Restaurant Review: Sumo Grub

Sumo Grub is located at 2235 Milvia Street in downtown Berkeley.

On a regular day, I can loudly and proudly proclaim my love for deep-fried food, but when confronted with Sumo Grub's menu, I had to admit my insufficiency.

Located across the street from Berkeley High School downtown, Sumo Grub serves up a wide variety of simple American food -- all of which you can have deep-fried. That's right: burgers, mac and cheese, pizza, Oreos, Twinkies, and even ice cream will be happily tossed into the deep fryer at your request.

Although we often think of deep-fried food as carnival fare, Sumo Grub puts an Asian spin on it by using panko crumbs and soy oil instead of breading and grease (a small concession for the health-conscious).

For those who can't get enough, the restaurant also offers eating challenges, wherein those who finish their plate in 15 minutes get their meal for free. One such package, "Tempura or Die," includes cheesecake, six Twinkies, 12 Oreos, and two ice cream balls, all tempura-fried and topped with whipped cream and chocolate syrup. Sumo Grub is definitely not your typical Berkeley shop.

The more intense of the four eating challenges are quite appropriately named.

Only two people, thus far, have known the spoils of sweet (literally) victory.

The origins of Sumo Grub may not seem obvious; owner Jason Sum's family owns the more conventional restaurant, Berkeley Thai House. Sum and his wife, Ly, wanted to fill a large gap in the Berkeley restaurant scene -- and so they created a mecca of fast and fried fare in the cradle of the slow food movement. Sumo Grub opened last summer and has since garnered much media attention (including a feature on the Food Network's "Outrageous Eats").

Despite the buzz, the actual restaurant is a modest affair: clean, simple, and colorful. The interior, though featuring huge windows, is a bit dim during daytime, and is outfitted with bare brick walls, paper lanterns, and chalkboard menus.

The counter and our attentive server at Sumo Grub.

Speaking of the menus, there are many, many choices. Don't be fooled by its flashier fare; the restaurant also serves rice plates, sandwiches, and what it playfully calls "rabbit food" (salad).

My dining companion and I decided to try two combos: tempura mac and cheese (a signature fried dish), and a sausage with grilled onions (a more typical order). The highly customizable combos, which include a side and drink, are a deal at $5 to $6 each.

The tempura-fried mac and cheese, served with signature Sumo sauce and a side of fries.

A close-up cross-section of the mac and cheese.

Although you might expect deep-fried mac and cheese to be dripping with oil, the neat squares came out hot and pleasantly grease-free. My first few bites were surprisingly delicious, though by the end I was craving something to mix up my palate.

The panko crumbs worked well with the macaroni, adding texture and flavor, but I did wish that the ratio of mac and cheese to breading was a little more generous. Be warned that this deceptive-looking portion is not for the faint of heart -- though if you want more, you can try the mac and cheese challenge!

The hot link sausage, topped with grilled onions and sandwiched on a toasted bun.

We were less impressed by the hot link. My dining companion thought that the sausage and bun could have been cooked/toasted for a bit longer, and that it could have used more grilled onions. I agreed; the dog was quite flavorful, but perhaps not prepared to its full potential. This is just a guess, but our skepticism may have something to do with being spoiled by Berkeley's beloved Top Dog. In any case, we agreed that the fries themselves were reason enough to return to Sumo Grub.

Tempura-fried green tea ice cream, topped with whipped cream and chocolate syrup.

We finished off our meal with the tempura green tea ice cream. The snowball-sized sphere was cut in fourths and topped with whipped cream and chocolate syrup. There are, of course, questions of culinary logistics -- how exactly does one deep-fry a frozen food? -- though these hardly crossed my mind as I dug into the dish. I can definitely see how deep-frying lends itself to sweets, creating the perfect storm of artery-clogging decadence. Sumo Grub offers to subject any treat to its treatment, cooking up dozens of different candy bars and desserts.

From the inside of the restaurant looking out onto Berkeley High.

One could say that Sumo Grub is something of a novelty, but the restaurant has definitely carved out a niche for itself in a town full of gourmets. An enthusiastic Yelp following, and the regular crowds of Berkeley High students, attest to its well-attuned menu.

I'd definitely recommend trying out Sumo Grub, as a culinary experience and perhaps as a place to grab cheap eats -- though this is not to say I endorse the challenges (the restaurant's Wall of Shame far outweighs its Wall of Fame!).

I would also encourage eating with friends, as a meal of deep-fried pizza and Twinkies is best shared. As Sum cheekily says: "Live free or die frying."

Julie Dinh
BARE Reporter


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