Once the butt of movie and TV jokes and dismissed as the province of yuppies, Californians, and especially Californian yuppies, sushi is now mainstream and, over the last few years, has gotten a firm foothold in Lewiston-Auburn’s culinary culture.

It wasn’t long ago, though, that the Japanese delicacy was virtually impossible to find in this area.

When Disa Fedorowicz moved to Lewiston from San Diego five years ago, having access to sushi — and to cuisines from all over the world — was something she took for granted. She initially found the lack of culinary diversity in her adopted hometown to be a culture shock.

“I definitely missed having a whole range of options. It took some getting used to,” said Fedorowicz.

“Over the past few years, though, Lewiston’s horizons seem to have expanded a bit. You now have Indian, Thai, Vietnamese, sushi. It’s been wonderful.”

In fact, in the last three years alone, L-A has seen a veritable explosion of sushi restaurants, with four new restaurants cropping up just since 2011 and one existing Chinese eatery adding sushi to its offerings.

Minh Nguyen, owner of Orchid on Lisbon Street, the area’s newest Asian fusion restaurant and sushi bar, chalks it up to a basic lesson in the economics of supply and demand.

“I think a lot of people from the younger generations went away to college in other places and tried sushi and other kinds of cuisine while they were away. Then, when they came back, they wanted it, and that created a demand for it where it hadn’t been before.”

That was definitely true for Sunshine Spaulding-Bean, a native of Auburn who, after spending a number of years living in Boston and Phoenix, returned to this area a decade ago.

After initially trying sushi in Arizona at the prompting of friends, Spaulding-Bean was hooked. She and a group of friends made a Friday night ritual of heading to the sushi bar before a night out dancing.

Returning to Auburn turned her love affair with sushi into a long-distance relationship, though.

“That was really a bummer. I always got excited whenever I went on a trip anywhere where I knew I could get sushi,” she recalled of L-A’s dark, pre-sushi days.

Though the history is murky, the first sushi restaurant in this area was probably Thai Jarearn Express, a small Asian fusion eatery once located at the corner of Sabattus and College streets in Lewiston.

Owners Samer and Somrudee Saengwong were a Thai-born couple who had both trained as sushi chefs in Boston during the mid-’90s before moving here to open their own restaurant in 2006. Their small restaurant served a blend of Thai, Korean and Japanese cuisines, usually prepared with fresh, local ingredients.

Though the kitchen was too small for a full sushi bar, the Saengwongs began experimenting with a few sushi rolls on their menu a couple of years after opening, according to the couple’s daughter Supanee Saengwong, who helped her parents at their restaurant before opening her own place, Jasmine Cafe, in Auburn in 2011.

In 2008, around the same time Thai Jarearn Express added its small sushi menu, the Asian Gourmet opened at the Auburn Mall, offering both Chinese food and sushi for eat-in or delivery, though it has since closed. Both of these restaurants passed mostly under the radar for local sushi aficionados.

Yu Li Huang, co-owner of Wei-Li, a Chinese restaurant on Center Street in Auburn, said she routinely made the trek to Portland for years to get her sushi fix.

Then, about three years ago, Huang’s business partner, Cam Luu, suggested adding sushi to the menu at Wei-Li. Huang, who has always tried to focus on using fresh, healthy ingredients in the Chinese food served at the restaurant, thought it would be a fantastic way to attract new business.

“Since we first opened (in 2002), we’ve tried to change people’s idea of Chinese food. It doesn’t have to be greasy and mushy. We’ve always use fresh, healthy ingredients,” said Huang.

“Sushi has a more upscale image. It has a reputation for being very fresh and clean and healthy, so we thought it would be a good idea to attract the kind of people who want that kind of food.”

Luu traveled to California to train as a sushi chef. When he returned, he trained Huang, who is now the restaurant’s primary sushi chef.

Wei-Li remodeled their space to add an actual sushi bar at the front, and began by offering sushi only at select times. Now it’s served around the clock. At the time, Huang believed her sushi bar was the first in town.

