Sushi and hibachi have been mainstays of Western dining for decades, but the genre is experiencing a resurgence. Calhoun County is now home to half a dozen Japanese restaurants.
Tokyo Express in Anniston opened its doors in July, a few weeks after Yume Japanese and Asian Cuisine opened in Oxford — across the street from longtime favorite Fuji Japanese Cuisine.
Those followed the January opening of Pacific Spice in Oxford, the area’s first Thai restaurant and performance-free hibachi grill.
Meanwhile in Jacksonville, Yamato Steakhouse of Japan — which will celebrate its first anniversary in September — opened a second location in Talladega.
So why does northeast Alabama suddenly have more choices for Japanese food than they can shake a chopstick at?
“Japanese food is popular in all the major cities, and that is starting to trickle down to smaller areas,” said William Price, general manager of Fuji.
The trend may actually be typical of the industry as a whole, said Larry Fidel, president of the Alabama Restaurant Association. “When the economy goes down, the food service industry is the first to take the hit.”
But it’s also the first to see even slight signs of recovery.
“The National Restaurant Association predicted there would be a rebound in the food service industry this year,” he said. “As the economy rebounds, so does the industry.”
John Hayward, editor of Southeast Food Service News, said the southeastern corner of the country has seen its share of this growth for the most part in corporate and franchise restaurants. But there is one exception. “The only growth we’re seeing in non-chain restaurants is in ethnic food, and one of the things we’ve been pointing to is the popping up of all kinds of Asian restaurants.”
In addition, Fidel said, diners who have spent the last few years sitting on the couch counting their pennies over frozen dinners are now looking for more than just a good meal. They want a night on the town.
“People go to Japanese restaurants because there is an element of fun to them,” he said. “People want to have a good time when they go out. They want to be entertained.”
By a flaming onion volcano, perhaps.
The new emphasis on eating healthy may also be a contributing factor in the growing popularity of sushi.
“Sushi is extremely healthy,” said Price. “People are starting to trend toward healthier eating, and sushi is definitely the way to go.”
In Jacksonville, Yamato manager Jessica Linn attributed the restaurant’s success in part to health-conscious patrons. “There is nothing but fast food around us, and there are a lot of people trying to eat healthy,” she said. “People get tired of hamburgers. A lot of people here like Japanese food, and some towns don’t have any place to get it.”
Once their first location was off the ground, according to Linn, the owners began to look around for other neighborhoods hungry for Japanese fare. They opened Tokyo Express in Anniston first, followed by the Yamato in Talladega.
According to Amber Lin, manager of Yume, the same family that has owned and operated China Luck in Oxford for the last 27 years opened Yume with a similar thought in mind.
“We wanted to do something different in this town,” Lin said, referencing Oxford’s endless chain parade. “Oxford needs different types of foods.”
Besides its Japanese and Thai selections, Lin pointed out that Yume is the area’s first Korean restaurant. Although right now the most popular menu items are hibachi and sushi, she predicted the Korean cuisine would soon take off.
“We built a Korean barbecue table in the restaurant so we can cook it at the table,” Lin said. “This is something usually only seen in big cities, not in towns like this. We think it is going to be very popular.”
Across the street, however, Price said Fuji isn’t sweating the competition.
“We were the first one here,” he said. “A lot of our customers have tried the other places. They’re not Fuji.”
Hankering for hibachi?
• Fuji Japanese Cuisine
218 Davis Loop Drive, Oxford, 256-835-8788
11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday and Tuesday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday.
• Yume Japanese and Asian Cuisine
Hibachi, sushi, Thai, Korean barbecue
301 Colonial Drive, Oxford, 256-241-0142
11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday.
• Pacific Spice
Thai, sushi, performance-free hibachi
1225 Snow St., Oxford, 256-831-9981
11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Sunday.
• Tokyo Express Japanese Steakhouse
1801 Quintard Ave. Anniston, 256-238-7688
11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Saturday, noon-9 p.m. Sunday.
• Ono Grill Japanese Steak House
2900 McClellan Blvd., Anniston, 256-237-5859
11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday.
• Yamato Steakhouse of Japan
105 Mountain St. N.W., Jacksonville, 256-782-0588
11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday.