...and thanks for all the (raw) fish

After you've lived enough days and eaten three meals and lots of snacks in each of them, you eventually start to think you've finally tried everything.  At that point, going out to eat means you aren't in search of "new and different" so much as "good and enough."  Although I like lots of variety in other aspects of my life, I've never been the type to seek out exotic foods, so I probably wouldn't have crossed over into "new and different" had my friends not dragged me out to have sushi.

That was definitely their thing.  Both Zack and Andy were regulars at Sushi Yama.  Andy just loved sushi and, being a casual vegetarian (i.e., not a Nazi about it) he enjoyed California rolls and the like.  Zack wasn't so nuts for the stuff, but his roommate Ken worked as the prep chef there.

I didn't know anything about sushi: what it was, how it was different than sashimi, etc.  Zack and Andy usually ordered a mix of things and we all shared.  To my surprise, I found I loved the taste and texture of raw fish.  I grew up in New Orleans, and I was sick of seafood.  To be honest, I hated it.  Having been fed the stuff all my life, I would have been happy to never have another bite for the rest of my days.  Of course, that was fried fish.  This was different.

I was amazed first of all that sushi didn't taste anything like I expected.  Specifically, it didn't taste fishy at all.  It didn't smell that way either.  Most of us have really bad association with a few chance encounters with bad-smelling fish, and that's enough to instill a fear of the raw variety for a lifetime.  Quality sushi can cure you of that aversion.  This was completely the opposite of a bad experience.  For example, tuna in particular was like an exceptional piece of rare steak without any trace of sinew... and it was essentially cholesterol-free.  You couldn't come up with a better equation for the perfect food for me.

"You like seafood now?" my mom asked when she heard I was going out for sushi (not really knowing what it was.  If she had, I would have gotten an ill-informed lecture about parasites).

"Well, yes," I said.

"But you hated fish growing up."

"Yes," I explained.  "That's because everyone in Louisiana ruins it."

I couldn't even tell you what all we ordered that first night.  My friends just got me to try whatever they were ordering.  It was a happy experience though not knowing what to expect and being pleasantly surprised in virtually every case.

The only near-miss was actually more like being grazed by a bullet.  See, I noticed that the Japanese had an unexpected fondness for avocados.  They seemed to put them in rolls for one thing, so when I saw the green blob sitting on the edge of one of the trays at our table, I thought "Oh, this must be the Japanese version of guacamole!"

As I reached for it with my chop sticks (which I was still using awkwardly at that point), Andy grabbed my wrist and said, "No!"  He introduced me to wasabi.  "Try a little bit on the end of the of the sticks," he said.  I broke off a piece.  "No," he corrected, "Less than that."  I scraped half of it away.  "No.  Even less than that."  I tried it.

Holy fuck, the stuff was strong!  I was never a fan of spicy food when I lived in Louisiana, and I certainly didn't move to Texas out of a love for Mexican cuisine.  Wasabi was even stronger in a seemingly equivalent amount.  Fortunately, it was also short-lasting.  Whereas the capsaicin-based spicy most Americans (inexplicably) enjoy tends to stick around and burn the lips, tongue, and (for an unfortunate few who aren't careful where they put their barbecue sauce-covered hands) the eyes, at least the white-hot burn of wasabi goes away almost as fast as its full intensity comes on.

It took less than a week before we got to be regulars at Sushi Yama and hit the place for the specials just like everyone else: Tuesday for the half-price a la carte nigiri or Wednesdays for the $10 bento boxes.  Oh, and we'd do weekends too from time to time if Ken was working.

Everyone else came out for the specials most nights as well.  We found ourselves waiting outside the place if we got there after maybe 7pm.  The restaurant was situated in the elbow of a small shopping center in the middle of nowhere.  Well, it was surrounded by loads of tech companies, but it was "nowhere" socially.  Presumably all the Japanese clientele poured in from the businesses.  They filled the place even though it held only fewer than a hundred patrons and were hardly staffed to handle even that many.  There was usually just Ken and the owner working the sushi bar plus one or two waitresses (one of whom was the owner's daughter).

The crowd didn't die down until around 9pm.  We managed to get a seat well before then, but we always stayed around talking for hours.  Most of the time the place was empty by 10pm except for my friends and me.  Sometimes there were a few other patrons, but not many, and usually they were Americans as well.  That seemed to last until around midnight.  At that point the place seemed to kick into high gear again for some reason.  Whereas the crowd before was mixed, the next wave was almost entirely Japanese.  Maybe they were jet-lagged and still living on Tokyo time?  Although the posted hours said they closed at 2am, it wasn't uncommon for people to be there until 4am, especially on weekends.  Granted, I never stuck around that late, but Ken was forced to keep serving them until the tsunami was over.

The lull between these waves was the most interesting time for me.  Ken was able to take a break or at least talk with us while he worked at the bar cutting things up for the next invasion of customers.  Occasionally he'd ask if we'd ever tried something like, say, sea urchin.  If we hadn't, he'd fix us some on the house.  It was the best way to be exposed to new things, and not just in terms of food.

In addition to authentic Japanese customers, everything else about the place was right from Japan as well.  In the entryway were a couple of small bookshelves covered with all sorts of Japanese publications: newspapers, magazines, anime books, etc.  And, naturally, the place had karaoke.  Granted, it was rare that anyone actually went up and sang, but the player shuffled randomly through selections of backing videos on laserdiscs (this was 1998 after all).  These were almost random in their pairings of images with the lyrics, typically montages of anything a videographer could capture around the city.

The only folks who actually did karaoke were occasional groups of the aforementioned Japanese businessmen, and only when they were completely drunk.  It was unintentionally comical, something like you would expect to see on an Asian version of an amateur talent competition devoid of any real talent.  And then factor in alcohol-clouded judgment of proper intonation, articulation, and timing, and you have a recipe the Iron Chef couldn't compete with.

In spite of all this, aside from clips of similar happy insanity served up by YouTube or a few cartoons I grew up watching, my interest in much else Japanese never really took off.  Except for sushi.  Being bitten by the sushi bug left me constantly craving the stuff for the first few years, and while I'm not as rabidly intense about eating it to the point I got kidney stones (true story), it's still my favorite food/experience.

Copyright 2008 Alexplorer.
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