Though demand has grown since Wei-Li made its first forays into sushi, Huang said it still makes up only a small percentage of the restaurant’s business, about 16 percent.

Even that is a big improvement over just a few years ago, though, she said.

“When we first started making sushi, I made samples to offer to customers, and most people refused. A lot of people in this town just don’t get sushi. They immediately think of raw fish,” said Huang.

About six months after Wei-Li added its first sushi menu, Uthai “Tony” Nakhen, a seasoned Thai chef with more than a decade of experience making sushi, including in five-star restaurants, opened Boa Thai Sushi on Sabattus Street.

When Nakhen first moved to Lewiston in 2008, he couldn’t find any restaurants that were serving sushi. He offered his services as a sushi chef to a few Thai restaurants in the area, but no one was interested.

Nakhen continued to hone his craft for a few years in far-flung locales like New York, San Jose, Los Angeles and San Francisco, before finally opening his own place, serving both Thai food and sushi, in July of 2011.

After operating for two years, though, Nakhen sold Boa Thai Sushi to a company from New York this past summer. The new owners changed the name to Bua Thai Sushi – no relation to the Old Orchard Beach restaurant of the same name – and hired Jennifer Jiapong to manage it.

Bua Thai Sushi still serves both traditional Thai food and sushi at the same location, across Sabattus Street from Hannaford, though Jiapong has made some updates to the decor and replaced the old hand-painted sign with a sharp new logo.

Also in the summer of 2011, Supanee Saengwong, daughter of the Thai Jarearn Express’s owners, graduated from culinary school. Not wanting to slave away in someone else’s kitchen for minimum wage, Saengwong and her boyfriend, Alex Perreault, began to discuss starting their own restaurant.

At that time, Saengwong’s parents had been considering going into semi-retirement, so they offered to either let her take over the Thai Jarearn Express or help her get a new business off the ground in a different location.

Saengwong ultimately chose to look for a new location, citing the small kitchen and inadequate parking at her parents’ establishment, and so Jasmine Cafe sprang from the ashes of Thai Jarearn Express, just across the river in Auburn.

Like its predecessor, Jasmine Cafe offers a pan-Asian menu with items representing the cuisines of Thailand, Korea and Japan. Unlike the old location, though, Jasmine features a full sushi menu with many specialties.

Saengwong said she blends the traditional cooking techniques she learned at her parents’ elbows with her Western culinary education to bring entirely new flavors to Asian fusion. Her parents still help out on occasion.

Lewiston-Auburn’s array of sushi restaurants is very unique in this respect. While female sushi chefs are a rarity in much of the country, this area has at least three female sushi chefs: mother and daughter Somrudee and Supanee Saengwong as well as Wei-Li’s Huang.

This loosening of gender roles is likely an outgrowth of sushi’s transition from a strictly Japanese cuisine to one with western and pan-Asian influences, which has also served to broaden the range of ingredients and flavors available.

Next to set up shop was Sea40, which opened in the Lewiston Mall in 2012. Specializing in Japanese cuisine, Sea40 offers a full sushi bar as well as a hibachi at the back of the restaurant that serves up as much entertainment as it does sizzling bits of flying food.

The dark and decidedly glitzy interior of the restaurant was like a miraculous transformation for the cavernous space, which once housed an Ames department store.

“Going into Sea40 is like going into the wardrobe in ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,’” said Fedorowicz.

“You walk in and suddenly you’re no longer in the parking lot of this crusty strip mall.”

Around the same time Sea40 opened, the site of the former New China Super Buffet, located right next door, came under new management, becoming the Hibachi Super Buffet. The new owners added a hibachi area to their sprawling buffet, and also started serving sushi.

Manager David Cheng said he’s seen the the popularity of sushi increase over the last two years. Only a few people were interested in it when he first began to offer it, and now a much larger proportion of his customers are willing to try it.

