Enrique Vasquez, a second-year biology major, jumped at the thought of creating his own sushi roll — consisting of raw salmon, carrot and avocado — at Sushi by Panda Express, a subdivision of one of the largest fast food chains in the nation, which has replaced UCR’s Honor Roll Sushi Cafe. Thursday, Sept. 26 marked the grand opening of the new eatery, according to a press release.

“(The sushi) is decent, but it’s not great,” said Vasquez. “Of course they’re trying to make it to feed plenty. I mean, for the Highlander Union Building (HUB), I guess (the pricing’s) what it’s supposed to be.”

Campus officials reported that the closing of the university-owned establishment was the result of greater desire for specialization in the Asian culinary field. “(Honor Roll) never offered sushi, we only had rolls … we can’t produce like Panda (Express),” replied UCR Director of Retail Dining Duane Gornicki. “We don’t have the expertise.”

Making its exit on Sept. 19, Honor Roll offered a select pantry of sushi rolls, with specialty varieties such as smoked salmon, along with pre-packaged rolls as a “to-go” option. To clarify the distinction, sushi is known as a type of Japanese cuisine with raw fish on a bed of rice, as opposed to sushi rolls, which involves cooked or uncooked fish bundled with both vegetables and rice.

After signing a contract with Panda Express, Gornicki responded that, “The menu expanded 25 to 50 percent from what we did (and) most importantly, they offer different combinations of rolls and actual sushi.”

With the new introduction of boba tea drinks — milk, green and Thai — and other unique sides, such as miso soup and edamame, the Pasadena-based company has strengthened its campus presence by creating a second location at UCR.

Launched in 1973, the Panda Restaurant Group Inc. has 1,500 locations with 20,000 employees spanning across 42 states and Puerto Rico. The corporation owns Panda Inn, Panda Express and Hibachi-San.

“At Panda, we do have another concept: Habachi-san, it’s a Japanese grill concept,” said Panda Express’ Regional Director of Operations Calvin Lee about the inspiration for Sushi. “Only like 10 (Panda Express) locations sell sushi, so when we just saw an opportunity (to expand), we took it.”

Lee reports that Sushi by Panda Express currently exists on many California campuses as a preliminary trial for their new cuisine. Other sister universities in the system, such as UC San Diego, are also home to the nascent chain, which offers a wide menu selection of fresh fish such as salmon, spicy tuna and unagi. The company also offers freshly-packaged sushi and sushi roll options, such as the California, sunrise and rainbow rolls.

But what differentiates Sushi by Panda Express from Honor Roll, according to Lee, is the mechanism through which the rolls are produced. A type of “assembly-style line” consisting of student employees, staff and sushi chefs allows customers greater customization of their rolls.

“Some people don’t like cucumbers, but if you order a typical roll, then it’ll have cucumbers. There’s not much to substitute, so we brought in cream cheese, jalapenos, asparagus,(etc.),” says Lee.

UCR holds the first Sushi by Panda Express to allow a “create your own rolls” option, compared to other locations, which serve solely on a “grab and go” basis. The option allows students to choose one type of raw fish — tuna, salmon, eel or crab — along with up to three types of vegetables, including, but not limited to, avocado, carrot and cucumber. A set menu is provided for grab-and-go packages.

Students such as second-year Shawn Stallworth opted for the existing Panda Express as a more “familiar” option. In reaction to the new restaurant, he said “I didn’t know they switched over (to Panda Express) until you told me. I’ve tried Honor Roll, it was good (and) didn’t taste cheap,” said Stallworth. “I mean, change can be good (but) you come to the HUB to try a bunch of different things and not the same stuff.”

With popular sushi places like Sushi Asahi and Joe’s Sushi more than 10 miles away from campus, Panda Express is gearing up to target university students with an immediate hankering for sushi. According to the university’s sustainability plan, the UCR Dining, Housing and Residential Services catered to 2.5 million customers in on-campus restaurants, cafes and convenience stores with a daily average of nearly 10,000 customers in 2009-2010.

“I don’t eat sushi very often, so I’m not sure. I’ll try it out just because Panda Express is pretty reliable, so (Sushi by Panda Express) might be pretty reliable too,” said Devon Pytel, a second-year psychology major.

Students such as Michael Ha, a third-year exchange student from Germany and business informatics major, already had their first sushi experience on campus. “This is my first day on campus, so I just tried (Sushi by Panda Express as) my first meal. Normally, I don’t eat sushi in a box. I just order in a restaurant, so maybe the quality there is a little bit better, but this is okay. It just depends on how much you want to pay,” expressed Ha.