the tempura could have been lighter, you couldn't beat this deal.
On my next visit, I brought my husband. He normally inhales sushi, and I believe if allowed, would gladly trade the chopsticks for a child's sandbox shovel.
The small sushi bar is where chef JJ Kim holds court. As we made our selections, another diner asked JJ, as he likes to be called, if he could make something extra hot.
"I can, but you can't sue me!" he responded.
JJ, originally from Korea, trained in Japan and worked on both U.S. coasts before landing in Colorado Springs 3 years ago. (He previously worked at Fujiyama.) He was pleased to share that Yoo Mae means "dream," and asserted that sushi is not fast food; it is to be savored.
We ordered the baked green mussels ($8.50), salmon ($3.50), sea eel ($4.99) and tuna ($3.50).
My usual sushi pet peeve is the rice being so big as to fight for dominance on the palate. This is far from the case at Yoo Mae. The fish is the star. And recognizing my need to try something new, JJ introduced me to Super White Tuna ($3.99), which is actually escolar (but called tuna for some reason) and has a similar taste with an almost creamy finish. A new favorite.
The restaurant promotes a friendly vibe, and after sharing our mussels (which were covered in Japanese mayonnaise mixed with smelt eggs and baked to bubbly perfection) with a couple of local tattoo artists waiting for a to-go order, I was repaid by another couple sitting nearby. They offered a piece of JJ's daily special, an Alabama roll, comprised of crab topped with spicy tuna, tempura crunch and seaweed strands: a beautiful combination of flavors. JJ aims to name a roll after every state hence the large map of America.
While excited by a menu that's an ever-growing work in progress, I hold out one hope: That with more people out in the warmer weather, Yoo Mae will uncover the windows and let them see what they're missing.
Yoo Mae Japanese Cuisine and Sushi Bar
21 E. Kiowa St., 473-8105
Hours: Monday-Friday, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5-9 p.m.; Saturday, 5-10 p.m.