Ba Le – Vancouver, BC


Ba Le French Sandwiches
701 Kingsway
Vancouver, BC V5T 3K6
(604) 875-6322

Ba Le French Sandwiches on Urbanspoon

inside_ba_le1

I have not yet found a lunch meal with a bigger bang for the buck than a Vietnamese sandwich. Bahn Mi, for me, is the ultimate in fast foods. You can walk in to a Bahn Mi joint and walk out within a couple of minutes with a fresh, (relatively) healthy and incredibly satisfying meal..all for less than $3 CAD.

outside_ba_le

I have two “go-to” Bahn Mi joints in Vancouver: Tung Hing on Kingsway (which is my favorite, if you must know – I will post on Tung Hing soon)  and the subject of this posting – Ba Le – also on Kingsway….right at “The Triangle” formed by the intersection with Fraser St.

banh_mi_ba_le

I judge Bahn Mi joints by the quality and freshness of their bread. Tung Hing, for example, bakes their bread on premises…and you can get a sandwich prepared with beautifully crusty bread pulled out of the oven just a couple of minutes prior.

Though Ba Le does not have a bakery on-site – their bread is still quite fresh (the crispy crust explodes with crumbs and the interior crumb is soft and fluffy.)

bread_ba_le

What they lack in baking facilities, they more than make up for in their filling: Ba Le makes their own charcuterie. Their specialty is their Vietnamese “bacon” – the rolled pork belly you see below. They have other fillings as well Cha Lua (the ubiquitous Vietnamese “ham” or “spam”, Char Siu Chinese BBQ pork, Liver paste and a number of others. Their pickled carrot and daikon (which is traditionally part of Bahn Mi) is very fresh tasting.

bacon_ba_le

Kingsway (which has quickly become Vancouver’s “Little Saigon” ) is dotted with very good budget Vietnamese restaurants and there are a quite a number of worthy destinations on this street. Ba Le is certainly worth the stop if you just happen to be in the area.

Ba Le French Sandwiches on Urbanspoon

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Smoke’s Poutinerie – Toronto, ON


Smoke’s Poutinerie
218 Adelaide St. W
Toronto, ON
(416) 599-CURD (2873)

Ah poutine… a traditional comfort food right up there with pizza or Mac & Cheese. Now I know what many of you are thinking: a specialty restaurant for a side dish of fries with cheese and gravy on top? Why? Bear with me on this one…

Most people have had poutine at a school cafeteria or local greasy spoon and not really given it a second thought (aside from dealing with the heartburn afterwards). Or perhaps like myself, at some all-night diner after a night of bacchanalian activities — just to round out the bodily abuse. But don’t let the fact that cafeterias and diners across Canada simply put some shredded mozzarella cheese and generic gravy on fries convince you that there’s nothing more to know about poutine.

Having grown up in western Canada, I have to admit that I’m hardly an expert on the finer points of this Québécois-native comfort food. In fact, I don’t think I had even tried it until I was in university. However, having made a number of road trips to Mont Tremblant and Montréal over the years ever since moving to Toronto, I’ve definitely put away some fine plates of poutine. And while I wouldn’t say I’m a full-fledged poutine aficionado, I can definitely differentiate an authentic plate from the standard diner fare.

Unfortunately, outside of the province of Quebec, it seems hard to find restaurants with the same sense of tradition and dedication to the dish. So I was pretty excited to hear about the grand opening of Smoke’s Poutinerie here in Toronto, and their plan to import real cheddar cheese curds from Quebec for their poutine. Not surprisingly of course, their first choice of location was in the heart of the club district.

Smoke's Location

Located directly above Burrito Boyz (another fine comfort food establishment) on Adelaide, it’s a fairly unassuming location. The interior could be mistaken for any fast food chain aside from the chalkboard for the post-club crowd to add their wisdom and insight to (“I love you Stephen Harper” was the word from the street when I went) and Smoke’s distinctive logo/face plastered on the walls in a kind of punk-rock caricature way. It was also not-so-subtly guerrilla-branded around town in preparation for the grand opening.

Smoke's Brand Image

It’s a pretty small place designed for people who want grab a quick bite on the go. Bar stools line the windowed areas, and a few small tables in the remaining space. I’d say the location seats about 40 people max, but I’d imagine that most customers take their poutine to eat on the go.

