Saturday, February 21, 2009

A Practical Guide to Drinking in New Orleans

New Orleans is a fantastic place for a number of reasons. If you have never been to the Big Easy, there is probably no way to mentally prepare yourself for what awaits you there. Food and drink, not necessarily in that order, are a HUGE part of the culture of the city. Also, the city is very old and the French Quarter and surrounding older parts of the city were built before anyone imagined an automobile, subway, or other modern conveniences. In the French Quarter, the streets are extremely narrow and the buildings are ancient.

There is much to discuss about New Orleans and all of the great things to do there, but today I want to focus on one thing: Drinking. If you go to New Orleans, you are going to drink. It's practically mandatory. So, if you are an avowed AA member and are carrying anything less than a 10 years chip, I'd avoid it altogether.

One other thing to avoid is taking children to New Orleans. Bourbon Street is R-rated- and that's during the day. If your kids are young, there are things they just shouldn't see and if they are older and impressionable, they are only going to get ideas that you don't want them to have. Details below.

One thing you should probably do before traveling to New Orleans is to find some sort of hangover remedy that works for you because you're gonna need it. Mind you, I am not promoting binge drinking. It's dangerous and generally not good for you. People should always drink in moderation. Trust me, though, you will overindulge at least once during a trip of a couple days in New Orleans.

If you have any sort of powers of observation at all, one of the first things you are going to notice is that some form of alcohol is available almost everywhere and at all times. There are nifty little frozen cocktail joints located on at least every other block. For less than ten bucks, you can get about forty ounces of some sort of frozen concoction to help you hold on. (These are a decent hangover remedy- assuming, of course, your idea of a hangover remedy is to commence getting liquored up again.) These frozen drinks are also great for sipping on while strolling around the French Quarter and touring the historic cemeteries.

That's right- strolling around with drinks! New Orleans has no open container ordinances. That, my friends, is enlightened thinking. As a matter of fact, from my own personal experiences, it is damned near impossible to get arrested in the French Quarter, assuming you aren't raping and pillaging. If you can manage to avoid urinating in the street or walking around with a glass container, you should be able to completely avoid the attention of local law enforcement.

If you have never been to New Orleans, you are undoubtedly going to want to check out Bourbon Street just about as bad as you want to ride Space Mountain the minute you get to Disneyland. Let me suggest that you make your first visit to Bourbon Street during the daytime hours. Trust me on this- the place is seriously too forking crazy when the sun goes down. The part of Bourbon Street you are going to want to visit is maybe 6 or 8 blocks. Start from the west- around Canal Street. (Hint: the further east you go, you are going to notice an increasing presence of rainbow flags. Gay bars. If that's what you're looking for, that's where they are.) The westerly part of Bourbon Street is decidedly heterosexual, or perhaps just perverted. What you are going to notice are wall to wall bars, a fair number of which offer very adult entertainment. Larry Flynt has a few franchises in the neighborhood. Some of these places have pretty graphic advertising of what sorts of things are available inside, including cameo appearances from the performers standing near the entrances. This is a good example of why you really shouldn't take the kids. There are also a few restaurants and souvenir shops. Actually, there are a few very notable restaurants, like Arnaud's.

The other advantage to touring Bourbon Street by day is that you have a better chance of telling one bar from another. At night, the place is crowded and, because you can take your beer to go, it really is difficult to tell one loud, crowded joint from another.

You are going to want to visit a few of the famous watering holes. For instance, you must stop by the Old Absinthe House for a libation. This is not classy drinking. The place looks and smells exactly like you think it would. It's wonderful.

