Native Son

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Sushi combines our two favorite things as a city: bars and seafood. No wonder the theatrical Japanese art is in Savannah to stay.  Andrea Goto talks tuna and true happiness with a beloved local “roll model.” Photography by Beau Kester.

Joe Xayadeth, better known as “Sushi Joe,” doesn’t seem like he’s from around here.  He doesn’t wear khakis with embroidered whales or sport a head of shaggy hair that grazes his eyebrows.  He doesn’t say “y’all,” not even once during our conversation—in fact, I can’t detect even a hint of a Southern accent.

“Born and raised,” he assures me, smiling.  I must appear skeptical because he attempts to offer further evidence:  “I went to Jenkins High School.”

Joe is an affable, soft-spoken dude—the only child of parents who immigrated to the United States from Laos before he was born.  He grew up fishing with his dad off Tybee Island and spending summers on his uncle’s shrimp boat in Thunderbolt, dreaming about becoming a firefighter or a police officer.  But, after a few years working in warehouses and operating boat lifts, he stumbled into an unexpected opportunity.

Catch of the Day

Joe was trying his hand as an assistant at Ele Tran and Sean Thongsiri’s celebrated Southside fusion restaurant, Tangerine, when the owners asked him if he wanted to try out to be a sushi chef.

“I thought, ‘You know, I could try that on for a while,’” Joe says, casually shrugging his shoulders.

He studied under Thongsiri’s critical eye for a year, learning to wield one of the sharpest knives in the kitchen and steam the perfect pot of rice—a revered skill in the sushi world—and when Joe felt ready, he auditioned for the sushi chef position at Tangerine’s ultramodern sister restaurant, Ele Fine Fusion.  He admits that he still “gets a little nervous and breaks into a sweat here and there” when his sensei inspects his work, but because of that rigorous training, his job seems to come naturally.

“It’s just 1-2-3,” Joe insists, oversimplifying his intricate craft.

In just three years, the chef has quietly risen to sushi-making stardom, rotating between Ele, Tangerine and their casual downtown alter ego, Fire Street Food.

“My regulars complain when I’m not at Ele,” Joe says with a hint of embarrassment.  “Or if they find out I’m at Fire, they’ll go there instead.”

On a Roll

The easygoing 28-year-old credits everyone but himself for his success—his parents for instilling his love of food, the cousin who first got him the job at Tangerine, Thongsiri—even the fish itself.

“I just make the sushi nice in regards to presentation, but the quality of the fish speaks for itself,” he insists.  “I feel really, really honored that people enjoy my sushi and my company, but I’m just doing my job, you know?”

True to his character, Joe downplays the skill involved in the art of sushi-making.

“Mainly, it’s just a sharp knife, rice and nice fish,” he says.  But anyone who has ever attempted at-home sushi knows better.  And anyone who has ever watched Joe dice an avocado in his hand with a knife so sharp it could bisect an atom will call his humble bluff.

His artistry is especially evident in his custom-made lobster roll, which is constructed from two lobster tails; one tucked inside a tear-drop shaped roll with crab meat, avocado and asparagus, and the other tail deconstructed into a lobster tartare, adorned with avocado and spicy sauce.

“It looks like a blooming flower,” Joe says, gently cupping his large hands as an illustration.

He doesn’t consider himself an artist or a “big time, big deal chef.”  He does, however, consider himself lucky.  “I never pictured myself at a nice place like Ele,” he admits.

Joe seems like the kind of guy who’s happy where he is—not tempted by the “next big thing.”  Which is why I’m surprised when he tells me that he may leave Savannah one day.

“My wife, she wants to maybe move to Pooler or something,” he says.  “But to me, that’s too far.”

Clearly, Joe is from around here.

Surf ’n’ Turf

Six days a week, Joe is tasked with remembering 65 different rolls—and the special requests of his regular customers.  On Sundays—his one day off—the chef prefers to stay home and turn up the heat for a change, serving his wife and two young children dishes that blend Laotian and American influences.

“I’ll grill outside or, if the weather’s bad, I’ll do a stir-fry.  I like a lot of seafood and beef,” he says.  “My parents cooked Laotian food every day.  After work, my mom would come home and cook a three- or four-course meal.

Here, Joe provides one of his favorite courses—a beef salad with layers of color and fresh flavors.

Sushi Joe’s Beef Salad

(Serves 4)

12-ounce thick-cut rib-eye steak, seasoned with salt and pepper

½ red onion, thinly sliced

½ cup cilantro, minced

¼ cup scallions, minced

1 red bell pepper, sliced

1 lime, freshly squeezed

1 tablespoon fish sauce

1 tablespoon roasted rice powder (available at Asian markets)

½ cucumber, sliced

Pinch of salt

Pinch of sugar

Preheat skillet on high heat.  Lightly oil the skillet and place the steak in the pan and cook until medium (or desired temperature).  Remove the steak from the pan and allow it to cool.

In a bowl, combine the red onion, cilantro, scallions, red bell pepper and cucumber, then set aside.  Thinly slice the steak and combine with the vegetables.  Add the lime juice, fish sauce and roasted rice powder to mixture.  Add the salt and sugar.  Serve at room temperature.