But let’s get to the heart of the matter — the poutine. Now Smoke’s has a number of interesting takes on the dish: Bacon Poutine, Curry Chicken Poutine, Nacho Grande Poutine. However, I felt that for my first visit, the traditional style would be the best way to judge the quality and authenticity of Smoke’s.

The Poutine

So there it is in all it’s greaseful glory. For $5.95, you get a serving which should be hefty enough to soak up the last couple of drinks you shouldn’t have had, or to satisfy the munchies. I wouldn’t plan on needing anything else to eat afterwards, so it’s definitely good value for those on a budget (and eating healthy is secondary).

The verdict? The cheese curds were perfect — fresh, squeaky when you bite into them, mild flavored (unlike the orange cheddar which is used on many poutines around Toronto) so that they combine well with the gravy. The fries were also superb — made in house fresh daily using Yukon Gold potatoes and double blanched in sunflower oil. The size of the fries was just right for me. Slightly larger than McDonalds’ fries so that they can hold up to the gravy, but not so large that you end up with a bland potato center.

The one downside was the gravy. While it was good, it seemed to be lacking in flavor slightly and tended to disappear in the dish. I’ve discussed this with others and we can’t quite put our finger on what exactly it’s missing. Seasoning? Or perhaps it hadn’t been reduced enough (like it didn’t have enough time to stew)? Regardless, it didn’t seem to measure up to some of the other poutine gravies I’ve had. My wife also said that it had a bit too much cinnamon flavor for her.

Nitpicking aside, I can say that it’s the best poutine I’ve had outside of Quebec. I’m not sure how big a compliment that is given that I really haven’t found many restaurants around Toronto (or otherwise) in which it’s more than a sidenote. However, it certainly fares well even among the ones I’ve had in Quebec.

So if you have a craving for the real deal, want to find out what all the fuss is about, or are just looking for the comfort of three types of grease in one meal, Smoke’s should live up to expectations.

Smoke's Poutinerie on Urbanspoon

Sushi Vancouver – Vancouver, BC


The name alone should tell you something about this place. Much like all the pizzerias (or “pizza parlors” as our friends south of the border are apt to call them) that try to outdo their rivals by putting a series of letter A’s onto the beginning of their business name in an attempt to get to the front of the line when it comes to the Yellow Pages, the generically named Sushi Vancouver is just trying to get noticed. After a pair of visits, I can confirm now that unfortunately, I think it will be for all the wrong reasons.

My latest visit was on a Sunday, typically a day when most Japanese restaurants, and a lot of others, close their doors for a day of rest. Having a craving for some sushi though, this did not deter me, and hence, my stop at Sushi Vancouver after seeing their open sign up. My first take out meal there a few months back when they first opened did not leave me with a memorable impression. I figured, it was worth giving another try to see if anything had changed, with the expectation that this is just a grab-and-dash sushi establishment.  Quite frankly, my determination to grab some sushi could have led me to just about any open door that was serving this up on this day. I know, I must learn to be more selective and know when to put a stop to my tunnel vision, as I’ve been hurt more times than I care to count.

For a multi-person sharing order, my choices were made from nigiri (hand-formed sushi) choices, two here, four there, etc. These ranged from the low end of 99 cents each for the shake (salmon), maguro (tuna) and tamago (egg) to the $1.60 for the ikura (salmon roe). By the way, the most expensive nigiri on the menu is the mirugai (geoduck clam) at $3.  In total, I think I had just over thirty individual pieces.

The restaurant itself was empty, as it was the first time I had walked inside.  Placing the order was relatively pain free as it was just giving some numbers to each piece.  Since the man behind the counter was obviously the same person who would be making it, was looking for some work to do, I figured he’s be snappy about it and get right on it.  Guess again.

From talking to his wait staff, to playing with his kid behind the bar, opening up this container and that, and searching for things in the refrigerator, I am not sure if he was truly interested in making my meal or was just treating the thing as a bothersome task.  With some loud Chinese ballad playing over the speakers, he then proceeded to start singing as if he were alone in the shower, which broke the last straw of my patience.  With his back to me the entire time, I began to really get worried about what exactly he was doing.  His arm movements suggested that he was not really smooth with creating the nigiri, each action a painfully, slow step.  The rhythmic motion of creating the shari (rice ball) and placing the cut piece of neta (topping) on top and forming the nigiri, I just couldn’t see him doing naturally.  Part of me thinks the way he has set up his counter, not allowing customers to openly see his working style, suggests that he is lacking confidence in his abilities.