“It’s a fresh, healthy choice, and the people like it,” said Cheng.

The most recent addition to the area is Orchid, which opened on Lisbon Street this past summer.

Owner Nguyen moved to Maine in 2011 to help Nakhen, who he knew from a restaurant in New York, open and run Boa Thai. He managed the restaurant until this past spring, when he struck out on his own.

Due perhaps to both its central location in an up-and-coming part of town and to a strong word-of-mouth campaign by loyal customers, Orchid has ascended to rapid popularity and does brisk business, particularly on weekends, when Nguyen admits that his sushi chef, who works with as much speed as precision, can sometimes become overwhelmed with the demand.

“Lewiston and Auburn are changing, and downtown especially is growing. People want to be a part of that. I feel really proud to be a part of the revitalization of Lisbon Street,” said Nguyen.

While the majority of Orchid’s sushi customers are regulars returning for their favorites, Nguyen said as many as 25 percent of the people who walk through his doors have never tried sushi before.

“I’ve met people in their 60s tell me they came in and weren’t sure if they would like it, but once they try it they always like it.”

Each of L-A’s sushi spots has its own personality and signature flavors, making each worth at least one visit.

Jasmine Cafe’s Saengwong is particularly charitable to her competition.

“If you put five restaurants against each other and you were to close your eyes and taste each one of them, you would really taste each chef’s personality. Sushi is a very personal thing,” she said, adding she believes hers is the most flavorful.

What to Try

Lewiston-Auburn’s many sushi restaurateurs may disagree on whose sushi is best, but they all agree on one thing: Diners are often afraid to try sushi because they have a negative reaction to eating raw fish.

“I was definitely hesitant, because you have this idea that raw fish is going to be smelly and slimy. It’s more of a sensory aversion,” said longtime sushi lover Disa Fedorowicz.

“Once you try it, though, you find out it’s a multi-sensory experience. There’s texture, crunch, spiciness and many different flavors all coming together.”

Tonya Packard, of Auburn, can relate to that. She first tried sushi about two years ago, at the urging of friends.

“I was completely grossed out by the thought of it. I don’t even like cooked fish,” she said.

Now, Packard eats sushi at least once a week, and sometimes as often as five or six times in a month.

What many people don’t realize — until they’ve tried it — is that sushi is not all raw fish. Restaurants also serve items made from cooked fish, raw or fried vegetables, and even other cooked meats.

From gourmands to meat-and-potatoes types, there’s a sushi specialty out there to please just about everyone. Here’s a quick guide on what to try:

First Timer?

Maki rolls — tight, round sushi rolls made with rice, an edible seaweed wrapper and fillings — are usually the first foray into sushi for nervous newbies. California rolls, which are made with cooked crab or imitation crab and avocado, are a perennial favorite, as are various kinds of tempura rolls, which feature vegetables, fish or another meat, such as chicken, that has been breaded and deep fried for a crispy texture.

There is even vegetarian sushi. Avocado, cucumbers, carrots, sweet potatoes and various picked fruits are all popular fillings for maki rolls.

Ready for the next step?

For those who are ready to take the plunge into raw fish, Orchid’s Minh Nguyen recommends going straight to sashimi, small slices of raw fish served without rice. Some of the most popular choices in this realm include tuna and salmon, as well as various white fish.

Trying the fish on its own gives diners a clearer picture of whether or not they like the flavor and texture without confusing the taste buds with too much complexity, said Nguyen.

Another option is nigiri, which is sashimi draped over a ball of molded, flavored rice.

Of course, for smaller doses of raw fish, there are also many varieties of maki that incorporate the fish among other ingredients.

One of the most popular of these is the spicy tuna roll, which is usually filled with shredded raw tuna mixed up with spicy mayo and crunchy panko breadcrumbs.

One of Auburn resident Tonya Packard’s favorites is the rainbow roll, which is a California roll draped in various kinds of sashimi. She also enjoys the red dragon roll at Orchid, made from shrimp tempura, avocado, cucumber and spicy tuna.

