For two years as a teenager, Soupha “Lee” Sayavong made rice at the little Manhattan sushi bar where he worked. Washed it. Cooked it. Nothing more.
For five more years, Sayavong said as he cut fish behind the display case in his new restaurant here, he expanded his role at the little bar. He learned bits here and there from his mentor, a chef from Osaka. But he was still not allowed to touch the fish.
Finally, after working at the restaurant for seven years, he began to learn how to prepare different kinds of sushi — the fish, rolls and dishes he now prepares at his restaurant, Sushilicious and Thai, on U.S. 90.
“When I first started work at a Japanese restaurant,” Sayavong said, “I thought I was in jail.”
But he was hooked. He’s been doing it for more than 20 years now, and has studied under some of the most famous sushi chefs in the country, including Masaharu Morimoto of Iron Chef fame.
Sushilicious opened in June, and Sayavong now works six days a week cutting fish, making rolls, and plating his creations for his customers.
A sundry spread
Walking into Sushilicious recently I was immediately drawn to the refrigerated display case that forms the centerpiece of the restaurant. In the case, slabs of tuna, yellowtail, salmon, octopus and a bunch more things sat cooling on ice. A gold-flecked bar stood in front of the case, and I pulled up a stool.
A waitress came to take my order, and I named off a half dozen things from their sushi menu, which features many rolls ($4-$14) and a long list of single-piece options ($1.50-$3). Sayavong suggested I order the sushi dinner ($16), which comes with one roll and seven pieces of sushi. I took his suggestion, and added a spicy tuna roll and a seafood salad to the order.
Though his eyes were focused on his work behind the bar, Sayavong, 42, chatted with me as he prepared orders for the brisk crowd.
He was born in Laos, he said, and migrated to the United States as a child with his parents and nine siblings. They settled in New York City, which is where he landed his first job at a sushi restaurant.
When my food arrived, I was happy to see that the little touches were there on the plate, distinguishing this sushi from the average. Care had been taken with each little piece. A long slice of salmon had been seared with a blow torch; the tuna and yellowtail pieces were meticulously trimmed and draped over moist, short-grain rice; the spicy tuna/crab salad had been garnished with a little tower of green flying fish roe; the prawn, served raw, was accompanied by its head, deep-fried and stuffed with crab meat.
Looking at the plate was half the fun, and it was a pleasure to eat, too. The seared salmon was a favorite — Sayavong had managed to combine the flavors and textures of cooked salmon and raw in one little dish.
It was garnished with a creamy sauce. The raw prawn was another highlight of the meal. The texture of the prawn was almost gooey — in a good way.
The california roll, with its bright, crunchy cucumber, was a nice, light accompaniment to the sushi. But the sushi was definitely the star of the show.
A winding path to Waveland
Sayavong owns Sushilicious with his sister, Susan Sayavong. It was Susan Sayavong who noticed the vacant space in Waveland that would be perfect for a combination sushi and Thai restaurant. She called her brother and convinced him to move out and join her.
It isn’t Lee Sayavong’s first time owning a restaurant. He has owned and operated several in Atlanta and Florida. He most recently worked at the highly regarded MF Sushi in Houston, where he prepared the omakase, or “chef’s choice,” meal.
Sayavong said he likes the pace and friendliness of Waveland, and the fact that it’s a good place for his 13-year-old son to grow up.
His travels through America have allowed him to observe different chefs’ styles, he said, and take the best from each.
Sushilicious and Thai
What: A combination sushi bar and Thai restaurant run by two siblings, one a sushi chef and one a Thai food chef. Lee Sayavong has worked for more than 20 years as a sushi chef, and prepares his creations behind a glass case full of colorful seafood.
Cost: Costs range from about $5 for for a simple roll to $16 for the full sushi dinner. Single-piece sushi is $1.50 to $3.
Where: 315 U.S. 90, Waveland, MS 39576