After what was about a forty-five minute agonizing wait, during which time no other customers came inside, I was finally given my order to go.  The bad taste that was left in my mouth after this brutal service experience, made me wonder if I would have the appetite to eat my portion of this meal.

First glance, things did not “look” horribly bad.  Until I got to the toro (fatty tuna) pieces.  Some strange red strings were hanging from the fish slices from some of the nigiri.  It looked like thin blood veins to me.  Shocking to see this, as one piece was just covered/embedded with them.  How the so-called chef could serve these kinds of pieces to a paying customer is beyond me.  To add to my dismay, the rice was so compactly formed with each piece, that it took an extra effort to chew through.  I really dislike it when sushi’s rice is so hard that it might as well been pressed down in a work worker’s vice.  The rest of the toppings were unremarkable, just average to slightly bad.

The only saving grace was the relatively generous amounts of tobiko (flying fish roe) and ikura.

My fellow diners to whom I brought these boxes of “sushi” gave me enough dirty looks to ensure that I won’t be going back ever again.

Sushi Vancouver
3416 West Broadway
Vancouver, BC
Tel: (778) 371 1337
Hours: Mon-Sat, 11am to 10pm; Sun, 12pm to 9:30pm

Sushi Vancouver on Urbanspoon

Crete Souvlaki (and OK Gas) – Calgary, AB


Crete Souvlaki and OK Gas
2623 17 Avenue SW
Calgary, AB T3E 0A5
(403) 246-4777
Mon-Fri: 9:00AM-10:00PM, Sat-Sun: 11:30AM-9:30PM

When one mentions gas station food, take a minute and think about what comes to mind. For me, i immediately think of chips and chocolate bars. Stale gummies. Ice cream bars. Diesel flavoured pastries. Dried out beef jerky. Maybe, if you’re really lucky, three day old hot dog and fried chicken. Gas station food is generally about convenience, and very little about the taste. However, OK Gas and Crete Souvlaki in SW Calgary is one such station that is bucking the trend. Next time you stop to fill up, treat yourself to some… Greek Food!?


I first noticed Crete Souvlaki driving by it on my way to Spiros – my long ago favorite pizza place in Calgary. I noticed it not because it was immediately attractive, nor appealing, but because the juxtaposition of Souvlaki and Gas struck me as odd. Gas station Greek? Ugh.

Sometimes, restaurant information are like rumours – whispers on the wind, information you hear in snippets from a variety of sources, until you are unable to differentiate the sources, and fact from fiction. Typically, you’ll hear little bits regarding a place until finally decide you’ve heard enough to give it a try.

In the subsequent year,  I’d heard several people mention, or inquire, about Crete Souvlaki. “Great Greek food in a gas station!”, and “have you seen that Greek place in the gas station!?”. Simultaneously curious, and slightly repulsed by the concept, many people knew of them, but few had tried them. Those that did seemed to be converts. Great Greek was the common refrain. My only question was, was it “great gas station Greek”, or “great Greek in a gas station”? It’s popularity could very well be something of novelty. After hearing so many whispers, I had to try it.

I have to say, my first attempt was actually fairly painful. The food was bland, the lamb was ridiculously gristly and overcooked, and most of the salad ingredients tasted like they had been sitting in a metal bowl for far too many days. I passed the location off as novelty, and nothing more.

Then the whisper came again. “You ordered the wrong thing. Crete Souvlaki is all about the tzatziki. It’s fantastic. Best in the city”. Hear that a few times, and the memory of gristly lamb, over-lemon’d potatos, and crappy greek salad start to fade away. Replaced with this idea that something as simple, and more often than not poorly executed, as tzatziki, could be done well. In a gas station. A return trip.


The tzatziki is good. Really good. Creamy, rich, it’s been properly strained. You can see cucumber, taste the dill and lemon. Loaded with flavour. Hmm. Best in the city? Not sure. But it’s up there. The pita are the flat, doughy disks of pita that I don’t like. But the tzatziki redeem them. With the Souvlaki and fries? Excellent. The Souvlaki is actually only average, and the fries arent great. But Tzatziki makes everything better. You can see why tzatziki is an order all in it’s own, and why they charge a lot for it. It’s like butter – it makes everything better.

