I’ve always maintained that finding a satisfying Japanese meal is just as good at a humble strip mall spot as well it is at an expensive venue (with a “Blade Runner” decor theme). Case in point: North Boulder’s freshly minted Aoi Sushi and Izakaya. A bright and compact spot, anchored by a sushi bar, this venue also serves up the small plates associated with the izakaya, which roughly translates to a pub that serves food.

During a recent lunch, the menu consisted of a full boat of sushi offerings as well as tempura, grilled fish, and Japanese fried chicken. My dining companion and I opted for a mix of sushi and a few of the izakaya offerings.

Nigiri sushi is reasonably priced, with such staples as unagi, fresh water eel, clocking in at $3 per piece, and hokigai, surf clam, coming in at $2.50. The unagi, a personal favorite of my dining companion, was top-notch, possessing a balanced sweet and salty taste profile, enriched by  luxuriously rich texture and flavor. The clam also hit the mark, carrying a fresh brininess, underscored by subtle sweetness and a pleasing appearance as ivory-colored shellfish faded into a purple-reddish tone.

Aoi also offers premium sushi specials, and these included King Salmon for $8.50 for two pieces of nigiri sushi or the more stripped-down sashimi. This was a pleasing choice, and the smooth consistency and bright flavor made no doubt that the quality of the fish was a notch above that of most salmon found in similar sushi spots.

O Toro, fatty Croatian bluefin tuna, costs $9.50 for two pieces. Unfortunately, this might have been the weakest entry among the sushi. While the fish tasted fine, it didn’t quite possess the full bore fatty richness and velvety texture of the very best versions. On the other hand, it was also about a third less expensive than what I’ve been used to paying at other local venues.

The izakaya side of the house fares well here, with an intriguing variety of Japanese small plates on tap. It’s worth noting that the lunch menu didn’t offer the full range of options that are available at dinner. However, my dining companion and I found the chefs to be quite accommodating and willing to prepare some of the evening bill of fare options.

One of these items is the exquisite $8 chawan mushi, which is an item I always order if it’s on the menu. A diminutive savory egg custard delivered in its own covered cup, this gem is freighted with fish cake, tender fronds of baby spinach, chicken and shrimp. Comforting and hearty, yet somehow light all at once, this dish successfully combined several delicate flavors into something memorable.

Another dish I always order at Japanese restaurants is the hamachi kama, or broiled yellowtail collar. Aoi prepares this fish how I like it: The $12 item is minimally sauced and seasoned, with the main condiments being a sprinkle of salt and a lemon slice. Grated daikon comes on the side, and I typically add a drop or two of soy sauce to perk up this radish. This collar presented itself nicely, with a hint of char, and plenty of fish on the bone. It might have benefited from a touch less time under the heat, though, as the texture was firm, but not quite as moist as a perfectly executed version.

Two other classic choices included a first rate $8 agedashi tofu, featuring fried soy cubes in warm fish broth. This take was better than most, distinguished by its not-too-salty broth and a confidently assertive hit of aromatic ginger. Another impressive entry was the $5 hijiki, anchored by strands of braised black seaweed, augmented by root vegetables and tofu. Despite its seaborne origins, this preparation carried an unexpected heft and earthy savor, set off by appealing texture, and a pleasing briny tone.

Aoi is a more than welcome addition to the North Boulder dining scene, as it dishes out high-quality Japanese fare at a competitive price. It’s also nice to see sometimes hard-to-find non-sushi favorites, such as hamachi collar and charwan mushi on the menu as regular items. The overall experience is satisfying, and Aoi epitomizes a superior Japanese eatery that excels even in a humble mall setting.

Aoi Sushi and Izakaya

Food 3.5/4 stars

Service 3/4 stars

Ambience 3/4 stars

Price: $$

Address: 3303 30th St., Boulder

Contact: 303-449-5394, bit.ly/aoisushi

Hours: 11:30 a.m.–2 p.m., 5-9:30 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; 5-9:30 p.m. Saturday-Sunday

Fare: Sushi and izakaya-style small plates dominate the menu here, and there’s a decent number of selections identified as vegetarian and/or gluten-free. Selections that are delineated as both vegetarian and gluten-free include marinated vegetable options, such as burdock, spinach and seaweed small plates, among others. Gluten-free options include grilled skewers, such as those featuring duck and squid, as well as fried  chicken. Vegetarian selections include meatless sushi rolls, such as those stuffed with avocado or cucumber and a tofu avocado salad.

Noise Level: Moderate, and it picked up as the lunch crowd built itself up over time, but the noise level never drowned out conversation or the mellow jazz playing in the background.

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