The word authentic is frequently invoked when it comes to dining. But beyond condemning cross-cultural atrocities like the Cronut, few people stop to think what the term really means. In truth, authenticity is a fast-moving target. Is what you’re serving authentic to, for example, Japan? How can that be, when even (or perhaps especially) staple foods are transformed from prefecture to prefecture and city to city? Is a given dish authentic to a particular overseas restaurant? A chef for a period of her life, and one of her successors, but not the other successor? Without importing the produce, can you really say the flavor profile is identical, or has it been meaningfully transformed (and possibly destroyed)?
And if you can serve up a dish that’s delicious, does it matter if “authentic” food or drink has become fusion, or something entirely new and native to the United States? Diners who might enjoy a big bowl of food for thought on this topic are encouraged to watch The Search for General Tso, which pulls apart the origins of the Chinese-American dish bearing the general’s name and discovers that its roots and authenticity (in any setting), are tangled and up for debate.
Most Japanese restaurants make a play for the appearance of authenticity, using shoji and ukioy-e and little cups of sake to woo diners even while serving nine-ingredient, quarter-pound, fried-up monster maki that would be more at home in Texas than Tokyo. There’s nothing wrong with this practice per se, but you’ve got to hand it to the newly opened SotaRol — these guys aren’t fronting. The restaurant’s founders (also behind Agra Culture and Yogurt Lab) embraced a unique (some might say perverse?) burrito-meets-Japan-meets-Minnesota branding scheme with no claim to being authentic anything, and they’re serving reasonably healthy and tasty food in the process.
The restaurant’s Beef Bulgogi Bowl ($11) won’t give the rice bowls at World Street Kitchen a run for their money, but there’s no shame in that. While the SotaRol bowl lacked some of the textural variety and depth of flavor that makes the WSK bowls tops, its meat was charred and flavorful and veggies pleasantly snappy and fresh tasting. A bit of spicy heat and funk would take this dish to the next level.
The restaurant’s ridiculously named Fried Bagel Roll really wasn’t bad. It combined avocado, salmon, cream cheese, and mildly spicy mayo to make a serviceable inside-out maki that hits the right notes for workaday fusion sushi. And at $7.25, it was a good value — we’ve had less palatable equivalents of this roll for $12 at more conventional Japanese restaurants. Aggressive breading meant that the salmon got a bit lost in the scrum, but at this price (and low level of pretense) that’s a minor problem.
Our 5 Spice Pork SotaRito ($8.50) came wrapped in a tender but durable sheet of soy paper and was the highlight of the meal. We appreciated the heat that accompanied the house-braised pork, and also the balance of the cool, creamy avocado and the mildly spicy mayo dressing. Its rice blend tied everything together. Somehow this dish managed to scratch both the burrito and sushi itches without compromising either ideal.
SotaRol isn’t going to redefine Minnesota’s culinary landscape, but its ambitions are more limited than that: They’re shooting for a zany, Chipotle-esque, mid-range option between splashing out serious money for lunch and settling for a wallow in sadness at Taco Bell. The promise is pleasing and modest, and it’s fulfilled by the food and clean-but-not-sterile atmosphere.
Casual fusion at 50th and France in Minneapolis
5005 Ewing Ave S
Minneapolis, MN 55410
OWNER: Z&H Hospitality
11 a.m. -9 p.m.
RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED?: No
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / Yes
ENTREE RANGE: $7-$11
PARKING: Small lot, limited street parking