Philadelphia’s sushi scene is perhaps most famous for its namesake roll. What, precisely, is in a Philadelphia roll varies widely, but always includes cream cheese (not that Philadelphia cream cheese is even from Philly, but we digress). Because a rolldoesn’t usually have raw fish, it’s the type of thing that attracts people who might not otherwise be into sushi. It’s appeal has endured.
No one, perhaps, knows this better than Madame Saito, owner of Le Champignon de Tokio Sushi in Headhouse Square, who is widely credited with creating the Philadelphia roll back in the ‘80s.
“When I came from Tokyo and opened the restaurant … a lot of people were so scared of the raw fish,” she explained. “One of my customers invited me to their home to have a Jewish breakfast, and I said ‘Oh, this is our roll.’”
These days, sushi — both traditional and modern — is mainstream, but Saito still serves the Philly roll, and everyone loves it, she says. She teaches sushi-making classes every week, and says it’s one of the most-requested recipes.
There’s far more to Philly’s sushi scene these days than our eponymous roll. It’s easy to find good maki, nigiri, hand rolls, and chirashi no matter what neighborhood you’re in.
It can be anything from a quick, casual snack to a fancy, high-end omakase, a tasting menu of small plates decided by the chef.
You can get a good meal at any price point. The difference in price is often a combination of quality and sourcing. The higher the quality of fish, the more expensive it typically is, though it’s worth noting that while lower-quality fish may lack the flavor and richness of the better-quality stuff, it’s still safe to eat.
At Royal Sushi & Izakaya, James Beard-award nominated chef and co-owner Jesse Ito buys whole fish from Japan several times a week, breaks them down himself, and still consistently sells out. “On average, Japanese fish costs between $20 and $90 a pound, and that’s before it’s been broken down into edible pieces,” Ito says. “I don’t have any waste.”
There’s a lot you can tell about a sushi restaurant from the menu. Ito recommends looking for spots that serve King salmon over Scottish salmon. If you want to assess the chef’s skill, he recommends trying the tamago, a traditional Japanese rolled omelet: the technique, Ito says, requires finesse.
If you’re looking beyond the standard fare, it’s worth holding off on some sushi choices, like saba (mackerel), unless you know the chef is very good. “A fresh piece of tuna is going to be good,” Ito said. “Whereas something that takes some techniques like the mackerel, the chef has to know what he’s doing.”
From elegant fine dining to casual takeout, here are some of the best spots — whether you want cream cheese in your roll or not.
The fancy stuff
Jesse Ito’s sushi spot in Queen Village is a place you can go all-out, including a full sushi-focused omakase where you put yourself in Ito’s hands for small sushi courses enjoyed individually. Ito says it breaks etiquette to dunk your pre-seasoned sushi in dishes of soy sauce (but using your hands is OK). You can also get a casual meal at the bar with just a few rolls and a beer. Ito has whole fish delivered fresh from Japan twice a week and he’s committed to using the entire animal: Ask about the “industry chirashi,” a bed of sushi rice topped with whatever pieces are leftover from the omakase that night.
Chef Joe Kim, who trained for years at James Beard-nominated Sagami in Collingswood, opened Dawa in 2019. Eat à la carte or splurge on the $135 omakase (gone are the days of the extremely popular $59 option), or one of the more affordable chef’s special combinations, all in Dawa’s casual, BYO environment.
The only option at HIROKI is the $145 20-course omakase. The menu typically includes a sashimi course and the sushi course with a dozen or so pieces of nigiri. The selections change constantly (though they will accommodate dietary concerns), with fish sourced directly from Japan’s Toyusu Market.
Xiang Yu “Sam” Lin spent a decade working at high-end sushi bars in Manhattan before he opened Sakana in Headhouse Square, where he made a name for himself with comparatively affordable omakase. Something you won’t find on most other sushi menus: Lin ages some fish, a process that removes excess moisture, concentrates the flavor, and creates a more tender bite. The fattier the fish, the longer it can be aged, Lin says. Fatty tuna belly, for example, can be dry-aged up to two months for a succulent, meaty bite.
Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto and restaurateur Stephen Starr opened Morimoto in 2001, before there was a swath of sushi spots in the city to try and before sushi was commonplace in grocery stores and airports. The brand has grown, and there are Morimotos in a handful of cities, including New York, Las Vegas, and Mumbai. Signature dishes include the toro tartare and the tuna pizza, a fried tortilla topped with tuna sashimi. For a tasting menu experience that is all sushi and sashimi, chef’s combinations start at $50.
Kaiseki began as a pandemic project, delivering a small menu of maki, nigiri, and hand rolls to a wide swath of the city. In late 2020, owners Andy Bernard and Crystal Gurin moved into a permanent space on Spring Garden and expanded the menu to include chirashi and specialty rolls. Bernard focuses on traditional techniques and influences, so you won’t find California or Philadelphia rolls on the menu — just beautifully cut and seasoned fresh fish, and a selection of homemade Japanese-style pickles. Bernard sources his fish from the same places used by some of the higher-end spots, but his low overhead and preorder system allow him to price his fish a little bit lower. Kaiseki is still pickup and delivery only; one note: If you want delivery, you’ll have to preorder before 2 p.m.
