It’s a sushi roll the size of a sub, and you eat it as though biting into a jumbo egg roll. It is the heart and signature of Philadelphia’s first Japanese burrito bar, Hai Street Kitchen & Co.
Structurally, a Hai Street Kitchen roll is the same as an average burrito. This, however, is where all similarities come to an end, as the flavor profile of a Hai Street Kitchen roll takes a Tex-Mex staple and spins it into a new Japanese hybrid. The difference is in the ingredients: a sheet of nori covering the outside, a layer of white or brown rice, various vegetables, homemade sauce, your choice of protein and a generous crunchy sprinkle on top.
Each roll is wrapped neatly in a sheet of paper and placed in a hexagonal cylinder as the container. The timely preparation of a Hai Street Kitchen roll as well as the restaurant’s relaxed and casual demeanor make this type of cuisine suitable for both dining in and eating on the go.
Located on 18th Street in Rittenhouse Square, this Philadelphia Zagat-rated eatery consists of a made-to-order burrito bar, a cashier where you order sides or drinks, and a dining bar at the other corner of the restaurant. One of the walls is decorated with adorned wooden cutting boards that bestow a simple, bare, all-natural impression toward this chain restaurant.
The menu is filled with Hai Street Kitchen’s signature roll combinations and a wide variety of ingredients for when you want to “have it rolled your way.” The signature combinations cover a wide variety of flavor palates and dietary restrictions: “The Shroom” with grilled Portobello mushroom; “Mexicana” with Mexican grilled pork belly; “Slammin’ Salmon” with a hint of spicy gochujang sauce; “Hai Street Chicken” with chicken katsu — a breaded, deep-fried chicken cutlet; and “Sumo Steak,” featuring flank steak with black pepper teriyaki sauce, are all creations of Hai Street’s design.
If none of these options satisfy you, there is always an option to customize your meal. After selecting either “roll” in a nori wrap or “bowl” style (there is a “mixed greens” substitution for rice as well), you select a main ingredient, which, aside from Portobello mushroom, are mostly meat based. Next, choose from homemade sauces: green chimichurri, spicy mayo, tomatillo salsa, Korean spicy gochujang or black pepper teriyaki, and pick up to four veggies.
Some of the more unique options include asparagus, roasted beets, pickled mango and green papaya salad. The roll is finished off with scattering crunch of fried garlic, fried shallots or yucca chips.
I decided to go crunchy all the way with “The Crunch,” one of the signature rolls, which includes shrimp tempura, spicy mayo, romaine, cucumber, pickled mango, asparagus and fried shallots. The nori was soft yet durable enough to hold the filings together, so that you could get a bit of everything in every single bite. The tempura was astoundingly crunchy and the shrimp were perfectly cooked.
The romaine lettuce, cucumber, asparagus and fried shallots even intensified the crunchiness and added a fresh taste to the roll. The pickled mango was a surprise to me, since I initially assumed that it was green mango as usually seen in some Thai dishes. However, it was shredded ripened mango with a refreshing sweet-and-sour taste that complimented the tempura without overpowering it at all. Finally, the spicy mayo went perfectly with the whole combination.
Nutrition is one of my considerations when it comes to my diet. The Hai Street Kitchen roll provides good food in moderation, as opposed to the over-sized portions that most restaurants feature. The roll or bowl might seem small, but I almost got full after half of the roll. The meal left me feeling full and energized but not indigestibly stuffed.
My first experience was beyond the initial expectation, so I did not hesitate to go back a second time.
Upon my second visit, I only picked a side and a drink as my post-lunch snack. Among the three available sides — Hai Street chips with wasabi guacamole, miso vegetable soup and sweet corn tempura — I went for the third along with the sweet green tea. That was the first time I had ever had corn tempura.
The corn kernels were separated from the cob, covered in tempura batter, deep-fried and served in a Chinese-food-box-like container. I would suggest eating it as soon as you can, or else the batter will absorb the moisture and lose its crispiness. The corn tempura comes with optional Old Bay seasoning for those who want an extra hot and spicy flavor.
Overall, I think it was fairly decent, though it might be a little too oily for me. The green tea, however, was a plus. It wasn’t the common clear green tea. The tea was made out of matcha — Japanese finely ground green tea powder. Hence, the tea water was very green with visible tealeaf particles. I’m originally not a fan of matcha, but the taste of the tea powder was so fragrant that I could not resist.
The prices range from $6.99 to $8.99 for the rolls or bowls and about $2.50 on average for each side or drink, which I found pretty reasonable. The service was really fast, too. I arrived at 1:30 p.m. upon my second visit; there were nearly 15 people ahead of me, but it took less than five minutes until I made my order, making Hai Street Kitchen a great place for busy people. The only con that I can think of is the eat-in area. There were only four stools for an eight-person bar, which might be intense if you want to stay on-site to finish your meal.
All in all, I am in love with this place and the concept of its cuisine. Does Hai Street Kitchen deserve a third visit from me? I’d say most definitely.