The Secrets to the Best California Roll

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Does an eighteen-dollar California roll truly taste better than a three-dollar one?

Does imitation crab taste different than real crab?

What other ingredients make all the difference for making the best California roll?

And who makes the best California roll in the sushi-crazed city where it was invented?

We semi-scientifically answered all these questions—and made some other unexpected discoveries—by conducting a blind taste test of ten different California rolls.

Everything You Wanted to Know about California Rolls

California Roll 101


The California roll is a type of sushi made of the following:

  • Avocado
  • Cucumber
  • Crab or imitation crab
  • Mayonnaise

These ingredients are wrapped “inside out” with the rice on the outside and seaweed on the inside, and typically rolled in toasted sesame seeds.


The Gateway Drug Sushi

Most sushi snobs won’t touch a California roll with a ten-foot chopstick because it’s not “real” Japanese sushi.

But they should be thankful for it.

“Real” sushi may never have become the American cultural phenomenon it is without it.

The California roll was the Trojan Horse of sushi’s American invasion.

Before its arrival, most Westerners were disgusted by the idea of raw fish and seaweed. But when the California roll hid the seaweed inside the rice and replaced the raw fish with cooked crab, it disarmed them into giving sushi a try.

Once disarmed by the idea of sushi, they were then compelled to embrace other varieties. Even raw fish, eventually.

Who Invented It?

There’s some debate as to who invented the California roll.

Sushi chefs in California and Canada take credit.

We stand by the claims of Vancouver’s own Chef Hidekazu Tojo, who said he invented it in 1971 at his restaurant, Tojo’s, which of course we included in our California roll taste test.

California roll sushi ingredients viewed easily in up close sushi roll
A well-executed California roll with all the ingredients: rice, seaweed, cucumber, avocado, sauce, and crab.

The Secrets to the Best California Roll

a close-up of another california roll
You can’t tell if it’s fake crab or not when you look at it, and our taste test found you can’t tell when you eat it either.

Real Crab or Imitation Crab?

Not a single person in our taste test could tell which California rolls had fake crab and which didn’t.

To be extra sure, from one restaurant we tested one roll with real crab and another with the fake stuff. Everyone actually preferred the roll with the imitation crab!

So since you too likely won’t be able to tell the taste difference between real and imitation crab, but you sure can tell the difference in price, we recommend sticking with imitation crab.

Save the crabs and save some money.


Size Matters?

We didn’t expect the size of the pieces to affect tasters’ preferences, but it did. A lot.

Different tasters had different preferences. Some liked big, mouth-filling pieces. Others found big pieces unpleasant and overwhelming.

The lesson is to find what your preference is and let your sushi maker know so they can slice your roll into the size that fits you best.

California roll sushi with too much avocado
Ugh. Too much avocado. Only in California Rolls is that not a good thing.

What’s Wrong with Avocado?

It seems everyone loves avocado these days.

And for good reason. It’s healthy and it seems to make everything you add it to taste better.

Except in California rolls.

Not a single taster appreciated the avocado in any of the California rolls. Its subtle taste was masked by the other ingredients and its soft texture detracted from the overall experience.

When it comes to California rolls, it may the one and only time where you’re better off taking it easy on the avocado.

Does More Expensive Sushi Taste Better?

A clear conclusion from the taste test results (below) is that you can’t judge a California roll by its price tag.

As you can see from the ranking table, there is absolutely zero correlation between price and quality.


Does the Restaurant’s Name Affect its Sushi’s Quality?

The four highest-rated California rolls in the taste test were from places that all had Japanese names—Tomokazu, Toshi’s, Fujiya, and Tojo’s. The four lowest rated were from places with English names—The Eatery, Loblaws, Green Leaf, and Whole Foods.

Maybe it’s just a coincidence, but if you want good sushi we recommend you don’t take any chances and stick to getting it from places with Japanese names.

tojos best california roll vancouver taste test
Not only did Tojo’s California Roll taste different from all the others, but it was also packed differently and easily the most expensive ($18 a roll!).

Is the World’s Original California Roll Any Different?