Nunu is all about the vibey, relaxed bar environment where, yes, you can order classic and specialty maki, nigiri, sashimi, and, every now and then, a chirashi “hoagie” of fried sushi rice stuffed with sliced raw fish. Pair it with Japanese-inspired cocktails like a chu-hai, drinks with ingredients like yuzu, plum, or melon, or those made with Japanese whisky or gin. And Nunu’s happy hour features a handful of maki (think spicy tuna roll and California rolls) for $5 or $6.
Sushi can be a fancy dinner or a convenient weekday meal. Kinme can be either. The $10 lunch menu gets you an appetizer and two rolls or onigiri. At dinner, the BYO’s menu includes both familiar and more modern rolls, such as the Annie, with spicy tuna, Asian pear, shichimi-peppered tuna, and sweet balsamic vinaigrette.
At Rittenhouse’s Zama, you can get the chef’s omakase tasting menu for $55 a person. Or you can sit at the bar, drink Japanese whiskey, and eat à la carte maki and nigiri. Zama’s To Philly roll is a slightly different take on the cream cheese-stuffed American classic, with cucumber and asparagus, and topped with tofu skin. Or, for an even-more-Philly option, there’s a sushi version of a cheesesteak: a roll with Washugyu (a domestic beef brand that crossbred Japanese Wagyu with American black Angus cattle), provolone, spicy mayo, and bibb lettuce wrapped in red pepper-flaked soy paper, and served with horseradish aioli (it even comes wit or witout, per the menu). Zama’s rolls also have ingredients you don’t typically see on sushi menus, from branzino to hummus.
Mizu is a good reminder that not all sushi has to be a high-end, breathlessly presented, expensive meal. Mizu offers familiar classics like California rolls, spicy tuna rolls, and dragon rolls in generous portions, alongside dumplings, udon, and lots of tempura. Mizu offers brown rice as an option for all its maki.
📍 111 S. 40th St., 📞 215-382-1745, 🕑 Mon.-Sat. 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
This solid West Philly restaurant offers two cultural takes on raw fish: Japanese sushi and Hawaiian poke. The menu is vast, the bentos generous, and the prices reasonable. And all of the maki can be made with brown rice.
Chef and owner Kenneth Sze grew up in his family’s Japanese restaurant in Maple Shade, but even with the long local ties, you won’t find anything with cream cheese on the menu. Tuna Bar has a creative menu of classic and signature rolls and sashimi anda small but creative selection of well-built cocktails, which is something of a rarity among the more casual sushi spots in the city. The restaurant has a airy, modern vibe with cozy, built-in banquettes that are ideal for date night. You can also sample a wide selection of sakes, or opt for a flight. Deal-seekers can take advantage of the Tuesday through Friday happy hour from 4-6 p.m. where you’ll find discounts on a few rolls, appetizers, and draft beer.
Yanako is Manayunk’s go-to sushi spot. At dinner, the huge sushi menu can be a little overwhelming, but it has a wide range of simple maki with lots of vegetarian options like oshinko and dried gourd, and signature rolls with ingredients like lobster tempura and yuzu aioli. And there’s a Philly roll on the menu, if you’re in a cream-cheese-and-smoked-salmon mood.
Outside the city
The low, wood-paneled ceiling at Sagami might surprise you when you walk in the door of this Collingswood spot, but once inside you’ll feel transported to a traditional Japanese sushi-ya. Open since 1974, Sagami has been nominated twice for James Beard awards. Chef Shigeru Fukuyoshi’s menu is full of simple classics: assortments of sushi and chirashi, as well as traditional maki and nigiri à la carte. No cream cheese or dragon rolls here.
Chef-owner Yong Kim runs two suburban family-friendly sushi spots. At Bluefin, the menu leans lux: Think maki with king crab or drizzled with truffle oil alongside a menu rich in other seafood, including lobster macaroni and cheese. His second restaurant, Bluefin Eagleview, has a smaller menu that focuses on American maki favorites like a spicy tuna and salmon avocado. There are also set sashimi dinners and generous sushi platters for bigger crowds.
📍 2820 Dekalb Pike, East Norriton, and 555 Wellington Square, Exton, 📞 610-277-3917, 🌐 restaurantbluefin.com, 📷 @chefyonten, 🕑Tue.-Thu. 11:30 a.m.-8 p.m., Fri. 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m., Sat. 4-9 p.m., Sun. 4-8 p.m.
About the writer
Maddy Sweitzer-Lammé is a food and restaurant writer based in Philadelphia with roots in the South. Her work spans restaurants, home cooking, and all the ways food is intertwined with community, politics, and pleasure. Her work has appeared in Food & Wine, Bon Appetit, and Philadelphia Magazine.