Sushi Lola’s chefs are always on a roll out front, while the back kitchen turns out tasty Korean dishes.
Aaron Pak calls his restaurant, Sushi Lola’s, a “house divided.”
The little pan-Asian cafe, located in the Audubon Park hip strip mall that includes beermeisters Redlight Redlight and Tara Gould’s pastry heaven P Is For Pie, buzzes with the oven-driven energy of Korean chefs in the back kitchen while serene sushi masters calmly assemble intricate rolls at the bar out front. Two different cuisines, with very different traditions, done very well.
The décor is simple and clean—this is Lola’s second location in the same strip; it first opened five years ago and relocated a few doors down in 2014.
Pak, who has a bachelor’s in economics from San Diego State University, calls his mother, Sei, “the mastermind chef.” It is her hand at passing along recipes she learned from her relatives in South Korea that guides the menus. “Korean food comes together by taste,” Pak says, “not by numbers. So you kind of learn as you go.’’
Some lessons have truly paid off. Sometimes the simplest items, such as a cooked egg or a pancake, are the true tests of a chef, and the kimchi pancake ($14) is such a dish, a firm, plate-filling batter tinted red from spicy cabbage and embedded with charred scallions and exotic flavors. It is worth sharing and even better to hoard for yourself.
A similar share or don’t-share treasure is the tuna kobachi ($12), meaty cubes of tuna dressed in creamy avocado and Japanese spices, a cooling cucumber ribbon and shredded daikon.
Being the only “ethnic” restaurant in the area, the eatery has a fiercely loyal clientele, and Pak and his servers return the favor, including Mama Sei, who can be found many nights checking on the dining room. “These people allow us to make a living,” he says, and regulars are often greeted by name and asked about their children or pets.
Pak says Lola’s most popular items are the Playboy Roll ($14), an assemblage of tuna, avocado and tempura shrimp, adorned with red and black fish roe and a crunch of roasted rice crackers; and the Lava Dips appetizer ($6-$11), mini panko crusted “krab” salad meatballs dressed in spicy mayo and eel sauce. Imitation “krab” and cream cheese appear in many of the sushi roll offerings, and while I’ve always frowned on faux shellfish, real crab can be substituted for a small charge. I’ll stick to cream cheese on bagels, thanks.
Not to overlook the culinary divide, this little sushi place that serves Korean food does it very well indeed. Hot stone bowls called dolsot are vehicles for traditional bulgogi marinated beef, barbecued chicken, or the rice dish called bibimbap, mixing vegetables, a choice of meat, and an array of accompanying small dishes of kimchi, seasoned sprouts and radish that add spice, salt and tartness to your liking.
“It’s all about the pursuit of perfection,” Pak says, “knowing of course that you’ll never achieve it.” Whatever his idea of perfection might be, the steady stream of satisfied visitors to Sushi Lola’s says that this blend of Eastern delights is probably close enough.
Some offerings at Lola’s are as pretty as they are tasty. The Knight Roll layers firm yellowtail tuna, jalapeno pepper and cucumber in rice, adorned with a mixture of red and black flying fish roe. The show-stopper Magic Roll has an inner roll of tempura shrimp, cream cheese and avocado and a topping of shrimp, roe and eel sauce, and is set aflame as it comes to your table.