As mentioned above, Tojo’s invented the California roll and everyone else copied it. Or so we thought.

It turns out nobody copied it properly.

The ingredients may be the same, but every one of our tasters noted that Tojo’s roll tasted completely different. Most said it was different in a good way and it was their favorite. A couple others ranked it last for the same reason. (And that’s why Tojo’s California roll fell to fourth place overall.)

So if you want an authentic California roll, go to Tojo’s. It may not be everyone’s choice for the best California roll in Vancouver… but it may also be the only one.

You can imitate crab but you can’t imitate the original California roll.

How to Make the Best California Roll Sushi?

Aspiring sushi restaurant owners of home sushi makers take note.

Through this taste test we discovered that, in addition to the points mentioned above, the following criteria are vital for making the perfect California roll:

  • Include a small crispy piece of cucumber—one just big enough for the fresh crisp, but not enough to overwhelm other flavors and smells.
  • Use imitation crab because nobody can tell the difference anyway. (See above.)
  • The crab, or “crab,” can be shredded or whole. Nobody cared one way or the other.
  • Size matters. Let the eater cut the roll to their preferred size. (See above.)
  • Use “al dente” rice. Not too soft or sticky, but not too hard either. You should be able to taste and feel each individual grain.
  • Easy on the avocado. Consider it to be part of the sauce, not a main ingredient, and use it sparingly.

Who Makes the Best California Roll in Vancouver?

Here are the consolidated results.

(For the boring details on how we ran the taste test, jump to the bottom of the page.)

RankScoreMade ByType of CrabPrice / Roll
17.0Tomokazu All-You-Can-EatImitation$3.50
26.8Toshi SushiImitation$4.25
36.7Fujiya Japanese SupermarketImitation$3.00
56.0Everyday SushiImitation$2.50
65.7Toshi SushiReal$10.00
75.2The EateryImitation$5.00
84.9Loblaws SupermarketImitation$6.00
94.6Green LeafImitation$4.25
103.4Whole FoodsReal$10.00

[Update: Reader and local California Roll sushi connoisseur Barry reached out to give a hearty recommendation to Samurai Sushi on Cambie. We’ve yet to check it out, but it may be worth a stop off if you’re in the area (or on the way to/from the airport).]

Kim shops at Essaouira carpet market

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Want More Vancouver and/or Blind Taste Test Discoveries?

If you’re looking for more insights into your favorite foods that only a blind taste test can provide, then A) Do your own! (They’re lots of fun.) or B) Check out the other taste tests we’ve done on The Unconventional Route, including Vancouver gelatos and ice creams, and Colombian beers, cheeses, and their local firewater.

And if you’re looking for other cool things to do in Vancouver—stuff that you won’t find on any other travel guide—head on over to our Not-Your-Ordinary Vancouver Travel Guide.

california roll taste test vancouver
Our beautiful vegetarian friend Mariana agreed to serve us for the evening.

How We Ran the California Roll Taste Test

Use our guide to How to Have a Blast Conducting Blind Taste Tests to run your own.

More specifically, here’s how we made the taste test to find the best California roll in Vancouver as impartial and fair as possible:

  • Assemble: The evening of the taste test, our tasters fanned out across the city to buy fresh rolls and bring them to the tasting. Only one organizer knew all the sushi restaurants involved in the taste test.
  • Serve: One-by-one, our vegetarian friend served us samples of each of the ten rolls. The order was random and one roll was duplicated as a control (which the tasters passed). The testers only knew the rolls by the order in which they were served (e.g. roll #1, #2, and so on).
  • Taste: With their eyes closed the entire time, the testers ate each roll in one bite.
  • Comment: After swallowing the roll, testers opened their eyes to write down their notes and comments. They did not speak to each other during the tasting so as to not affect each other’s opinions.
  • Rank: Tasters ranked the California rolls from their favorite to least favorite. Ties were permitted.
  • Discuss: Before unveiling which sushi was which, we had a roundtable discussion on what we liked and disliked most, and why.
  • Consolidate and Crown: The server revealed which sushi was which, then we consolidated the individual tasters’ rankings to get to the final results shared in the post above.
Chris and Kim

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