When combined, "cheap" and "sushi" are two frightening words. I understand the reasons people dislike sushi: there are health risks and cold, old fish isn't appetizing. What is delicious is fresh raw fish—cool (not cold), firm, silken. Luxury is rarely cheap, so the point is to have the freshest fish at the lowest price. If I can glut myself on sushi (standard meal: two pieces each of salmon, scallop, and raw shrimp nigiri, and one spicy tuna roll) and come in under $20, I call that a good deal. Seattle has some top-notch options when it comes to "affordable sushi," each with its own style.
Best Prepackaged Option: Maruta is a well-stocked and meticulously maintained Japanese grocery and deli in Georgetown. Whatever sushi items you choose, it feels as though your adoptive Japanese family has made these treats just for you. A package of tuna, albacore tuna, and salmon sashimi slices tasted bright in spite of time spent in a Styrofoam tray. Maruta's prices are more than reasonable ($4.99 for a huge six-piece spider roll), and after 5:00 p.m., everything is marked down 50 percent. (1024 S Bailey St, 767-5002, Mon–Sat 9:30 am–6:30 pm, Sun 10 am–6 pm.)
No-Frills Standby: When I ate dinner at Sam's Sushi with one of my closest friends we were both stressed out. She seemed unable to talk, I lacked the energy to buoy her spirits. But with certain friends you don't have to try and that is what makes time together restorative. Consider Sam's an old friend—my plate of fish was nondescript, but its freshness was undeniable and elegant, delivered seemingly without effort. The spicy tuna roll ($4.75) is particularly tasty and clear, and Sam's gets extra points for serving the heads of the raw shrimp on the side, deep fried ($4). (521 Queen Anne Ave N, 282-4612, Mon–Fri 11 am–10 pm, Sat noon–10 pm, Sun noon–9 pm.)
All Things to All People: At Blue C Sushi, a modern, accessible take on the Japanese kaiten sushi bar, sushi goes conveniently by on a conveyor belt, with the plates color-coded for price so you control how much you spend. The sushi can be a bit hit or miss, but if you pay close attention, it's obvious which items are looking better than others. I spied a particularly good-looking set of scallops—a ridiculously delicious steal at $2.75! (4601 26th AveNE, 525-4601, Sun-Thurs 11 am–9 pm, Fri–Sat 11 am–10 pm; 3411 Fremont Ave N, 633-3411, Mon–Wed 11:30 am–10 pm, Thurs–Fri 11:30 am-–11 pm, Sat noon–11 pm, Sun noon–10 pm.)
THE WINNER: Without question, though, the best value is Maneki, Seattle's oldest and most comforting sushi restaurant. Nothing I get at Maneki costs more than $4 and it's some of the best sushi in town, without qualification. The salmon is deep red, not pink, the scallops always pillowy and sweet. The spicy tuna roll holds large chunks of fish and impossibly hot chili sauce, the raw shrimp are pure and translucent and their heads are fried to golden glory. Even after dozens of meals there, I remain freshly impressed. Maneki is perfect. (304 Sixth Ave S, 622-2631, Tue–Sun 5:30–10 pm.)