Another landmark drinking stop is Pat O'Brien's for a hurricane. Pat O'Brien's is huge and features about three distinctive areas. Hurricanes aren't made- they are produced. A bartender takes that big famous glass, or a very tall plastic cup, packs it with ice, an orange slice and a maraschino cherry, and then dispatches the drinks from a muti-pronged wand that can fill three or four glasses at the same time. I imagine the basement at P. O'B's is where a series of very large tanks full of the elixir is located. At night, particualrly on a weekend, they must go through hundreds of gallons of the stuff. A word of caution: be very careful with the hurricanes. I didn't try to conduct any sort of analysis, or bother to ask for that matter, but from what I can tell they are made from two ingredients- rum and the color red. If you're smart you'll have one and then move on. If you're like everyone else, you'll have at least two. If you have four or more, you ought to get back to the hotel immediately and lie down, because chances are you aren't going to remember what happens next. When you leave O'Brien's you are going to get to take the glass with you. Attendants at the door will wrap and package it for you. You've got to bring home a hurricane galss from Pat O'Brien's. Your spouse is not going to appreciate it. The damned things are nearly impossible to wash (maybe that's why they give these things away)and they are too big to fit in the cabinet where you keep the other drinking glasses at home, but they make great iced tea glasses. Forget trying to buy hurricane mix and making your own- there is no way to credibly duplicate this drink at home.

Happy hour on Bourbon Street is a new experience. Here in Sioux Falls, the most advanced form of Happy Hour involves two-fers. If you can't find a place offering three-fers on Bourbon Street, you just aren't exerting any effort. Remember, you don't have to finish your drinks at the bar- you can take them with you- just ask for a go cup.

The Acme Oyster House is within a block of Bourbon Street on Iberville. If you go there during the day, you might avoid a line to get it. Sit at the bar and suck down a few oysters opened before your eyes by the talented staff. Wash them down with an Abita beer (pronounced A-beet-a). Be careful of the Abita Alligator beer that one of the oyster shuckers might suggest. It's like 14% alcohol which is about double the bounce of a regular beer. You're going to end up drunk enough as it is, so why rush it?

Speaking of discretion, you are going to see people walking around with funny looking plastic drinking vessels shaped like hand grenades. The shape of the "glass" should be a hint that this is something to avoid. I don't know what's in them, but they will definitely bomb your liver, and probably your judgment.

If Bourbon Street is a bit wild by day, it's absolutely INSANE at night. Sometime around 5 or 6 PM, the police start closing off the cross streets and no traffic is allowed on Bourbon. It's a little like being at the Rally at that point, only with less leather and more booze. It's a little hard to describe- the whole place is like one huge bar. There are lots of performance artists around, including young kids who will tap dance for tips using shoes with homemade taps made from aluminum cans. There are other performance artists roaming the streets, too: the ones from the adult entertainment venues who are out giving away free drink tickets or free admission tickets and, in some cases, free samples. Most bars are going to have live music and most of it is great.

My last piece of advice is to take someone with you. This is definitely time for the buddy system. A cell phone won't do. Assuming you can hear who you are talking to, they probably aren't going to be able to hear you.

Let the good times roll, but stay safe. There is really nothing like New Orleans.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Hitting The Road- Where to Eat and Drink

So, you've for a trip coming up. Maybe its for business or just for fun with friends or family. Either way, you got to eat. But where? Here are a few tips I've picked up.

First, give some thought to the purpose of your travels. If you are traveling on business, will you be entertaining customers or clients, or are you traveling to a seminar or meeting by yourself. This is a know your audience thing. Some people aren't in search of the perfect bowl of pho, pad thai or Kobe beef. Also, your employer might not appreciate a reimbursement request for a meal from a famous steak house in a big city. (Personally, I don't turn those in, or if I do, I only request what a normal meal would have cost.)

If the trip is for pleasure, are you going with friends or family? Children? Another audience situation. If your kid is going to throw a fit because there are no chicken strips on the menu of the Indian place you are at . . . well, you get the idea. You should also have a good idea of what you are willing to spend and any time constraints. For instance, if you have tickets for a musical, standing around waiting for a table at Pizzeria Uno in Chicago is probably not going to work. Also, having a Primanti Brothers sandwich in Da Burg at 1:30 when you have a 6:00 reservation at some other place is not a wise move.

You also need to know where you are staying and give some consideration to how you are going to reach your dining destination. Is it a relatively short cab ride away or are you gonna put the cabbies kid through her first year of grad school because you had no idea the place you wanted to go is further away from downtown than the airport. For instance, if you are staying in San Francisco, you need to know that Chez Panisse is across the Bay Bridge in Berkeley and The French Laundry is in Napa Valley.

