On a Roll

On a Roll

“Watch out for the skinny people,” says Helen Xiao with a playful grin. She’s talking about the lean customers who visit the all-you-can-eat sushi restaurants she owns with her chef husband, Sai Cai. They’re the patrons, she explains via an interpreter/manager, who can put away as many as 12 of the chef’s Special Rolls in one sitting. Then she quickly adds, with a smile and a flutter of her hand: “As long as they’re happy, that’s fine.”

At each Sushi Palace—in Hamden, North Haven and Orange—there is a zealous devotion to making customers happy, and that’s a large part of what has made the restaurants a local phenom. Another, perhaps more important factor is that, dollar for dollar, Sushi Palace is one of the best dining bargains in all of New Haven County, particularly if you have a healthy appetite and an adventurous palate. Finally, it’s the food itself: excellent quality and beautiful presentation, whether it’s assembled at the sushi bar or cooked in the kitchen.

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Sushi Palace first opened for business in 2006, after Helen and Sai decided to make Hamden their new home. Both were born in China and married in Japan, where Sai got his sushi education at Tokyo’s celebrated Tsukiji Shijo, one of the biggest fish markets in the world (“I really know my fish!” is what I think he said, with enthusiasm). The couple emigrated to this country in 2000 and, with a partner, opened their first sushi place in Poughkeepsie, New York. Their move to Hamden happened on the strength of a friend’s recommendation, who told them the New Haven area was full of students and famous for its good schools. With this in mind, Helen and Sai transformed the interior of a rather sorry storefront in a weary section of Dixwell Avenue, near the New Haven line, creating a serene oasis of dark wood and pleasing angles. It was here that they introduced a bold concept: all-you-can-eat sushi.

Undergrads, grad students, the underemployed and the cheap went wild. Sushi Palace was an instant hit, and today offers much more than bargain sushi: For a mere $18.95 (Mondays through Thursdays) or $20.95 (Fridays through Sundays), lunch and dinner patrons can mix and match a meal from a Sushi Bar menu and a Kitchen menu. Between the two paper menus there are more than 100 options, resulting in mind-boggling possibilities. One could, for instance, start his or her meal with mushroom soup; move on to Spicy Seaweed Crab Salad with a side of edamame; enjoy a bit of yellow tail and red clam sashimi; try some sweet potato tempura; move on to the main event, a warm Godzilla Roll (salmon, mozzarella, jalapeno and crab, deep fried and brightly sauced) and a divine Sakura Roll (a crackling shrimp tempura wrapped in spicy tuna and topped by crab, together looking like a blushing dragon); then finish with a little dish of green tea ice cream.

The restaurant also has a “regular” menu, which comes to the rescue if your appetite doesn’t warrant a $20 tab. The extensive offerings include tempura, teriyaki, noodle dishes, soups, salads and bento boxes plus sushi, sashimi and a variety of rolls. Prices are very reasonable—a Sushi Combo, for instance, includes eight pieces of assorted sushi plus a California roll, soup and salad for $14.95. A la carte sushi and sashimi are $2.95-$3.95, with two pieces per order, while individual rolls—which can get very fancy in the hands of Chef Sai – start at $2.50 for a cucumber roll and top out at $12.95 for a Marble Roll featuring maguro tuna, white tuna, avocado, spicy tempura flakes, mango and red tobiko. Sushi Palace has lunch, too, and one of my favorites is the Sashimi Lunch, with 12 beautiful pieces of assorted fish plus miso soup and salad for $9.95. (I confess that it’s still too much food for me; I end up bringing half the fish back to my place of business, which is why my co-workers like me.)

Helen and Sai look so young and fresh, it’s hard to believe they have two teen-aged children and three restaurants. In 2010 they opened a second location in North Haven on Washington Avenue, doubling their capacity (both Hamden and North Haven are 50-seat restaurants). Months later, they took over the former Friend House in Orange and added 80 seats and a cocktail bar to their mini-empire. All three eateries have the same menu and follow the same successful formula—the only difference is that Hamden and North Haven offer beer, wine and sake only.

Helen explains that one of the reasons she and Sai chose an all-you-can-eat format is because they can prepare every dish to order—unlike, say, a buffet-style restaurant—and it gives patrons an incentive to try new things with low risk. “We want all customers to try everything,” she says. However, as each menu pleads, “Please do not WASTE food!!!”

Sushi Palace
1473 Dixwell Avenue, Hamden (map) | 203-230-8875
344 Washington Avenue, North Haven (map) | 203-239-2211
538 Boston Post Road, Orange (map) | 203-891-8484
Mon-Thurs 11am-10pm, Fri-Sat 11am-11pm, Sun noon-10pm

Written and photographed by Todd Lyon.

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Todd Lyon has been covering the New Haven dining scene for 20-plus years. She has authored, co-authored or ghost written 17 books on subjects as diverse as business, wedding gowns and kissing; currently she co-owns Fashionista Vintage and Variety, a clothing store for eccentrics.

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