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COMMENTARY
Roll & Rock Sushi
Various rolls feature a fusion style at Roll and Rock Sushi. (James Nghiem)

The first time I went to Roll & Rock Sushi Station – a small bar-top sushi spot inside of a Valero gas station on Meridian Avenue – I didn’t know what to expect. Seeing made-to-order sushi in the context of an unassuming bodega intrigued me. On this particular occasion, there was a nosy old man buying candy bars in the lobby who thought it was a good idea to lecture me beforehand. He reminded that I should only eat sushi near an ocean. I remember thinking, “Shut up, old man,” before placing my order. The last thing I recall is having a pretty pleasant experience. That was more than a year ago.

I’ve decided to return today with my friend Zach. Zach is my half-Japanese, half-Chinese comedian friend from Moore, Oklahoma. He’s a self-proclaimed sushi snob, so I invited him hoping he keeps this review honest. He showed up on a particularly sunny Saturday afternoon hungover and hungry.

Fusion with a side of friendliness

All the pressure of judging Japanese sushi evaporated once the owner of Roll & Rock, Jack, started a friendly conversation with us as he worked. The cheerful Indonesian man in a black cowboy hat with silver studs told us his establishment isn’t the most authentic, instead opting to mix his knowledge of Japanese cuisine with his love of Indonesian food. I don’t know enough about either to discern the line between them. It’s not advertised anywhere in his restaurant that his sushi is an Indonesian/Japanese mixture. I don’t think the combination was intentional, either. It’s just what happened incrementally. As it stands, I was excited about the prospect of eating fusion food that came to fruition in an organic, this-is-what-I-know way.

Zach perused the menu.

“I’ve never seen a fried-chicken roll,” he said.

“Are you excited?” I asked.

“I’m excited,” he said, seemingly sincere.

The fried-chicken roll combo was enticing, but we decided to order separate rolls in the form of combos. I ordered the Tootsie roll combo, which also came with a fried-veggie roll, a bottle of water and a bowl of miso soup. I ordered edamame, too. After we ordered, the owner said we get a free chicken roll if we meet a certain stipulation. I didn’t quite catch what he said, but I agreed anyway.

Roll and Rock Sushi
Egg rolls. (James Nghiem)

After a short pause, he brought us an order of egg rolls, which I concluded was part of the stipulation for acquiring the free chicken rolls. Soon after, my edamame arrived in front of me, emanating steam and covered in thick flecks of salt. The miso soup also found it’s way to us quickly.

Roll and Rock Sushi
Miso soup. (James Nghiem)

“This is what I needed,” Zach said as he lapped a spoonful of soup. “Salt.”

He appeared happy and surprised, taking moments in between sips to look at the broth then back up at his surroundings.

It was early, and we were the only customers so far, so our rolls came out quickly, too. We watched the owner dart around in front of us before he brought us each a plate with three rolls apiece: a fried-veggie roll, a fried-chicken roll and whichever variety of roll we decided to order on our own.

The veggie roll was crispy, and the sauce (some kind of sweet, viscous soy sauce reduction) accompanied it nicely. The Tootsie roll had a smokey salmon flavor, which I liked. Before long, Zach picked up the fried-chicken roll.

“Interesting,” he said skeptically before taking a bite. “That’s not bad at all!”

“Right?”

When I broke down the elements, the fried-chicken roll sounded pretty familiar. It’s rice, chicken and mild sauce rolled together as hand food. The only ingredient that might seem exotic was the kombu (seaweed), but it went down easily as well. It’s perfect comfort food.

For the six rolls between us, the two bowls of miso soup, two short bottles of water, two egg rolls and one pile of edamame, our ticket came to about $23. Zach concluded that while it might not usurp the Sushi Nekos or Tokyos of the world in his mind, he’ll definitely be back. Maybe that’s why I’ve been drawn to this place from the start. It takes sushi from bougie date spots and transforms it into affordable comfort food in a low-key setting.

Owner: ‘I dont give up’

Before we left, the owner asked us each what we do. Zach mentioned that we’re comedians. The owner found a video of me on YouTube on his phone then laughed at the first joke before I asked him to turn it off.

“You can be the next Jimmy Fallon!” he said.

“I don’t know, man.”

“I’m serious. I came to America with no skills, no English. The important thing is to do what others don’t want to do. I don’t give in. That’s the important thing.”

He told a detailed story of finding a job in a sushi kitchen over a decade ago despite not knowing anything about it. He talked about how his supervisors would tell him to cut cucumbers and, nodding politely, he would run off to secretly look up what a cucumber was in the dictionary. Ignoring his hunger, he also saved up his $5 lunch stipends for years, hoping to save enough money to start his own restaurant. He recounted some false starts but told us he’s going to work his way out of this gas station.

“I don’t give up,” he said again.

We exchanged information, and the whole experience made me feel at home. A few weeks later he texted me to tell me he’s moving to his own building on 6227 N. Meridian Ave., next to a Subway and a comic shop, after Thanksgiving. He didn’t give up. He was telling the truth the entire time. Maybe NBC will call me this week to take Jimmy Fallon’s spot. I’ll tell them we should hash out the contract over dinner at this Indonesian/Japanese sushi spot in an Oklahoma City gas station.

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James Nghiem is an Oklahoma-based stand-up comic and drummer who runs Robot Saves City, a local comedy label.