The number one key to successful dining during travel is to research. I spend more time figuring out and making dining arrangements than I do booking air travel and hotels, by a long shot. In no particular order of significance, here are some resources I consult for finding places to eat.
  • The Internet (No forking kidding, there, right?) Specifically, places like the regular food sites,,, But there are others. Try Chowhound and Egullet, which are sort of message boards/blogs for foodies. You might also try some search engines to see if you can find other blogs- like this one.
  • While you are on the internet, you might also see if the website for whatever hotel you are staying at has some local guides. Check those out.
  • Try some print resources. The food magazines: Gourmet, Bon Appetite, Food and Wine regularly have stories about new or hot places in bigger communities. Gourmet used to have regular articles every month about restaurants in New York City and San Francisco. Also check travel magazines. Another great print resource are the local city magazines for your destination. An example of this is Chicago Magazine which features a listing of hundreds of restaurants by cuisine and locale. Hell, there's even an Okoboji magazine available. Look around next time you're at the Big Box Book Mart and you'll probably find a magazine for the place you are going.
  • Consult people who have been there. If you've got a friend who spent three days in Pittsburgh last year, that might be a good person to ask.
  • You might also want to take a look at some cookbooks. Chicago Tribune food writer Bill Rice authored a wonderful red meat cookbook called the Steak Lovers Cookbook a few years ago. In it, he discusses various famous steak houses and other notable dining venues in Chicago and other large cities.
When you settle on some choices, get on-line or on the phone and start making reservations. If you haven't used Open Table, you might want to give it a whirl- it works very well. If you are paying entirely too much for a credit card (which is anything more than zero) you might have to resort to the concierge service to get reservations at certain places. Even then, you better be on the phone with the restaurant. Some of the very high-end places have quirky reservation policies. For instance, if you've been dreaming of going to The French Laundry, you'd damned well better know that you MUST make a reservation 60 days in advance or you're forked. That can literally be the difference between trying to make a reservation for a Friday or Saturday. Also, some places have cancellation policies, just like hotels. The opposite problem, of course, is that some places don't take reservations, at all. Unfortunately, that's not necessarily a clue that you'll get in. If you plan on lunching at Gallatoire's in New Orleans and are not in line hours ahead of time, forget it. Also, be aware of attire requirements. You may get into a particular place without a coat or tie, but you'll feel like an absolute moron.

I generally avoid asking a hotel concierge for a reccomendation, unless I am staying at a Ritz Carlton or Four Seasons, which, frankly, never happens. I have this suspicion that the concierge is more concerned about his/her status in the "Hey, Buddy" network than your dining experience. On the other hand, a concierge at almost any hotel nice enough to have such a service might be able to slide you some reservations at a place of your choosing.
Finding good drinking establishments also requires some research, especially if you want to find interesting or noteworthy watering holes. For instance, for me no trip to San Francisco is complete without a stop, or two, at the Top of the Mark- the bar located on the top floor of the Hotel Intercontinental Mark Hopkins. The views are fantastic from this perch at the top of Nob Hill. Speaking of San Francisco, on a recent trip there, we checked out a little joint in the Tenderloin District as a result of research. The bar is called Rye. They served interesting cocktails, such as gimlets made with cucumber and basil. Really good stuff.
Also, when in a different city, make sure you drink like a local. If you are sitting in a bar in Pittsburgh drinking a Miller Lite instead of a bottle of Iron (Iron City Beer, that is), you are an idiot.
Drinking in New Orleans is complicated enought to be a post all by itself- matter of fact, I think I will write that one next.
Whatever you do, when you travel, do your research so you don't miss a great opportunity to expand your perspective a bit.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Update: Food & Fermentation Closes The Doors

This is the news I got yesterday through various intelligence sources. Out of a great deal of esteem and affection for Doug and Laurel, I wanted to wait until something appeared in the MSM. The local daily had a story posted today. According to that story, which quoted Laurel, F&F was unable to secure financing for an expansion, and therefore the decision was to close Monday with an eye toward getting out of the restaurant and catering business in favor of a smaller retail botique offering wines, cheeses, and "everyday grocery items."

