This post originally appeared in the September 25, 2023 edition of The Move, a place for Eater’s editors and writers to reveal their recommendations and pro dining tips — sometimes thoughtful, sometimes weird, but always someone’s go-to move. Subscribe now.
Whether I’m at home, on a stressful work trip, or in an unfamiliar town visiting family, having access to a dependable takeout sushi spot is vital to my mental health. Maybe I’m deficient in Omega-3s or maybe I’m just a little too sushi-dependent. While in a different place, I can’t be certain that their go-to order isn’t priced to scam tourists or being sourced from a sketchy ghost kitchen. But I’ve perfected my method of seeking out a great takeout sushi restaurant by looking at the one menu item I will never actually order: the California roll.
Yes, California rolls, with their imitation crab stick, the oft overripe avocados, and one-note cucumber. To me, they are the very definition of what the youth call “mid.” Yet, it is precisely their standard ingredients that make them such a crucial part of a menu. While the cost and quality of a slice of tuna or a scallop may vary from one restaurant to the next, a California roll should remain almost exactly the same.
Let me pause for a moment to introduce to you to The Big Mac Index: A tongue-in-cheek term coined by the Economist to “demonstrate the concept of purchasing power” in different countries using a standard McDonald’s Big Mac hamburger.
Since McDonald’s is a multinational corporation, when someone orders a Big Mac, they can expect to receive the same product, no matter the location. Therefore, it’s a great benchmark to measure the power of the dollar from country to country. A Big Mac costs $1.76 USD in Venezuela, while in Switzerland the very same burger will set you back over $7 USD. This illustrates that the purchasing power of a U.S. dollar in Venezuela is greater than in a high-cost-of-living country like Switzerland. For money-conscious travelers, this can help gauge where they might be able to get more bang for their buck, or where they can expect to splurge.
A staple item like a California roll can play a parallel role when reviewing a sushi menu. Using my neighborhood in Queens, New York as the standard I noted the cost of California rolls from 23 restaurants on Grubhub and determined the average to be $6.96. I now consider any takeout spot listing a California roll within a dollar above or below this average worth ordering from.
But doing this much math is not necessary on vacation. If, through a perfunctory scroll of five or so restaurants, you notice one wildly outside of the average price of $7, you can rule it out. If the cost of a California roll, and therefore the rest of the food on the menu, is much lower than this average, I have reason to be a bit suspect. Is the fish lower quality? Are the workers getting paid a living wage? It’s not worth it to find out — I don’t take risks with raw fish, especially while traveling.
There are plenty of reasons why a California roll may be listed as higher than average on a delivery app. One chef may get fancy and add a little roe (or, unfertilized fish eggs) usually at an upcharge. Another may slice their rolls into eight pieces instead of the standard six. Or, the restaurant may be particularly notable. Nobu, the celebrity-obsessed high-end sushi chain, lists a California roll on trycaviar.com at a whopping $22 at the time of writing.
But to the owners of the everyday, common takeout spots: What is going through your minds when charging 10 whole, crisp American dollars for a single California roll? The star ingredient of this roll is imitation crab meat, for crying out loud. It’s not exactly a shining beacon of quality and taste. To me, a California roll that expensive suggests that the owners may not be keeping up with their local competition in terms of ingredient quality or pricing. Hard pass. My meager lunch special shouldn’t land my card in overdraft territory.
It’s not always an easy feat to walk the line between food poisoning and bankruptcy when choosing a new go-to takeaway place, but it doesn’t have to be impossible. And so, the humble California roll lives on in my heart. Not as something I seek to consume, but as a dependable and trustworthy guide. A roll that will take my tender hand and lead me to my next meal. A roll that steers me clear of foodborne illness and financial ruin. A roll that will usher me to the comforting pleasure of a reliable meal.
Christine Carone is a freelance writer, video editor, and artist from Queens, New York. Her Instagram handle is, appropriately, @somethingsushi.