As a sophisticated adult, I enjoy the finer things in life. A barely seared thick cut filet mignon? Yes, please. Aged scotch on the rocks? I will, thank you very much. A night at the opera? I shall be in attendance. I’m a classy piece of shit. But that didn’t stop me from wetting my pants the first time I walked into I Ai Sushi, a small Japanese restaurant on Waters and Dale Mabry in Carrollwood.
I Ai Sushi is essentially an anime nerd’s wet dream… a paper lantern lit restaurant blasting J-Pop, wall scrolls hung, serving ramen, sushi, and squid balls. If this place had existed when I was in high school, there would have been tears of joy… “finally, a place for me!”. Alas, I only recently discovered it after searching Tampa for a restaurant that served okinomiyaki. And I was not disappointed! Their okinomiyaki met my every expectation, and the restaurant itself far exceeded them.
On my most recent visit, I decided to indulge in a bowl of tonkatsu ramen with pork belly, while my girlfriend ordered a bento box with teriyaki chicken. While we waited, we enjoyed their Japanese drink offerings, and also sampled an item I had seen before but never actually had the chance to try – takoyaki. This is typically a street food in Japan, but entirely uncommon to find here at all… probably because it’s little balls of fried batter with chunks of octopus inside. And, as appetizing as octopus chunks sounds, and as adventurous an eater I try to be, I really wasn’t able to get past the chewy octopus in the takoyaki. Similar to calamari (which I enjoy), but the difference in textures hurt most, as the rubbery octopus was suspended inside the not-entirely-solid ball.
The ramen was rich and intense – the noodles were delicious, though I don’t believe they were freshly made, the broth was creamy and heavy, and the pork belly pushed the dish over the top to decadency. It was a perfect combination, inducing a sort of pork-madness, and resulting in my inability to finish the meal (mostly due to the fatty pork belly). The bento box was truly a sight to behold, served with miso soup, a slice of cantaloupe, half a banana, a salad with ginger dressing, a sushi roll, tempura vegetables, the teriyaki chicken, and some edamame. Their teriyaki chicken was hot and delicious. The tempura veggies were perfectly crisp. And we’d had some of their sushi before (dragon roll); I recall appreciating how the warm fried shrimp contrasted with the cool avocado and cream cheese in a way I never noticed elsewhere. Each part of the bento box was excellent, and combined makes for a hugely satisfying meal.
Boasting a menu packed with items you can’t really find many other places in Tampa, in a setting reminiscent of a high schooler’s bedroom, I Ai Sushi is a unique find. The prices are completely fair – we probably spent around 35 bucks, and got way more food than we could eat between the two of us. Great food from a place that will tweak your nostalgia buttons aka nipples.
I Ai Sushi is located at 3691 W Waters Ave, Tampa.
Open Monday through Saturday, 11:30am-2:30pm and again from 5pm-9pm. Closed Sundays.