Surf’s Up 

Grab a board and catch a wave at Salt Lake City’s neo-sushi surf spot.

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Bill Zierle is what I’d fondly call a “character,” which is fitting for a guy who decided to bring a bit of Molokai to the mainland. Dressed in vibrant canary-yellow chef’s threads, Aloha Sushi’s executive chef looks more like Wavy Gravy than Paul Bocuse. Indeed, the pattern on his pants is enough to trigger an acid flashback in anyone who was around during the ’60s.

“Casual” and “island style” are some of the terms used to describe Bill Zierle’s sushi, but the man himself is anything but laid back. His rapid-fire wit and slightly self-deprecating humor can turn a trip to Aloha Sushi into an afternoon of entertainment. And since Zierle arrives early in the morning at his small sushi shop to assemble sushi rolls, he’s usually available to chat by lunchtime when sushi fiends begin to arrive.

You won’t find Chef Zierle bowing to time-honored sushi traditions at Aloha Sushi. Although trained in traditional sushi-making techniques, he thinks American sushi chefs are a bit silly when they try to be even more Japanese than Japanese sushi chefs (facing east while fanning the rice and such). Art? Zierle wouldn’t call sushi art. In fact, he has a big machine in the back of his shop that can pump out sushi rolls faster than you can say “sayonara” to old-style sushi.

That’s important, since Aloha Sushi is strictly'with the exception of a couple of sidewalk tables'a to-go affair; it’s not a sushi bar. Maki and nigiri sushi, along with occasional fresh sashimi, is pre-boxed and ready to go, all priced at a very reasonable $5.50 per box.

But if you’re thinking spider rolls, dragon rolls and the like, think again. Aloha Sushi lacks most of the popular sushi rolls you’d find in the dozens of other sushi restaurants around town, and intentionally so. Zierle’s sushi has a Hawaiian island twist, which you’d expect from someone who worked on Molokai. That’s why you’ll find oddities like his Kahuna Spam roll (Spam is a staple of the Hawaiian diet) and a roll called Plum Crazy Duck, a cooked duck maki roll with plum sauce. Zierle’s sense of humor and wariness of “serious” sushi show up even in something as standard as a California roll, which he makes with brown rice and calls a California Tan.

In fact, very little of the sushi at Aloha Sushi is about raw fish. That may be a drawback to more hardcore traditional sushi lovers. When I stopped by recently, the only raw fish available (Zierle’s sushi selection changes from day to day) was a box of ahi sashimi and an ahi tuna roll. The rest of the fish and seafood rolls were made with roasted marlin, grilled salmon, smoked eel, grilled albacore tuna, etc.

On the other hand, that might make Aloha Sushi an especially attractive place for sushi beginners who might not be ready for their fish raw. Aloha Sushi specializes in sushi even kids can love. The Coconut Shrimp roll is sweet enough to qualify as dessert, and Zierle’s Stick of Dynamite'a “sushi” roll made with spicy chicken wings, celery and blue cheese'would have most sushi chefs’ heads spinning. But again, that’s the whole idea behind Aloha Sushi. At Aloha, sushi is fun, not religion.

Since Aloha Sushi is located just south of Aquarius Seafood, Bill Zierle says that if he needs fresh fish in the middle of the day he just hangs a sign on the door that says “Back in five minutes” and buys his fish from Dan Sheldon at Aquarius. “Aquarius has some of the freshest fish in town,” Zierle says, and since Aloha Sushi is a small operation, it doesn’t make much sense for Zierle to go through the hassle of bringing in his own fresh fish.

In fact, “hassles” are something Zierle seems determined to avoid, although he says that getting all the permits, certificates, licenses, etc., for Aloha Sushi was a bit of a nightmare. “People don’t realize,” he says, “that a little hole-in-the-wall outfit like this requires the same amount of red tape as a full-sized, sit-down restaurant.” Aloha Sushi is not much bigger than a walk-in closet, and that’s exactly how Zierle likes it. “Can you imagine spending $3 million opening a fancy restaurant, and then have it go out of business in a couple of years?” he asks. “I’d be suicidal. At least with this place I’m not going to be jumping off the roof if it doesn’t work out!”

I suspect it will work out. Regular customers seem to enjoy the loosey-goosey style of sushi that Zierle promotes. And where else can you hear Dick Dale’s surf guitar while you’re trying to decide between the Surfer’s Revenge (“Take a bite out of a shark!”) and the Italian Eel (“Can you say ‘a moray’?”). You also get a pretty substantial bang for your sushi buck. Each box of maki sushi contains eight or so large pieces of sushi, quite a bit more than what you’ll get at the average sushi bar. And Zierle prides himself on using fresh sliced ginger, real banana leaves (not plastic) and soy sauce from Hawaii called Aloha Shoyu.

Dude, that’s some gnarly sushi!

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More by Ted Scheffler

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