Packard is quick to reassure beginners that raw fish will not taste like they expect it to.

“It’s got a fresh flavor that is just so satisfying. Good sushi doesn’t have a strong fishy smell or flavor. If it does, then you shouldn’t eat it,” she said.

For more adventurous diners

If you’ve tried all the rest, then it’s time to branch out into more exotic offerings. Eel is a staple of most sushi menus. While intimidating to some, Wei-Li’s Yu Li Huang lists it among her favorite sushi flavors.

Eel is central to Huang’s signature caterpillar roll, which incorporates eel and cucumber topped with slices of avocado.

Jasmine Cafe owner Supanee Saengwong said sample platters and lunch boxes are a great way for inexperienced diners to try new things. That way, if you really hate the eel, there’s not as much of it for you to power through.

“If you don’t like one thing, there are many other things for you to try. Then you can find out what you like,” said Saengwong.

Jenna Austin of Turner agrees. Now a big fan sushi, Austin first tried it at a restaurant in Portland a few years ago. She started out with a sampler platter that included not only tuna, salmon and eel, but also sea urchin.

“I wasn’t crazy about the eel, but the urchin was actually really good,” said Austin.

Where to go:

Bua Thai Sushi

703 Sabattus St., Lewiston

376-4810

www.buathaisushi.com

Hours:

Monday-Thursday: 11 a.m. – 9 p.m.

Friday-Saturday: 11 a.m. – 10 p.m.

Sunday: Closed

Jasmine Cafe

730 Center St., Auburn

376-4855

www.jasminecafemaine.com

Hours:

Sunday-Thursday: 11 a.m. – 9 p.m.

Friday-Saturday: 11 a.m. – 10 p.m.

Orchid

29 Lisbon St., Lewiston

619-0076

www.orchidlewiston.com

Hours:

Monday: 5 p.m. – 9 p.m.

Tuesday-Thursday: 11 a.m. – 2 p.m.; 5 p.m. – 9 p.m.

Friday: 11 a.m. – 2 p.m.; 4:30 p.m. – 10 p.m.

Saturday: 4:30 p.m. – 10 p.m.

Sunday: 12:30 p.m. – 7:30 p.m.

Sea40

40 East Ave., Lewiston

795-6888

www.sea40me.com

Hours:

Monday-Thursday: 11:30 a.m. – 3:30 p.m.; 4 p.m. – 10 pm

Friday: 11:30 a.m. – 3:30 p.m.; 4 p.m. – 11 p.m.

Saturday: Noon – 3:30 p.m.; 4 p.m. – 11 p.m.

Sunday: Noon – 9:30 p.m.

Wei-Li

945 Center St., Auburn

344-0022

www.weilirestaurant.com

Hours:

Monday: Closed

Tuesday-Thursday: 11 a.m. – 8 p.m.

Friday-Saturday: 11 a.m. – 9 p.m.

Sunday: 11:30 a.m. – 8 p.m.

Hibachi Super Buffet

40 East Ave., Lewiston

753-6868

menusinla.com/restaurants/hibachi-super-buffet/

Hours:

Monday-Thursday: 11 a.m. — 9 p.m.

Friday-Saturday: 11 a.m. — 10 p.m.

Sunday: 11 a.m. — 4 p.m.

Basic sushi terms explained:

Gari are thin slices of pickled ginger served with sushi to cleanse the palate.

Maki rolls are tight, round sushi rolls made using a bamboo mat. Most maki rolls contain rice and either cooked or raw fish and/or vegetables, wrapped in dried seaweed. The rolls are then cut into six or eight bite-sized slices. It is acceptable to eat maki rolls with either chopsticks or fingers, and to dip them in soy sauce.

Nigiri are slices of raw fish draped over a ball of molded rice. Traditionally eaten with the fingers, nigiri should only be dipped in soy sauce with the fish side down.

