Do the El Jebel Roll
EL JEBEL – Have you ever tried an El Jebel Roll? It’s a sushi roll composed of a diverse mix – tuna, snowcrab and avacado. And like the town its named after, it’s as good as anything in Aspen, but not nearly expensive.At least that’s what people around here will tell you, in a cold, poorly lit sushi studio in the midvalley. A thirty minute drive from Aspen’s high-end sushi bars, literally miles from world famous Matsuhisa chef Nobu and his Nobu-ility, sushi chef Hide Tsuzuki has tuna-rolled his way into the unlikeliest of success stories.The restaurant is called “Sushi Ya Go-Go,” and it’s a fully stocked sushi restaurant in the working class neighborhood of El Jebel. It’s easy to miss. Tucked away in a roadside marketplace, the restaurant shares its entrance with an unaffiliated liquor store. Inside, you find everything you’d expect in such a place – faux bamboo with plastic leaves, inauthentic oriental drapes, and a slight, severe looking man behind a bar, wielding a large blade with samurai-deftness.Hide is the sushi-master. And he’s not nearly as severe he looks. When the restaurant opens each night for dinner, customers crowd the sushi bar, eager to get a taste of all Hide has to offer, including the chef’s offbeat sense of humor. As the night wears on, and everyone gets a little sake-silly, the customers cue up some of their favorite jokes. “What’s your favorite song?” a regular asks in an obvious set-up.”Rocky Mountain Hi!,” Hide replies.Hide’s is a familiar Aspen story. Hide first came to Aspen in 1982 on ski vacation. He liked it so much he stayed, working as a seasonal employee at various sushi restaurants. Ten years ago he found a partner and opened his own Sushi bar in Aspen – Sushi Ya Go-Go – which offered delivery, takeout and catering.Aspen’s rent, even for a small takeout place, was too high for Hide. When his lease expired, Hide did what so many like him have done – he moved down valley in search of cheaper property. “I’m just like the people I serve,” Hide says. “I was up in Aspen and I had a great time. But then the partying is over and family life beckons. Time to move downvalley.”Sushi Ya Go-Go is now a fully stocked restaurant serving dinner seven nights a week. The delivery service has stopped, but the snappy service remains. The dishes are as simple and unadorned as the menu they are listed on – a lamenated computer printout. But regulars claim the fish is as good as anything in Aspen, just cheaper. While Aspen’s high-end Kenichi restaurant offers Tuna Sashimi for $18.50, Hide will serve the same for $11. His rolls are at least two dollars less expensive than their high-end Aspen counterparts.”Hide, he’s the master,” said Tom St. John, an Aspen orthopedic surgeon and Sushi Ya Go-Go regular. “I’ll often ask him just to make me whatever he feels like. The quality is Behind the sushi bar, Hide has an unlikely side-kick. His “apprentice” is Paul Miller, a 20-year-old Basalt High School graduate. Fresh-faced and blond-haired, he stands in stark contrast to Hide’s dark and imposing figure. Hide says he is training Miller in the “traditional” Japanese manner. What exactly does that mean?”You can’t screw around,” Miller says. “No, it’s not that bad. I’m really interested in knife work and Hide is the best knives-man in the valley.”Hide calls sushi knife work – which includes the maintenance of knives as much as the expert use of them – a “lost art.” Each year, he travels to Japan to search for a thinner, quicker blade. When he’s away from the sushi bar, Hide’s hands move languidly, almost lazily in conversation. But there’s a deliberate to his movement, even in repose, that indicates ultimate control. When the restaurant’s busy, Hide can find himself making sushi for up to 30 people. In that sort of atmosphere, if you aren’t quick you’re dead.”You have to be very, very quick,” he says. “Having the right knife becomes crucial.”Hide’s fast hands and fast smile, along with fresh fish served cheap, has so far been a formula for success. And Hide hopes to keep it that way.”The sushi business is becoming much more competitive,” Hide says. “Sushi is everywhere. You can buy it now at city market. People come to a restaurant and know what they want. Even customers from El Jebel are now experts.”Which is good. Because how else could I have my business here?”Vail Colorado
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