Sushi chef Alex Herzog’s tagline for his Great Wave sushi cart is as follows: “A union of traditional sushi with a modern flare diligently prepared to order by a true sushi aficionado.” Based on my recent order from the cart, parked inside Austin Street Brewery in Portland’s so-called Yeast Bayside district, I’d say emphasis on the “modern flare” part.

Where traditional sushi is restrained, almost austere and clean-tasting, Herzog’s more American approach is big and exuberant, with spice, hefty dollops of wasabi, “tempura crunchies,” sliced jalapeno, squeeze bottles with a slew of sauces to squiggle, and menu items like Sushi Burgers, Sushi Tartare Towers, Poke Nachos and Spicy Tuna Crispys. It’s a fun, party-in-your-mouth style of sushi, which suits its brewery setting.

If there were any sushi purists protesting, I did not see them. Instead, on a Friday in July at about 1 p.m., a line of expectant sushi eaters waited patiently to order. Herzog is a one-man show. He’s making the sushi – deftly and quickly – and taking and dispensing the orders solo. My partner and I had to get back to work, so we were anxious about the 30-minute wait (longer than the 15-20 minutes Herzog told us to expect; you cannot order ahead online), but as far as we could tell, other customers cheerfully returned to their tables on the patio, gulping their Patina pale ales and Offset IPAs, socializing with friends and periodically checking in with Herzog on the status of their orders.

Great Wave Sushi Spicy Tuna Rice Bowl.  Photo by Peggy Grodinsky

Inside, the casual, giant, sunlight- and plant-filled industrial space was a nice spot for waiting, and you can watch Herzog at work, efficiently plucking rice from a large model rice cooker and quickly rolling, stuffing, slicing and arranging/composing sushi pieces.

Herzog, a big guy in a Great Wave T-shirt and baseball cap, grew up in Portland and launched his cart in the winter. He told us he’d become interested in sushi in college, where he had a Korean roommate. According to his website, he’s a graduate of the California Sushi Academy and worked at a number of Japanese spots in Los Angeles before returning to his hometown. In Portland, Herzog worked at Yosaku, whose owner, Takahiro Sato, took the young man on a several-week culinary trip to Japan, where Herzog further studied soba and sushi-making. He spoke about the trip with great enthusiasm (and about his new baby with even greater enthusiasm). Maybe most amazing, as many restaurants struggle to find help, he told us he has lots of people asking to work for him.

Great Wave Sushi Vegetable Futomaki Roll.  Photo by Peggy Grodinsky

We ordered the Vegetable Futomaki Roll ($10) to go, as well as the generously portioned Spicy Tuna Rice Bowl ($17), a special of the day (maybe Herzog should rename it chirashi sushi? That’s a bowl of rice with toppings, Japanese style). Arranged over the bowl, or really a square plastic container of rice, were crab, lots of sliced avocado, cucumber, those crunchies, eel sauce, spicy Kewpie mayonnaise, wasabi and a scattering of black sesame seeds. The dish came with a pile of pickled pink ginger and an envelop of Kikkoman soy sauce (points for that; Kikkoman sauce is aged for several months, unlike many chemically produced soy sauce packets from takeout restaurants). Our vegetable roll, cut into nine neat slices, was filled with crisp lettuce, more avocado and more crunchy bits.

Together, they made a cooling and surprisingly filling lunch on a hot afternoon.

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