Nori is the name for the strips of dried dark, savory seaweed commonly used to wrap sushi rolls.

Sashimi is sliced raw fish served without rice. It should be eaten with chopsticks and can dabbed with wasabi and dipped in soy sauce.

Temaki, also known as “hand rolls,” are large cone-shaped sushi rolls with rice, fish and/or vegetables stuffed into a nori wrapper. Because of their size, temaki rolls must be eaten with the hands.

Wasabi is a plant similar to horseradish that is made into a spicy green paste and usually served as a condiment with sushi. It can be dabbed on top of rolls, nigiri or sashimi with the tip of a chopstick.

Where to go

Bua Thai Sushi

703 Sabattus St., Lewiston

376-4810

www.buathaisushi.com

Hours:

Monday-Thursday: 11 a.m. – 9 p.m.

Friday-Saturday: 11 a.m. – 10 p.m.

Sunday: Closed

Hibachi Super Buffet

40 East Ave., Lewiston

753-6868

menusinla.com/restaurants/hibachi-super-buffet/

Hours:

Monday-Thursday: 11 a.m. — 9 p.m.

Friday-Saturday: 11 a.m. — 10 p.m.

Sunday: 11 a.m. — 4 p.m.

Jasmine Cafe

730 Center St., Auburn

376-4855

www.jasminecafemaine.com

Hours:

Sunday-Thursday: 11 a.m. – 9 p.m.

Friday-Saturday: 11 a.m. – 10 p.m.

Orchid

29 Lisbon St., Lewiston

619-0076

www.orchidlewiston.com

Hours:

Monday: 5 p.m. – 9 p.m.

Tuesday-Thursday: 11 a.m. – 2 p.m.; 5 p.m. – 9 p.m.

Friday: 11 a.m. – 2 p.m.; 4:30 p.m. – 10 p.m.

Saturday: 4:30 p.m. – 10 p.m.

Sunday: 12:30 p.m. – 7:30 p.m.

Sea40

40 East Ave., Lewiston

795-6888

www.sea40me.com

Hours:

Monday-Thursday: 11:30 a.m. – 3:30 p.m.; 4 p.m. – 10 pm

Friday: 11:30 a.m. – 3:30 p.m.; 4 p.m. – 11 p.m.

Saturday: Noon – 3:30 p.m.; 4 p.m. – 11 p.m.

Sunday: Noon – 9:30 p.m.

Wei-Li

945 Center St., Auburn

344-0022

www.weilirestaurant.com

Hours:

Monday: Closed

Tuesday-Thursday: 11 a.m. – 8 p.m.

Friday-Saturday: 11 a.m. – 9 p.m.

Sunday: 11:30 a.m. – 8 p.m.

Basic sushi terms 

Gari are thin slices of pickled ginger served with sushi to cleanse the palate.

Maki rolls are tight, round sushi rolls made using a bamboo mat. Most maki rolls contain rice and either cooked or raw fish and/or vegetables, wrapped in dried seaweed. The rolls are then cut into six or eight bite-sized slices. It is acceptable to eat maki rolls with either chopsticks or fingers, and to dip them in soy sauce.

Nigiri are slices of raw fish draped over a ball of molded rice. Traditionally eaten with the fingers, nigiri should only be dipped in soy sauce with the fish side down.

Nori is the name for the strips of dried dark, savory seaweed commonly used to wrap sushi rolls.

Sashimi is sliced raw fish served without rice. It should be eaten with chopsticks and can dabbed with wasabi and dipped in soy sauce.

Temaki, also known as “hand rolls,” are large cone-shaped sushi rolls with rice, fish and/or vegetables stuffed into a nori wrapper. Because of their size, temaki rolls must be eaten with the hands.

Wasabi is a plant similar to horseradish that is made into a spicy green paste and usually served as a condiment with sushi. It can be dabbed on top of rolls, nigiri or sashimi with the tip of a chopstick.


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