Whatever the reasons and whatever the future plans may be are rather beside the point. It's clear from Laurel's quoted remarks to the AL reporter that F&F, as we have come to know and love it, is no more. I am sure the speculation is running rampant as to why: the "new" space at Falls Center (opened just about two years ago) must have been too big and expensive; the move away from the so-called epicenter of lunch venues cost them vital noontime business; the wines being offered were too high-end for most folks. Does any of that really matter?

If it is true, that F&F is out of the restaurant and catering business for good, that is a true loss. Laurel Lather is an extremely talented chef and she fully deserves credit for moving the food scene here in Sioux Falls ahead a few steps. In a town where fine dining unfortunately too often means a huge cut of read meat served with a starch, etc. etc. F&F served things that were, well, different. The preparations were creative and thought out. Laurel could take some chances with ingredients that usually paid dividends for her customers.

Back before almost all the wine retailers were sponsoring monthly dinners, F&F held monthly gatherings of the International Food and Wine Society. Because this is South Dakota and you are not going to be buying any wine here anytime soon without the blessing of the few distributors, the wines and the people representing those wines were the same that you would see at the events held by Hy Vee, Taylor's Pantry, JJ's, The Little Wine Cellar, and so on. The difference was Laurel's culinary talents. Laurel would get VERY creative with the courses she paired with the featured wines. Here are a few memorable courses and offerings over the last several years:

  • A salad consisting of tomatoes, watermelon and herbs dressed with a light lemony vinagrette. It was paired with white zinfandel. Yeah, yeah. We're all thinking the same thing: What the hell is this salad and I can't believe I am drinking this sweet pink wine." It was a phemomenal pairing.

  • At a Polish-themed dinner the first course was a huge platter of pickles, breads, pate, hard boiled eggs, mustards and other spreads. The instructions were to pile a bunch of those components on the bread and shovel it in. As goofy as this sounds- another hit.

  • About a year ago, the wine dinner was the sake dinner. Instead of wine, sake was served alone and in various concoctions. Sake bloody mary, sake with ginger, etc. The food was, of course, Asian themed. This was a really good one.

  • Blind tastings. Can you taste 9 or 10 different red wines and separate the shiraz from the merlot? This IS NOT as easy as it sounds, and if you have ever done it once you will understand why the real wine tasting experts expectorate (spit out) the wine after tasting. It's hard enough to make the brain work through the complexities of what makes the stuff in the glass cabarnet as opposed to zinfandel without the asssitance of the alcohol.

  • The last wine dinner at the old venue (where Wild Flour Bakery is now) was a camping theme. Notably, a corn soup was served in a little Green Giant can- campfire style. That menu also featured rattlesnake sausage.

  • South African wine dinners were especially fun, complete with a native South Afrikaaner presenting the wines and a South African inspired menu, including Bobotie.

  • A First Thanksgiving Dinner in 2007 to cleebrate the new venue. Laurel and her staff made a huge quantity of food and served it family style. The tables were pushed together so all the guests were seated at one table. Laurel, Doug, Ben, and the other staffers joined the guests while the food went round the table and the wine flowed.
  • How about the lunch specials- usually an interesting grilled cheese sandwich with some twist- like leeks or wild mushrooms. And the soups were always interesting, like tomato basil chianti- the secret was the huge volume of chianti.
Probably the neatest thing about eating a F&F is that whatever you had was good and you felt like you were among friends. You knew you could put yourself in Laurel's hands and have an interesting and good meal.

I wish Laurel and Doug well and hope we'll see them around town and into a new endeavor.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Very Sad News Today

The Fork's tightly-woven intelligence network has picked up some very sad news. It appears a much beloved and unique dining location in Sioux Falls has abruptly closed its doors. Standby for more news, including the identity of the recently departed.

