Karen Jerezano/HIGHLANDER
Karen Jerezano/HIGHLANDER

3 out of 5 stars

As UCR welcomed back the veterans and introduced itself to the rookies, all students were greeted with a slight change in HUB dining. Replacing Honor Roll Sushi Cafe, Sushi by Panda (no, really, that’s the name) made its appearance on the opening day of fall quarter 2013. Not only is the new eatery located by Panda Express, but the Japanese offerings are made by Panda as well. Don’t expect to see orange chicken, however: Sushi by Panda amplified their game by proving they can work without a wok.

The HUB was filled with hungry students and loud chatter. Bruno Mars hummed overhead as I squeezed in between bodies that were waiting for pizza or even a place to sit. But the aroma of salmon and seaweed navigated me through the crowd. I reached the empty line and looked over what they had to offer as the customer before me finished his order. Sushi by Panda has a small but mighty menu offering ready-made selections such as sushi (two to four pieces of fish on top of rice) or specialty rolls with prices ranging from $5.49 to $7.15. A subtle twist to the sushi scene was the “Build Your Own Roll” feature for $6.49. This sushi-bar-meets-Subway experience made me wide-eyed. As an avid sushi connoisseur, I was eager to play with the options.

With a bright smile and timid hands, the Panda employee carefully lined the seaweed square with rice as he asked which “core” (meat) I would like. Between the options of eel, salmon, tuna and crab (Panda goes all-out offering the real thing, no imitators here), I chose eel. He placed two strips of eel in the middle and slid to the veggie section. Customers can choose up to three veggies; I thought cucumber, avocado, and asparagus would pair well. When the employee hesitated to put the last piece of avocado, I asked him, “So how many days did you guys get for training?” He laughed, “One day I guess … this is my second day!” He continued to share that preparing the sushi was a lot harder than expected, as he cut the roll into pieces. He did, however, manage to get eight pieces out of the roll, which looked like a linear graph when laid out on the tray. My concoction was topped with eel sauce and spicy mayo with wasabi on the side. Even though there was no line to order, I did spend an ample amount of time waiting for just the preparation.

While I waited for the cashier, I noticed the ready-made section, offering everything from tuna and salmon sushi to sunshine rolls — crab and avocado on the inside, salmon on top. All items are made the morning of. Boba, a college must-have in R’side, is also available. 

“Is that eel?” the cashier asked. I nodded as she replied, “Okay, that will be $7.55.” Now, I know I am not the best at math, but the tax seemed higher than usual from $6.45. I questioned the total and she answered that eel — as well as salmon — have an additional cost. Unfortunately, Sushi by Panda neglects to inform the customer before choosing the core of the extra price tag.

Usually finding an empty seat at the HUB during lunch hours is like participating in the Hunger Games. Luckily, though, a table was open between friends catching up over boba and a student slaving over his laptop (the two sides of college, honestly). The first bite was a bit tricky to pick up with chopsticks. Nevertheless, even when it nearly disintegrated in the hold, I prevailed to get one solid bite. Between the crisp crunch of the asparagus and honest texture of the eel, the freshness of the sushi melted with the quality in every bite. The sauces available made it complete, almost perfect even without the use of soy sauce and wasabi. Even with the additional cost for the specific core, the quality made up for it.

Harrison Moulton, second-year media and cultures studies student, enjoyed the same roll and added, “It’s actually good! Better than store bought. You can tell it’s quality food.”

I cleaned my plate, wasabi included, and quickly gave my seat up to the students searching for a table to rest their books and burritos on. The line for the eatery at this point had wrapped around the entrance. I’m sure that was enough practice for the employee on his second day. Convenient and quality worth the cost, Sushi by Panda is officially worth a warm welcome.