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Sushi Ya Go-Go? You bet

Eben Harrell

Have you ever tried an El Jebel Roll? It’s a sushi roll composed of tuna, snow crab and avocado.And like the town it’s named after, it’s as good as any sushi in Aspen, but not nearly as expensive. At least that’s what people around here will tell you.In a cold, poorly lit sushi studio 30 minutes away 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 to success.The restaurant, Sushi Ya Go-Go, is a fully stocked sushi eatery that’s easy to miss. Tucked away in a roadside marketplace, the restaurant shares its entrance with an unaffiliated liquor store. Inside, one finds everything expected 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 samurailike deftness.Hide is the sushi master. And he’s not nearly as severe he looks. When the restaurant opens each night, 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. He first came to Aspen in 1982 on a ski vacation and 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 – also 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 many others like him have done – he moved downvalley in search of cheaper property. “I’m just like the people I serve,” Hide said. “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 option has stopped, but the snappy service remains. The dishes are as simple and unadorned as the menu they are listed on – a laminated 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. Other 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 just as good as Aspen. It has a different ambiance. But different isn’t necessarily bad.”Behind the sushi bar, Hide has an unlikely sidekick. His apprentice is Paul Miller, a 20-year-old Basalt High School graduate. Fresh-faced and blond, he stands in stark contrast to Hide, who said he is training Miller in the “traditional” Japanese manner.What exactly does that mean?”You can’t screw around,” Miller said. “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 deliberateness 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 said. “Having the right knife becomes crucial.”Hide’s fast hands and fast smile, along with fresh fish served cheap, have so far been a formula for success. And Hide hopes to keep it that way.”The sushi business is becoming much more competitive,” he said. “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?”This article was originally published on Dec. 2, 2004 in The Aspen Times

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