Munch goes to Benichopsticks

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Pittsburgh's known for several things, almost none of which fit into the Haute Couture category. We smoke in bars, grow startlingly large beards and find eternal style in the hooded sweatshirt. Toby Keith's tour stops here not once, but twice. Oh, and cuisine? As a general rule, it goes like this: If something is at first unacceptable -- a salad, say, or a sandwich -- Pittsburghers then pull out their trump-card fixer-upper, a heaping addition of french fries.

So now, on to today's topic.

Sushi.

Sushi and Pittsburgh.

Really, based on everything else, the two make for strange bedfellows. Spend enough Internet search time tracking the connection of those terms, and you'll find the story from 1997, when then-Steelers linebacker Chad Brown fled in free agency to Seattle. His wife complained shortly thereafter to the media that Pittsburgh lacked the high-end culinary distinctions they looked for in a city. Like -- wait for it ... wait for it -- sushi.

Perhaps it figures, then, that a sushi-averse town would bury one of its best sushi joints deep into McMurray, inside a strip mall, behind a sterile, forgettable marquee that provides it with all the exterior charm of a laundromat. Chances are, you've never heard of Benichopsticks. Sounds like some B-rate karate comedy, in fact.

Munch only heard about the place from Culinary Sherpa of Munch -- a man with a bloodhound's nose for good food.

"Best sushi around," he said of Benichopsticks.

Oh, and then he mentioned how the place was always empty.

Don't allow that to cast aspersions about the food, though. It's simply this: Benichopsticks lingers on the periphery of the city, away from the oft-recognized sushi places, Nakama, Sushi Two, Sushi Too, Sushi Three and perhaps Sushi Four, Sushi For and Sushi Fore. Indeed, when Munch left Downtown for dinner at the 'Chop on a recent Tuesday, the Paper Bag arrived in the parking lot some 39 minutes later.

But Munch still recommends the journey.

Sushi works perfectly as a cleansing, refreshing meal, and Benichopstick's interior plays along with that idea. It's airy and light; if a mountain stream could originate somewhere in McMurray, this might be the place. To the right, upon entering, a small and silent team of sushi chefs roll the ingredients -- eel and crab and squid and tobiko.

Munch, with the help of five others, ordered a full lineup of varieties. Benichopsticks' menu offers more than a half-dozen pre-selected sushi arrangements, but Munch wished to mix and match. A simple a-la-carte menu made it easy: It listed 30 different kinds of rolls, all with between six and eight pieces, and few of which Munch could imagine based on description alone. (Example: Crazy Roll, $7.50, tempura salmon, eel and salmon skin.)

The meal began with the perfect, simple touch. Our waitress delivered small salads. Just some plain iceberg and tomatoes. But topped with cold splash of carrot-and-oil-based dressing, it served as light (but flavored) appetizer for the palate.

Then, the sushi. The little rolls, a mixture of five kinds, arrived on a platter, positioned across the plane like replica football players. (Sushi and Pittsburgh ... there you have it.) Quickly, chopsticks flew in plucked them away.

As a base -- the control in our sushi experiment -- we ordered the yellowtail roll ($4.25), a simple taste hugged in the standard rice and seaweed. But on the sushi boat, the yellowtail was overshadowed by stronger flavors -- the kind one cannot find in ready-to-go containers at Giant Eagle.

And Benichopsticks makes an art out of novelty sushi. The crunch roll ($5) -- crab, white tuna, yellowtail and tobiko -- had the perfect balance of zing and sweetness. The PGH roll ($6) -- salmon and crab tempura -- actually looked more like Japan's answer to the corndog, smothered in twin lines of red and yellow sauce. The spicy tuna roll ($4.50) leaned more to the traditional side, but with a kick that sent one reaching for the water.

The thing is, the Benichopsticks menu extends beyond sushi. It serves both Chinese and Japanese dishes -- the sesame beef, the sweet-and-sour staples, an impressive moo shi chicken. Count in a few Japanese beers, five soup varieties and some avant-garde appetizers, and you've got yourself a fairly extensive menu. Now if only Benichopsticks could throw some french fries inside that California roll.


Benichopsticks is at 1025 Waterdam Plaza Drive, McMurray. Call 724-942-1160.


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