‘No sushi for you!’ Don’t push your luck with Sam Katakura
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‘No sushi for you!’ Don’t push your luck with Sam Katakura

Wear the wrong color shirt when he’s having a bad day: No service.

Bring an entourage of friends when he’s not ready: “No, no. You leave.”

Order the wrong items: No sushi for you.

The famous Soup Nazi from “Seinfeld” is reincarnated in Nashville—with a twist. Meet the the Sushi Nazi, also known as Sam Katakura.

Sam is the owner and sole employee of Sam’s Sushi Bar on Church Street in downtown Nashville. He is an old Japanese fellow whose English is just as hard to understand as his abrasive attitude.

A favorite, cheap-eats sushi spot for Nashville college students, Sam doesn’t bring in patrons with his disposition. Sam will not greet you. He won’t smile, wave or abide by the age-old “the customer’s always right” mantra. This short, round man, who wears a pointed bandana on his slightly cratered head, grunts at customers and judges them for their worthiness as they approach his counter. He is known for, among other things, not welcoming customers into his sushi bar.

If Sam approves of your appearance, then his sushi is almost yours. He quickly spots the amateurs and indecisive ones in the crowd. Take more than three minutes standing in front of the bar before you order, and he mumbles “You been here before?” He usually follows with a short rant about how Americans are stupid and poorly educated.

Still, his patrons remain loyal, and they frequently encourage friends to take a lunch trip to eat sushi shoved in front of you by the short-tempered Sam.

“I love this place,” said Katie Bandas, a Sam’s Sushi Bar patron for about a year. “I think it’s the best sushi in Nashville. I think Sam and his attitude and the way he does his business unintentionally creates a vibe that I think people are actually drawn to because he’s so different.”

Another loyal customers who routinely puts up with his attitude is Aaron Thomas.

“I think he’s a marketing genius,” Thomas said. “I’ve been coming here for four years. He doesn’t take tips, and he gives you a huge portion for a really great price.”

But Sam can be hard to tolerate. Very hard. His constant lectures on how Americans are inadequate and his disappointment with the U.S. can try anyone’s patience. After enduring a few visits where you’re in the hot seat of Sam’s questioning, however, it becomes apparent that there is more to Sushi Sam than a brash attitude and disgust towards ill-informed people.

Sam Katakura is a world traveler, a man of high intellect, and contrary to what many of his patrons believe, does not enjoy being a sushi chef.

He’s spent most of his life traveling and has backpacked across 120 countries.

“I no like to talk about my past,” Sam snarled. “I no need to expose privacy, unlike people here in this America who want that attention. That’s stupid.”

“What’s done is done, why talk about it?”

Sam, who is unmarried, grew up in Japan as an only child. Unfettered, travel became his vice.

“From tiny boy, always had mindset to travel,” he said. “I don’t regret not having family. If family, then I would have had to stay put.”

He stops the story to glare and nod toward a customer; the only sign he gives when the sushi is ready.

After the customer walks away with his sushi, he continues to ramble on in grunts that only he understands.

In the middle of his half-Japanese mutter and half-understandable English, Sam slips a photograph off his corner table and hands it to a customer.

The photo is of a couple standing outside a house in Chile, but the man and woman are not his parents, his friends or acquaintances of his. He doesn’t know them at all.

This photograph seems to be his way of compensating for his lack of company. When asked, Sam won’t talk much about it.

It’s a beautiful, sad and lonely picture.

Sam carries the laminated photo with him and leaves it on the side counter, where he looks most often. He then abruptly switches topics back to American politics.

“I think he’s a very interesting and intelligent person,” said Alex Haass, a first-timer to Sam’s Sushi Bar who had the audacity to enter into a debate with Sam about religion and the history of Islam.

“When people are interested in what he’s interested in, you can see he kind of lights up to have someone to talk to,” Haass said.

“I would say he’s intimidating, but intriguing. He was a challenge for me to try and figure out and to keep up with intellectually.”

Sam has been in the United States for more than 20 years, and has been in Nashville for the last 10 years running his sushi bar.

He works 110 hours each week, making maki and nigiri rolls 14 hours a day, he said.

For him, making sushi isn’t challenging.

“I not proud of sushi making. This! This is easy.”

The tedious task tires him and causes him to lose patience, oftentimes sending customers away before they come in.

“I no kick out, I turn away! I turn away because, because I tired!” Sam said.

As two customers walk in, Sam preaches, teaches, and rants about being a baby boomer in Japan and the idealization of America. He ignores the customers until they stand awkwardly before him.

Strike one.

They stare blankly at each other and the menu hanging in front of them. They whisper and fumble, waiting for a friendly hello from Sam and the invitation to order.

Sam stops his conversation and with his head still concentrating on his sushi, he peers over at the two men.

Sam takes a breath of submission, looks up and narrows his eyes. His lips are thin and tight. His tone is short and suggests he customers are an inconvenience.

“You been here before?”

“No.”

Strike two.

“What you want?”

They haven’t made a decision yet.

Strike three.

“You leave, too tired to deal with you. No sushi.”

So, collegiate and frugal people of Nashville, when you decide you want decent and cheap sushi, take a trip over to Sam’s Sushi bar in Printer’s Alley off Church Street.

First-timers, remember the three rules to ordering:

• Don’t stand in front of Sam waiting for a greeting or invitation to order.

• Go with someone who has been to Sam’s before. He’s more likely to serve you if you’re with a person he recognizes. He’ll serve a stranger; of course, it just might not be as timely.

• Be decisive.

Either way, once you get past Sam’s attitude, you’re guaranteed a completely different type of customer service than you’re used to, plus a large amount of sushi for a crazy-cheap price tag.