Sam's Sushi

- by Michael!

Last week I received dire news that made me stop, sit down, take stock:

Sam’s Sushi has closed.

I went to college in Nashville, and stayed there to work for a year or two after I finished, and Sam’s Sushi was a warm, welcoming haven hilariously stressful place where I could go for some verbal abuse with a side of sushi.

Sam was referred to by many as “the Sushi Nazi,” in reference to a character on a TV show that I am 100% certain he never bothered to watch because it is American, and Americans are – by most of his observations – rather stupid. He embraced the nickname, I think, because it enabled him to continue to treat his customers the way he felt like treating them (as nuisances to be tolerated if they behaved and evicted if they didn’t) rather than conform to the simpering and servile “Customer is Always Right” mentality so pervasive in the USA.

The first time I went there, it was with three friends who spent the entire car ride nervously explaining the rules:

“Do NOT ask if you can use the bathroom. He has one, but you cannot use it. Don’t ask.”

“You have cash? You have to pay with cash. Yes, he has a credit card machine, but he won’t use it – don’t ask, just pay with cash.”

“In fact, don’t ask anything. Especially how he’s doing.” (When we arrived, I saw a sign by the counter that read as follows: I’M FINE, OK? Not one for small talk, is Sam.)

“There’s a menu on the wall – don’t even look at it. We’ll show you what to do when we arrive.”

It was simple, really: you wrote your name on a chit from a diner-pad; depending on what you wanted to eat, you wrote A (two rolls of sushi) or B (one roll, one order of nigiri-style sushi) below your name; you put the chit on the counter with a quarter on it (quarters supplied / jealously guarded by Sam) to keep it from fluttering away when the door opened; you grabbed a soda from the fridge (because there was no “ice water” available, thank you) and sat down until he barked your name.

And then, unless you were given a high-end sushi tour of Japan at some point in your life, you ate the best sushi you ever had in your life. Ever. Period. Paired with loads of delicious side-dishes.

For $6.25.

I know, right? There’s a reason people flocked to Sam’s and first endured, then enjoyed his peculiar blend of abuse: the food was incredibly good, almost impossibly good, and - $6.25? Really? That’s all?

My first taste of Sam’s abuse came at the end of that first meal, and thankfully was not directed at me. The four of us went to the counter to pay, and the first guy in line – Dale – handed Sam a $20 bill. Sam gave him $1.25 in change and directed me and the guy behind me to pay Dale back, as that would be easier for Sam. (Seriously. I can’t make this up.) The guy behind me protested – mildly – and Sam slammed his hand on the counter, like a gavel, as he pronounced sentence:

“You no come back for two weeks.”

He tried to cut it short and return ten days later, but Sam wasn’t having it: “You have four days left. Go. Go now.”

Over the final two years I spent in Nashville, I became a regular at Sam’s, eating there at least every other week. He eventually warmed up to me, which for Sam meant that he remembered my name (and told me to stop wasting his pen’s ink writing it, I know who you are, don’t be stupid, Michael) and complained with me about all the ways that his suppliers and utility companies were robbing him blind (because Americans have no honor, Michael). I had many opportunities to see Sam at his finest, but the best moment came during the last week before I moved away.

A young man, obviously a tourist of the backpacker stripe, walked into the restaurant and began studiously poring over the wall-mounted menu. He turned and asked Sam how he was doing (mistake number one) and then started to try and tell Sam what he wanted (mistake number two). Sam barked at him to write his order down, which the young man did with a bit of shock on his face – but that was nothing compared to his consternation when Sam took the young man’s order chit and started to laugh uproariously.

“Michael!” he yelled to me. “This idiot order four rolls sushi. You tell idiot he can not eat four rolls of my sushi.”

I grinned at him, at the confusion-bordering-on-terror on his face, and said in what I hoped was a calming voice, “He’s right – you really can’t eat four rolls of sushi. I can barely eat the special – just write down the letter A and have a seat.” He did, and Sam – still laughing – made the kid a feast that I’m fairly sure had a few extra spoonfuls of squid salad on it.

It’s been eight years since I last went to Sam’s Sushi, and the news of its closing hit me like a punch in the gut – I’ll miss it, and the idea of it, and I truly feel sorry for everybody who never had the chance to experience Sam’s delicious food, belligerent pride, and caustic showmanship.

And God help me, if I ever find sushi specials for $6.25 in NYC, I am not telling any of you.