A good experience emboldens you. Spanakopita. Phyllo, feta, spinach. Excellent tzatziki delivery vehicle right? Well, the magical tzatziki cannot even redeem this. Dry, pasty, flavourless, the spanakopita is terrible. The tzatziki fails. Short lived euphoria.

In an overall assessment of Crete Souvlaki and OK Gas, it comes down to a very simple list to remember. The tzatziki is great. The souvlaki is good. Everything else sucks. Calamari is frozen and rubbery. Spanakopita, don’t even get me started. Moussaka? Flavourless and mushy. Terrible. But don’t take my word for it, I’m sure you’ve heard the whispers too. Try it yourself, but i’d suggest ordering a lot of Tzatziki with your meal. After all, it can only be an improvement.

Crete Souvlaki & Gyros on Urbanspoon

Ginger and Chili Szechuan Cuisine – Vancouver, BC


Szechuan (Sichuan) cuisine, is best known for its liberal use of Szechuan (Sichuan) peppercorn and thus generally thought of as being very spicy.  This regional cuisine also uses in copious amounts, both ginger and chili.  This neighborhood Chinese restaurant took these ingredients as their house name, and occupies a decent sized establishment in the Point Grey area of Vancouver, close to other area favorites such as Burgoo, Candia Taverna, Provence Mediterranean Grill, and Enigma.

Ginger and Chili Szechuan Cuisine is proud of those popular North American-Chinese dishes: Ginger Beef and General Tso’s Chicken, and call theirs the best versions of these dishes in town.  I’ve had this chicken-based creation ($10.50) which is stir-fried with a mix of vegetables – it’s not bad.  But I refuse to try the Ginger Beef.

Every time I’ve been inside, customers have been a mix of Caucasian and Asian diners.  Takeout represents a good portion of their business, judging from the walk-in-and-pick-up customers, the constantly ringing phone, and the female manager with a Bluetooth earpiece to handle the flood of calls.  Delivery orders are also possible within a 3km radius and a minimum order of $20 and after 4:30pm.

On this evening, I ordered a trio of dishes, all of ample portions, from the menu that is separated into sections labeled appetizers, soups, seafood, chicken, pork & spareribs, beef, lamb, hot pot, vegetarian, rice, and chow mein & rice noodles.  In total, in typical Chinese menu fashion, they are all numbered and amount to 165 different items, with the most expensive individual item being the whole barbecue duck that goes for $21.95.  Most other dishes go for around $10~$15.  There are even two options for a combination dinner for one ($13.75) and family dinner sets (2 to 8 people) that range from $23 to $92.

Firstly, the Deep Fried Squid with Peppery Salt ($13.25).  This dish is one of many marked with a red chili symbol on the menu, signifying the heat factor.  The finger-length long strips of breaded shrimp were crispy (thought probably would have held up better if eating at the restaurant itself), but not overly so, and tossed with small bits of onion and garlic.  The peppery salt, though not very visible, was evident once I started taking some bites.  The heat coming from the salt was of that sharp piercing variety.  This dish was decent in my books, the squid was well sized, and was not rubbery or chewy.

The second dish was from the pork section – Sliced Pork with Hot Pepper & Dry Spinach ($10.50) – again with the red chili mark.  This was stir-fried in a bland thick sauce, and despite the claim of having some hot peppers, there was not heat coming off this dish at all.  The combination of pork and spinach was a first for me, and tasted well together but the false advertising on the spiciness left a bad taste in my mouth.  Near the bottom of the container, there was this thick layer of oil, very unappealing.

Finally, to get some more substance, the House Special Chow Mein ($10.50) was selected.  This was described as a pan-fried skinny noodle, topped with meat, vegetables and sauce.  What this really entailed was pork, squid, scallops, broccoli, mushrooms, and green peppers.  Perhaps because it was the take-out version, the noodles were really soggy with the sauce, as I hoped they would be a lot more crispier.  A very mediocre dish overall.

As I was afraid of again, the overall high use of vegetable oil in all the dishes, really turned me off this place, despite it being the best of the limited neighborhood lot when it comes to Chinese takeout.  I have some friends who used to go a lot more often and now don’t venture in anymore because of this.  I think I will join them in the boycott crowd, as by just taking a sample of each dish onto my plate, I was getting that heavy, weighed down feeling from the over oily food, and the limited heat just did not measure up either.