This could very well be the first victim of what could be a very tough ride for our local dining and drinking locations. In times when we all have to tighten our belts a little, let us not forget the people who count on our patronage to earn their livings.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Sai Gon Panda. Like Vietnam. They have Vietnamese food!

I hate to sound like I've been laying in wait for this, but today's restaurant review in the AL is a pretty good example of just how poor a job that outfit does reviewing local eating establishments.

Here's a link to the story:

Today's review, by Dorene Weinstein, is about Sai Gon Panda, which is a quaint little Asian place in Village Square on East 26th Street. To Dorene's credit, she got that right. The rest of the one-page article describes the meal she and a friend shared (typical AL dining review formula), using such adjectives as "piping hot" and "yummy" to describe a meal consisting of stereotypical "Chinese" fare: won ton soup, egg rolls, fried wontons, chicken and vegetables (including the little ears of corn and water chestnuts) and fried rice (also standard AL formula). Dorene then goes on to report on her internet research on the difference between Szechuan, Hunan, and Cantonese cuisine. Here's the topper, though: One sentence, count it one sentence, of the article is devoted to the concept of Vietnamese food. All that sentence does is to describe it as the "light cusine" of Asia incorporating herbs and grilled well seasoned meats served over rice or noodles.

No kidding, you had to use the internet to figure that out instead of looking at the menu and actually ordering some?

How a person can go to Sai Gon Panda and not recognize that the place is, first and foremost, a Vietnamese restaurant, is simply beyond my comprehension. The place is called SAI GON Panda for crying out loud. I know Jay Leno could probably locate a few of them on one of his Jay Walking segments, but does anyone of reasonable intelligence around here not associate Sai Gon with Vietnam? As if that weren't enough, there is a whole page of Vietnamese entrees and beverages on the menu.

Sai Gon Panda has a pretty good offering of Vietnamese fare, especially pho and "noodle bowls." This is exactly what the real Asian people in the restaurant are eating. (That's another hint.)

Pho is one of the great foods of the world. It's a bowl of thin rice noodles served in about a quart of beef broth that has been augmented with fish sauce, ginger, cinnamon and star anise. You can order it with meat such as thin sliced beef, beef tendon, or tripe. On the side are slices of fresh jalapenos, fresh basil, fresh bean sprouts, hot sauce and hoisin. The stuff is harder than hell to eat, but I swear it can cure the common cold. You stir a little hot sauce and hoisin into the broth, tear up the basil and toss that in with the jalapenos. Top it off with the sprouts and then go to work on it with a pair of chopsticks the size of knitting needles and one of those Asian style soup spoons. Good Vietnamese cuisine is a perfect balance between salty, spicy, sour, and sweet and the pho at Sai Gon Panda hits the mark. The closer you get to the bottom of that huge bowl, the more concentrated and more spicy that broth is going to get.

Here's an advanced pho eating technique I learned from watching a young woman of Asian descent eating a bowl of pho. Use the chopsticks to pick up a few noodles. They are only like a yard long, so three or four of them are going to make for a good mouthful. Lift those up and let them wind back into the spoon that you will hold with your non-dominant hand. This technique will keep you from slurping about a quarter mile of noodles up and might help keep your clothes a little cleaner.

If you don't want to deal with liquids, go for the noodle bowls. A nice big serving of rice vermicelli noodles with grilled meats or fried egg rolls served on top. You get a nice sweet-acidic sauce to pour over it and nestled at the bottom you'll find some thinly sliced cabbage and carrots and some fresh cilantro.

My only complaint with the place is that I want a Bahn Mi. A sandwich served on a French roll that usually has some pate, other meat like chicken and fresh vegetables topped with a light pungent sauce. Sound odd? This is where your history lessons come in handy. Remember, before the United States paid a visit to the country from about 1960 to 1975, the French had given it a go. Vietnamese was the original East-West fusion food.

Look, I am not suggesting for a minute that Chinese food, even the ubiquitous Americanized Chinese food like the General's Chicken, and even Sweet and Sour Chicken, served up with a mess of fried rice doesn't have its place. And, by all means, to each his own. But for the love of Pete, if you visit a Vietnamese restaurant to write about the offerings, get the Vietnamese food.

