Sora Sushi Japanese Restaurant

Food: () Sushi quality is inconsistent; bento dishes, especially tempura, are better

Service: () Self-serve sushi limits the need for servers, who try hard but remain scarce

Atmosphere: () M-shaped conveyor belt is the hub of a cafe with Tokyo-style decor

More Info

Location: 744 NW Bond St., Suite C, Bend

Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Cuisine: Japanese

Price range: Conveyor belt plates $1.95 to $4.95 (2 to 5 p.m., all plates $2.50); sushi combos $11.50 to $24.95, bento combos $8.95 and $11.95, rice bowls $9.75 to $15.95, noodles $6.25 to $13.75

Credit cards: American Express, Discover, Master Card, Visa

Kids’ menu: As priced from conveyor belt

Vegetarian and gluten-free menu: Limited choices include vegetable tempura

Alcoholic beverages: Fully licensed

Outdoor seating: No

Reservations: Large parties only

Contact: 541-318-3838

I admit to a bias against conveyor-belt sushi. Bend’s newest Japanese restaurant, Sora Sushi, has done little to sway my opinion.

I don’t like my food served in cookie-cutter fashion. I like to watch my fish being sliced and my rice rolled. And I like service that I don’t have to flag down, simply to order a cup of tea.

That said, as the newest of Central Oregon’s 11 restaurants that serve sushi and other Japanese cuisine, Sora (“sky”) has several things going for it, including its central location, its speed of service and its prices.

The Chinese-owned restaurant group, with outlets in Kelso, Washington, and in Woodburn, has done a nice job of adapting a former Mexican restaurant — facing Franklin Avenue, but with a Bond Street address next to McMenamins’ Old St. Francis School — to its new purpose. In fact, the former space is nearly unrecognizable.

An M-shaped conveyor tracks past 28 individual seats, beneath colorful Tokyo gift-shop décor that ranges from umbrellas and dolls to good-luck cats with raised paws. Three booths flank the belt at its far end, and additional tables at the back of the restaurant bring occupancy to 80.

Color-coded plates of four hues, priced from $1.95 to $4.95, are carried around the belt in front of diners’ noses. Several popular nigiri (sliced fish on a bed of rice) and maki rolls, along with a few specialty rolls, share the belt with freshly sliced fruit and a surprising selection of desserts, including cream puffs and cheesecake.

Some shortcomings

But on my initial visit, my dining companion and I weren’t offered a beverage, other than water delivered to our seats when we first sat. On a second visit, away from the conveyor belt, we had to flag a server simply to place an order off the menu.

There are no labels identifying the individual dishes, which spin around the carousel under transparent plastic lids, so diners are left guessing what they have chosen. Some fish are easily recognizable, such as salmon and maguro (ahi tuna), but white fish may be confusing: Is this hamachi (yellowfin tuna) or tai (red snapper)?

Specialty rolls are harder to distinguish, as they may contain a variety of ingredients rolled within rice and nori (seaweed). We found ourselves squinting to identify crab, tuna, avocado and cucumbers (for instance) within the rolls.

That said, the Sora experience can be fun and relatively inexpensive compared to other area sushi bars — especially during the happy hour (2 to 5 p.m.) when all plates are priced at $2.50, regardless of what color code they may carry.

Maguro and hamachi nigiri were freshly thawed and enjoyable, although unagi (freshwater eel) was not as tender as I normally find it elsewhere. Goma seaweed salad was better than edamame. A maki described only as a “steamed shrimp roll” by an employee was our favorite among a spicy tuna roll and a cooked salmon roll.

Off the menu

I preferred to place my orders from the non-sushi side of the menu.

Next time, I’ll try a bowl of udon or ramen, stir-fried yakisoba or a donburi rice bowl. But on my second visit to Sora, I chose a two-item bento combo — chicken teriyaki with tempura shrimp and vegetables, along with miso soup, salad, rice and a four-piece California roll, all for $11.95.

In particular, the tempura was excellent, served with a tasty dipping sauce. A generous portion of shrimp, broccoli, yams, beans and other veggies were quick-fried in a light and tasty batter rendering them neither greasy nor heavy. I would return for this.

The teriyaki chicken, presented upon a bed of chopped cabbage, was not as tender to the bite as I might have liked. But its sauce was fine. The Cali roll was forgettable, but the mixed greens salad (with romaine) was fresh and crispy, much better than I’ve found at some other Asian restaurants. And the miso soup was good.

Off the menu, my companion ordered two sushi rolls not available on the conveyor belt. A creamy scallop roll was drizzled with crème, rather than the shellfish having been prepared in a cream sauce; it was a different preparation, but the mollusks were fresh and good. A salmon skin roll had added imitation Krab; my friend said it lacked the crunchiness she likes, perhaps because there was too much sauce on top.

Central Oregon has been without conveyor-belt sushi since Yoko’s closed more than a half-dozen years ago. No doubt, Sora will attract diners who like that approach to Japanese food.

— John Gottberg Anderson can be reached at janderson@bendbulletin.com.

17506415