Long time no see! Here at Abbe and Jebby headquarters, we have been busy as bees the past few months – between my graduation from Portland State, a bout of illness for Abbe’s beloved pooch Kiya, and fabulous new jobs for both of us (at the same place, no less), we have been a little indisposed. But we are back in the saddle with another review! This time, we visit Saburo’s, a well-established institution in the little neighborhood we both call home.
For this review, we’re going to do things a little differently. We both ate the same food, but we had very different opinions. Instead of separate reviews for each of our meals, we will each write an overall review of our experience. For the record, we both ordered miso soup and edamame and shared salmon sashimi, an alaskan roll, a spicy tuna roll, and a cucumber roll.
Jebby’s Overall Review
My family moved to Sellwood when I was eight years old, and the most consistent thing about this neighborhood has been the masses of hungry people lining up outside Saburo’s. Shitty Thai restaurants come and go, the space on the corner of 17th and Sherrett has been a thousand things while I’ve lived here, but the little sushi shop on the corner of Bybee and Milwaukie has endured, and so have the hordes of customers. Not rain, nor sleet, nor driving wind can keep them away – in the dead of winter or the middle of a heatwave, it doesn’t matter, there will always, without fail, be a line outside Saburo’s.
So, you could say that this review has been seventeen years in the making. Honestly, the thing that makes Saburo’s so distinctive, their enduring line, is the very thing that has kept me away. When you see a line in front of a place, it usually means it’s good, but it also usually means a long wait. In our case, it was also a really unpleasant part of our dining experience. I expected friendly banter with the other customers waiting to dine, but Abbe and I were pushed and jostled, and when we got inside and saw how small the space was, it became a bit of a nightmare. The place was jam-packed full of people, and seemed short staffed. We were hurried to a corner and treated as though our presence was a nuisance.
The décor of the restaurant was pretty awesome, with a full wall ukiyo-e style mural in the back. Unfortunately, the layout went beyond “leaves something to be desired.” We were crammed into the tiniest space possible and I could literally feel the next diner over breathing on my hand they were so close. I just don’t understand. The restaurant is obviously successful. If you have enough diners that you have a line of people outside every night waiting to eat there, you should consider expanding to a space where your diners can be comfortable and enjoy their company while they eat your delicious food.
I did happen to think the food was delicious. Abbe and I varied wildly in our level of gustatory enjoyment, but my overall opinion of the food was very favorable. Our appetizers, miso soup and edamame, were well-prepared and arrived hot, cooked well, and liberally seasoned. The sushi and sashimi we ordered were fresh as fresh can be. The salmon sashimi was the highlight of my meal. The chunks were admittedly a bit large, but the fish was beyond fresh, with just the right amount of unctuousness, and tasted as good naked as it did with a few scant drops of soy. It was the perfect accompaniment to the fresh cucumber rolls we ordered. They were liberally stuffed with cucumber matchsticks and wrapped in a thick layer of faintly vinegary rice. They were excellent for cutting through the richness of the salmon. The Alaskan roll was ample and tasty, if not especially memorable. The spicy tuna roll, for me, was the only thing that wasn’t particularly delicious. The fish was fresh and tasted good, but the spicy tuna mixture was a bit bland, and I’m being kind. It really could’ve used a generous dose of soy or more spice. It didn’t have fabulous mouth-feel either… the spicy sauce had an almost watery texture that didn’t cling to the fish very well and was unpleasant on the palette.
Despite this one shortcoming, I felt the food was top-notch in quality and had obviously been prepared by someone who knows what they are doing. Will I return to Saburo’s? Maybe. Like I’ve said before, a restaurant is a melding of food and atmosphere, and Saburo’s is seriously lacking in the atmosphere department. It’s also expensive. I’d expect that for the quality of the food, but the dining experience we had there was one of the worst in recent memory. I’m willing to sit in a shitty place to eat amazing food, and especially CHEAP amazing food, but there’s really no excuse for the lack of service and terrible atmosphere at such a successful restaurant.
Abbe’s overall review:
Honestly, I was a bit disappointed, Saburo’s. All this time Jebby and I have fantasized about visiting your alluring sushi bar, but the moment we walked through the doors I felt you were underwhelming.
The seating arrangements in this place suck. They’re all over the place and crowded and we were shoved into a tiny little booth like seat in the back, crammed in between other tiny booth like seats that were full of people squeezed together.
The service took forever and a day, at a busy establishment you can expect some waiting, but when you have 5 servers splitting up a house of 15 tables, I feel like it shouldn’t take 20 minutes to get a soda.
I’m a Sushiland kind of gal myself, so I figured, this place must be like Sushiland except 10 times better because it’s fresher and more high quality ingredients. Well, high quality ingredients aside, which I will admit they were, everything we had was lacking flavor. The Alaskan roll was surprisingly bland for what was in it, the spicy tuna rolls were OK, but the spicy sauce they use leaves much to be desired. It was basically some version of watered down Sriracha. I will say the edemame was enjoyable, warm and salted and tender, the way it should be. And the miso soup was good, nothing that stands out from other competitor’s miso, but still good.
Overall I think Saburo’s is an overrated sushi joint that attracts hipsters. The layout is a cluster fuck, the service is slower than molasses in January, and the food is mostly bland and unexciting.
The coolest part of our trip to Saburo’s, for me, was the picture of the white cat dressed in Japanese garb at a table of sushi.