Vietnamese food is wonderful. If you go to Sai Gon Panda, let the Argus reporter and his or her dining shill eat the ubiquitous stir fried chicken veggie delight with fried rice and hot tea. Go for a big bowl of pho and, what the hell, get the tendons or even the tripe in it and wash it down with a funky beverage or at least a Singha beer.

Trust me, you'll be glad you did.

Saigon Panda on Urbanspoon

Friday, February 6, 2009

Raw Fish in Sioux Falls: Sushi Masa

Sushi-Masa Japanese Restaurant on Urbanspoon
I had lunch with a friend at Sushi Masa the other day. We arrived at just about 11:30 AM and were the last group in the door to get a table. Although standing in line to get a table is a real inconvenience for diners, it's a heck of a deal for Sushi Masa. I have to guess other establishments around town would love to have the "problem" of having people lined up to get in the place the minute the doors open for lunch.

Sushi Masa covers what I believe to be the two critical components of overall sushi quality: excellent fish and an extremely skilled chef.

The freshness and quality of the fish is paramount. The uninitiated are always surprised to find that good raw fish doesn't smell or taste like they think it will. I think most everyone understands the concept that if the sushi smells fishy, you are probably in the wrong place.

In terms of straight-up, uncomplicated, not-too-exotic sushi, Sushi Masa offers sushi as good as I have had anywhere else during my travels around the country- Minneapolis, Chicago, Denver, Washington, D.C., Pittsburgh, Atlanta, and notably even San Francisco. The quality of the fish that is offered at Sushi Masa is second to none. This seems counter intuitive considering that really great, fresh seafood has been traditionally a little difficult to come by here in South Dakota. Duh- no ocean, no fresh seafood. Federal Express to the rescue! Thanks to overnight shipping, the fish being delivered here in Sioux Falls is probably as fresh as the fish being delivered nearly everywhere else. The exceptions are probably very high end establishments that are sourcing fish down to the individual producer and serving product that was likely swimming 12-18 hours before it appears on your plate.

Hint: In Tony Bourdain's breakout book, Kitchen Confidential, he counsels against ordering fish on a Monday. The reason why is far from counter intuitive. Actually, it's quite logical: The last time fish was shipped out for overnight delivery was probably Thursday evening for Friday morning delivery. Once when I was in Minneapolis for a business meeting, I unwittingly defied this simple rule, at a sushi place no less. Fortunately, the fish was fine. It hadn't turned to bait. I did have a scallop, though, that instantly reminded me of the rule.

Chef skill is also paramount. At the risk of sounding racist, it seems a Japanese sushi chef, has a leg up on the competition. Maybe it's just mental imagery, but I like to think a good Japanese sushi chef got to be that way because he had to work in near indentured servitude at the elbow of someone like Rokusaburo Michiba stirring rice for 20 years before being allowed to pick up a knife. If you have ever had really good sushi and really poor sushi, you will realize how important chef skill really is. An experienced chef knows exactly how to slice a fish to give the diner the exact texture for the type of fish and the correct portion.

An experience I had right here in Sioux Falls will illustrate this point. A few years ago, the only other sushi place in town was Hibachi- now the west side location of Puerto Vallarta. Hibachi used to be a pretty good sushi experience. In the course of a couple years, they had a few different chefs- all Japanese. Notably, there was a friendly woman who was very skilled. Whenever my family was there we generally sat at the nice sushi bar to watch the chefs work. She would always make the Secret Teaspoon, quite a bit younger then, a little bear made out of an orange. Hibachi didn't make it- probably a victim of too much overhead and not enough business. Yes, it went through a boom period when their four or five teppanyaki stations were going full tilt, but I never could quite figure out how they were going to sustain that level of business in this town. They didn't. I knew Hibachi was in the final throes of a painful financial death when the young, friendly, well-skilled Japanese sushi chef had been replaced by two burly Hispanic guys. Those guys knew the "recipes" but they really couldn't execute. That particular day we ordered a roll of some sort. What we got was pretty much a square (no it wasn't box sushi) and nearly required a knife and fork to eat because each piece was quite a bit more than the standard comfortable mouthful.

