Twice the Rice

Smashing the small-plate concept No one leaves hungry from Sumo’s. Photo by Matt Rose

Smashing the small-plate concept
No one leaves hungry from Sumo’s. Photo by Matt Rose

Filling a space vacated by previous Asian restaurants, Joey Nguyen, a native of New Orleans and former resident of Charlotte, had the advantage of an already established décor when he opened his own place, Sumo’s Japanese Steakhouse, a couple months ago. A bamboo grid on the ceiling and lacquer trim surrounding the enormous booths sets up a peaceful vibe — however, the jolly restaurateur is putting his own brand on the place faster than you can say “I’ll need another side of that insanely addictive shrimp sauce, please.”

“First off, I want to thank the previous owners for footing the bill in making the interior as nice as it is,” he jokes. Joey, who’s fluent in English and Vietnamese, also name-checks his fiancée, Tuyet Sinh Nguyen, and major help from FujiYama co-owner Chau “Mr. Chow” Nguyen, who partnered with Sinh’s dad, Sonny, to open the new eatery.

However, Joey himself has worked decades in the restaurant business, and from the start, his mission has been as clear as the light, gratis scallion-and-mushroom soup served at the start of each meal. (Yes, free.) He named his place after the legendarily super-sized Japanese Sumo wrestlers because he wants diners to know this is not the place for sparsely arranged boutique plates. In fact, he’s even got his own term, “sumo-itis,” for the condition engendered after eating one of the house platters: i.e., groaningly full.

Joey Nguyen, second from left, poses with Chau Nguyen (far left), future father-in-law Son Nguyen, and Andy Nguyen. Photo by Matt Rose

Joey Nguyen, second from left, poses with Chau Nguyen (far left), future father-in-law Son Nguyen, and Andy Nguyen. Photo by Matt Rose

“The portion size will make the average person reconsider any type of physical activity afterwards,” he promises. Before opening Sumo’s, Joey explored area Asian restaurants and says he arrived at the same conclusion every time: “Look, we paid this much, and only got this much [food].” However, even before the research became official, he was lamenting the titanic-cost-versus-tiny-serving trend across the culinary board.

“There are very few places where the food’s quality/price ratio is comparable. I have lost count of [how many times], after an expensive dinner with my fiancée, I would find the nearest dollar menu just to top off my tank,” says the well-fed restaurateur.

His goal, then, is to fill each of his customer’s plates to the perimeter. Joey admits that this isn’t the route to a fat profit margin, but notes, “if you have a quality product that’s also high in quantity, then the likelihood of return is that much greater.”

Indeed, the onion soup is the only demure item among Sumo’s lunch and dinner offerings; the flavors elsewhere are uniformly bold and savory. The menu is set up to be simple, a short series of choices culled from Joey’s list of signature recipes. Over a voluminous plate of noodles or rice (white, brown, or fried), one chooses chicken, steak, salmon, shrimp, tilapia, or scallops (or a combination thereof).

Ingredients are cooked hibachi style, where soy sauce takes the top note, or in a sweet, homemade teriyaki preparation. A gloriously rich house shrimp sauce — the usual suspects of butter and mayo contribute to its near-narcotic quality — accompanies each dish, but it’s kept on the side, in dunkable four-ounce cups, so if diners don’t care for the extra calories, they can always relinquish the pink-hued nectar to their carpe-diem booth-mates.

Choppin' with Chau. Photo by Matt Rose

Choppin’ with Chau. Photo by Matt Rose

Even without the creamy stuff, the plates are highly satisfying. “The reason for the big flavor is that we hit our dishes with the [hibachi or teriyaki] sauces at the very end,” reveals Joey. “Just like Emeril [Lagasse] — bam!”

All entrees also include sweet carrots, with sautéed mushrooms, onions, or broccoli making appearances in many signature items (the veggie plate throws in zucchini, too). Standouts include the Yakiniku Grilled Beef platter, where sesame seeds add a superlative tang to the chunks of steak, and the scallops-with-broccoli dish replete with those tender nuggets of seafood — a joy for scallop lovers who get understandably cross at how skimpy other restaurants can be with this delicacy.

While his customers digest, Joey is swiftly stirring his big personality into the proceedings. His love for video games, especially the martial-arts-inspired Street Fighter series, is materializing in wall art, and his competitive edge will get fun play in eating competitions — the “Super Sumo Challenge” is coming soon — and video-game tournaments.

“In the near future I’ll have a console or two,” he says. “The only characters allowed are either Ganryu [from Tekken, another martial-arts game] or E-Honda [from Street Fighter].”

The winner gets paid in food. It’s a fitting prize coming from this restaurateur, whose own good fight is delivering sumo-sized portions in a small-plate world.

Sumo’s Japanese Steakhouse (1730 Asheville Hwy., Hendersonville) is open 11am-9pm seven days a week. See for more information, and keep an eye on the restaurant’s Facebook page for notices of upcoming eating contests and video-game tournaments. For carry-out orders, call 828-513-5077.

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