Ginger and Chili Szechuan Cuisine
4423 10th Avenue West
Vancouver, BC
Tel: (604) 222-2223
Hours: Tue-Sun, 11:30am to 3pm & 4:30pm to 10pm; closed Mon


Ginger and Chili on Urbanspoon

Flying Wedge Pizza Co. – Vancouver, BC


[As with all of our posts, please click on any image for an enlarged view]

Flying Wedge Pizza Co.
1935 Cornwall Avenue
Vancouver, BC
Tel: 604-732-8840
Hours: Everyday, 11am-10:30pm (delivery 4:30pm-10pm)

Now with eight locations in Vancouver proper, and seven more in surrounding communities, the Flying Wedge Pizza Co. has probably become very much the “corporate” entity that the founders (three University of British Columbia art students) set out to battle when they opened their first location almost twenty years ago.  Now with multiple locations, a franchising business model, and boasting about all the “awards” they’ve won from mainly local media and publications, it seems to me they have lost touch with their claimed spirit of “celebrating the exceptional, and valuing creative and unconventional experiences”.

Even the big plastic sign that greeted me as I stepped inside the Kerrisdale outlet shouted out “Pizza Hut” to me:  offering up an easy choice of a classic pepperoni or “tropical pig” (call it ham and pinapple will ya!) for $15 for a 12 inch medium size.  Nothing too creative or unconventional there I thought.  Looking further in the glass case selling pizza by the slice, I did spot a few strange sounding names like “Tuscan Garden” and “Rosso Bossa Nova” on plates beside the same two boring staples from the a fore mentioned sign.  As I was standing there checking out the menu, two others came in to pick up their already called-in order.

Really hungry and not inclinded to try and decifer each and every strangely labeled option, I eventually settled on the “Wedge Deluxe” (Flying Wedge sweet sauce, mushrooms, green peppers, Italian sausage, onions, dry cured pepperoni, topped with mozarella and cheddar cheese, all on a herb infused dough), which was on their “Extreme Pizzas” sub-menu.  I don’t know about that, nothing too wild as far as the ingredients went I thought but trying to get a balance between meat and veg, this was my best bet.  Twenty of so minutes later, it was ready to go and off I was (there was a bar seating area with four stools, for those waiting or eating by the slice, but this location is not made to consume a whole pie in a relaxed setting, not sure about the other locations).

Opening up the box (incidentally, a predominantly black one, maybe trying to play up their “rebellious” mission) at home, I had mixed initial impressions.  Good coverage throughout of toppings and cheese, and a nice thin crust (that I was looking for one this day), but the aroma was not as powerful as I’d hoped.  Perhaps it was the herb-infused base, but that seemed to take the lead in terms of scent.  The edge crust as well, wasn’t as folded over as thick as I’d hoped, thought thankfully wasn’t burnt.

First bite… the visual of well rounded coverage of toppings was confirmed, as I could get a taste of each ingredient immediately.  Good crispness of the green pepper, the earthy tones of the mushrooms, the bitterness of the onion, the saltiness of the pepperoni and Italian sausage.  The cheese wasn’t thickly layered and gooey, and thus no extended strings came off the pizza as a piece was separated.  I know that means very little except for perhaps the visual, but somehow, I look for that in pizza.

Overall, I’d say it was quite average.  Nothing mindblowing, spectacular by any means here.  One piece and I could have called it a day, but I was hungry so ended up eating three.  It lacked that drawing power to want more and more and more.  Perhaps it was the toppings?  The herb-infused crust that I was having for the first time?  Maybe a thicker base was needed on this day for me (I am a big fan of both thick and thin crust pizza).  Or maybe it was the in-store feeling I got of this place trying to be cool, but falling rather flat.  Perhaps it deserves another chance, with another variation off their menu.  Don’t hold your breathe though, as I am sure there are other better pizza joints in town that I have yet to come across.  As the Foodosopher said in our very first post, “Cheese, meat, dough.  How can you go wrong?”, so you can bet I will be reporting on another pizza offering in the near future.