At Sushi Masa, they get the preparation right. And the presentation is always nice.

One thing you are going to have to get used to at Sushi Masa is the overall appearance of the place. I was never in the old Matador or Red Lantern, and as I recall, the location was empty for long periods of time on the 80's and early 90's. Nevertheless, except for a few coats of paint and a couple of wall hangings, I can't imagine the place looks much different than it must have in 1978.

Sushi Masa is small and the booth tables a bit rickety. The bathroom are inconveniently located and reminiscent of an old Texaco gas station. If you have to wait for a table, you can leave a number and the staff will call you when a table is available. If you can hear background music playing, it is Minnesota Public Radio. (Come on Fumi, would SDPR kill you?) If you have to wait for a table, there is precious little space to do so. Actually, there might be two chairs to sit in. Maybe. Chances are you'll have to leave a cell phone number and then leave. (Hint: Make sure you have a cell phone. You can wander around downtown, or walk straight to Paramount and have a cocktail while you wait. A further caveat, however, the wait for a table never seems to be as long as the staff says. I usually end up chugging half of a beer because the 45 minute wait ended up being about 14 minutes.) The sushi bar itself will seat 3 or 4 people in minor discomfort. The beverage selection is fairly adequate.

Don't expect any of this to change. Why would it? Despite icky bathrooms, a general lack of decor and atmosphere, the place is always busy. People line up to get a table at lunch time. In the winter no less! The owner and his wife, who are the sushi chefs, can work at a deliberate and seemingly unrushed pace to turn out order after order, never leaving diners to wait a prolonged period of time. From an owner's perspective, this has to be a near-perfect business model.

Nevertheless, I'd like to see Sushi Masa push the envelope just a little bit. The sushi and sashimi combo (sized depending on the number of diners) is great and offers an abundance of well- made, basic offerings: tuna, salmon, snapper, shrimp, cooked eel, egg, and even some squid. It's always all very good. Unfortunately, the squid and the eel is about as exotic as it gets. Every once in a while, though, it's fun to play the home version of Bizarre Foods. Once, and only once, I was at Sushi Masa when the server advised us that they had procured some fresh Uni. That's sea urchin. Even though I believe about 90% of the public is never going to like the stuff, it's a must try. For a lot of people, sea urchin is going to present a texture problem. It has no definite shape and is rather like a semi-firm ooze. It also has a fairly strong flavor. Overall, it's kind of like foamy, fishy, mud, but there is something so sensuous about it. It's fun to eat. You wouldn't want to make a meal of it, but it is good, and if nothing else it's fun to gross out your friends.

Also, on rare occasion, Sushi Masa might have some of the fabled toro. Toro is the fatty belly tissue from a big eye tuna. This stuff is somewhere on the menu of almost every sushi place I have ever been to, but rarely actually available. and, IF it is available, you are probably going to pay at least 5 bucks per slice. It's worth every penny. You'll know you have the real McCoy if it appears whitish, not bright red or even pink. Whitish. It should be loaded with fat. Also, once in the mouth, you should have to apply little if any pressure from your teeth. Toro will, literally, melt in your mouth. It's wonderful.

One interesting thing you should ask for is a salmon skin hand roll. Yes, salmon skin. No scales and cooked, fashioned into a hand roll (sort of like a sushi snow cone) with rice, it's delicious. Chewy and salmony tasting.

I'd love to see more of these exotic selections on the menu on a regular basis.

I'd also love to see a more expanded selection of sake. From what I am seeing when I am out and on the menu, people are becoming more interested in sake. They should. It's good stuff. Sushi Masa has expanded their sake offerings by a small margin. Let's hope this trend continues. Also on the beverage front, I'd also like to see Sapporo beer available in the can. Go buy one of these at Hy Vee liquors and you'll see why. They are way cool.

For all Sushi Masa is not, it is great for what it is- really great, really well-prepared sushi that is as good as you are likely to find anywhere. That's a hell of a good deal for Sioux Falls.