Sushi platter

Sushi platter is a menu item at the new Walgreen's sushi bar, located in their new space in the Wrigley Building. (Chicago Tribune / June 25, 2014)

When Walgreens opened its 14th “flagship” superstore inside the Wrigley Building Wednesday, much attention was focused toward its made-on-site sushi bar. Finally, a place to buy Robitussin, condoms and crunchy tempura rolls under one roof.

This is the fourth Chicago Walgreens with sushi in-store, after its State Street Loop, Bucktown and Clark and Diversey locations. Before you recoil with mock disdain, think of this not as “Walgreens sushi,” but rather “outside sushi vendor inside Walgreens.” Officially, the company is AFC Franchise Corp., a Southern California company that brands itself as the “largest supplier of fresh sushi to supermarkets nationwide” and serving more than 3,500 grocers.

On one hand, adjust your expectations to supermarket sushi, which is to say, Jiro won’t be dreaming of this much. On the other hand, the quality of supermarket sushi has only grown more reliable and ambitious over the last decade. Walk into a Whole Foods and watch a cadre of chefs craft maki rolls from dawn to dusk. You’ll find this at Walgreens too someone is actually there laying out rice on nori. They’re able to customize your sushi as well.

As for the sushi itself, the packages available in the cooler are mostly a base of California rolls (using imitation crab sticks) then topped with sheaths of avocados, salmon or spicy mayo. That’s where the innovation lies, the Taco Bell tactic of mixing and matching the same 15 ingredients to create some monster combination: Witness the Ultimate Chili Roll, with imitation crab salad mix, avocado and cucumber on the inside, with tuna, salmon, tilapia, shrimp and jalapenos on the outside. You won’t find Spanish mackerel or raw conch here; the most adventurous it gets is cooked unagi eel, blueberries and tapioca paper. I even found the soy-glazed baby octopus on sale here, alongside seaweed salad and gyozas.

For sushi purists, there’s nigiri as well the single slice of fish atop rice clump although the tuna and salmon I sampled were fairly lean, with little striations of marbling. The surest way to judge sushi, however, is in the rice. There are certain universal criteria: Is the rice sticky or dry? Is the rice used actually short grain? Is it cool to the touch? Is there a good balance of sweet and sour? Is it loose or tightly packed? The sushi rice at Walgreens is better-than-passable, dare I say, decent, perhaps on par with your average neighborhood yuppie sushi counter. There is the barest hint of rice vinegar, but it’s there, and the rice granules are toothsome.

In the end, it’s about the lens you view this sushi through. As sushi, it’s neither unsatisfactory nor earth-shattering. As takeout supermarket sushi, it’s pretty good. Perhaps that says more about sushi entering mainstream status. It no longer bears the whiff of the “ethnic” food label, but with that comes a new standard of what passes as sushi in 2014. Hamburgers at one point enjoyed gourmet status, until fast food chains made them inexpensive and ubiquitous. We’ve come far along as a society where we can now say “I bought sushi from Walgreens” without batting an eye. In 10 years: Walgreens schwarma, just you see.

kpang@tribune.com
Twitter @pang