Finally, I’d love to hear back from readers on what their definition of a really great pizza is…

Flying Wedge Pizza Co. on Urbanspoon

Wonder Sushi Land – Vancouver, BC


[Update: October 2009, CLOSED and replaced with Samurai Sushi Bar]

Wonder Sushi Land
4572 West 10th Avenue
Vancouver, BC
Tel: 604-228-9266
Hours: Mon to Sat, 11:30am-9:30pm
Payment: Visa, Mastercard, Interact, Cash

Truly fitting for the Vancouver sushi scene, with a word such as “wonder” in the business title, as more often than not, I “wonder” if what I will get will be any good at all. I like to think that it’s the adventurer in me and my open heart that allows me to give any spot at least one chance and a reason why I continue to tryout the city’s many non-descript, off-the -beaten-path restaurants offering sushi.  Rest assured, I am generally a logical bloke and I know that I am playing Russian roulette here – but with more than one bullet in the chambers.  The odds are stacked against me, but yet I still pull the trigger, time and time again.  Call me crazy, call me stupid, either way, I know it won’t stop – this despite the fact that I’ve eaten in some of the finest sushi bars in Ginza

Wonder Sushi Land has to be one of the most westerly-located sushi restaurants in Vancouver.  There’s a few on campus at UBC, but this has to be the last outpost for sushi before getting onto those university endowment lands.  It a hole-in-the-wall, sits right next to a Starbucks, and across the street from a decaying Safeway in this Point Grey neighborhood.  Given the area, its not surprising to see that the customers on this night when I decided to get some takeout, was a pair of fourty-something Caucasian ladies, apparently enjoying the demographic’s favorite, chicken teriyaki, and a not too surprising order of California maki.

Thinking I’d make it easy for everyone, least of all myself, I scanned the takeout menu and eyeballed the list of nigiri sushi set.  Quite hungry and knowing the portions could be small, I opted for item #86 (Combo “D” Nigiri Sushi) that said it was “good for 2”, comprised of 2 pieces each of tuna, salmon, tobiko, ebi, hamachi, chopped scallop, tako, and tekka maki.  Told it’d take 15-20 minutes, I stood around for a while checking out the decor and seating arrangements before my ears started to hurt.  Why?

This place is Chinese-owned/operated and the chef was blurting out loudly in Mandarin to the lone server, despite the fact she was a mere foot or two away and the kitchen space is not separated from the dining area by any barrier – so the sound traveled.  I could see that sitting and eating there could be a bit annoying if that kept up.  I am not sure how that couple could continue their conversation.  Decided to save myself from the noise pollution, I said I’d step out and come back later, retreating to the relative quiet of the inside of my car parked outside.  I noticed the outdoor seating at the Starbucks was full, but Wonder Sushi Land wasn’t.  Perhaps its the “audio enhancements” that was a deterant, at least that’s what I told myself as I began to think about my meal being prepared inside.  Again, I wondered

Dashing back in and out while the loud talking continued from the kitchen, I quickly paid for my meal and snatched the plastic bag and headed out of there in a hurry.  Once back in the safety of my home, I unwrapped the package to find my order.  An immediate look relieved my first worry, all the pieces were there.  Appearances, not bad, though the hamachi looked a bit doggy, and upon tasting I was right.  The chopped scallop dolled up with all that mayonnaise disguised how fresh or unfresh it was.  The tobiko, plentiful.  The tako, a bit thin but otherwise acceptable.  Ebi, good.  Salmon, nice.  Tuna, a bit too soft, same with the tekka.  Moreso with the tekka it was the rice that was too mushy.  The “chef” had tried to compensate for the overdone-ness of the rice by putting an extra squeeze on the rice for that and also the nigiri.  It was much too tightly balled up, as I like my rice to almost fall apart once in the mouth.

Was it completely bad?  No, not at all.  Was it great?  Far from it.  For the price, $19.95, the quantity was good, as it was a good sized meal with fourteen pieces, plus a half maki.  If they’d fix the rice, I’ll be back, as its one of the more convenient places for me to do a order-and-dash takeout.  Another joint down the road is just horrible, and another nearby is borderline acceptable, so Wonder has it by default that I might be back.  But I know I will never eat inside, if that kind of sound from the kitchen is commonplace.  I’ll let you wonder for yourself if Wonder Sushi Land is for you though…

Wonderland Sushi on Urbanspoon