The very idea of gas-station sushi is so incongruous that it was lampooned in a memorable Esurance commercial. The ad was funny. Zhu Jianjun thinks so, too. And he talks about it, and laughs about it, even as he proudly serves colorful rainbow rolls and beautiful salmon nigiri to customers – familiar and frequently new – in his little café that shares space with a gas station in Jasper.
Bayou Fresh Seafood at the Fuel Co. on North Walston Bridge Road is worth a stop: for the food, the quirky atmosphere and the very real feeling of camaraderie between the customers and the staff (some of whom have been with Zhu for a decade).
I went to Bayou Fresh Seafood recently for Alabama NewsCenter. You can see that story here and watch my partner Brittany’s cool video.
They celebrate Christmas and Chinese New Year at Bayou Fresh Seafood. Inside, you’ll notice two mounted trophy bass on either side of a tasseled red wall hanging decorated with Chinese symbols. The whiteboard of daily specials on a recent Tuesday included frog leg dinners and Ramune Japanese soda, a shrimp bowl and baby octopus nigiri, homemade seafood gumbo and salmon roe sushi. There’s a waving lucky cat figurine near the sushi bar and a University of Alabama sign across the room. At Bayou Fresh Seafood, the folks who work here “know what some customers want the minute they walk in,” says Camelia Castillo. And if you’re new, they’ll probably know you by the time you leave.
“You notice this customer,” Zhu says, pointing out some regulars. “They started coming here in 2013. … They like us; they know me. They always come and give me a hug … say, ‘You do good work.’ It gives me the confidence, you know. I don’t have the English at that time. … Now I’m learning every day.”
The family-run Bayou Fresh Seafood gained national attention in 2016 when the place made Southern Living’s list of the South’s Best Gas Station Restaurants. (Blue Pacific at Hoover Food Mart, beloved for its Thai noodle dishes, was the other Alabama pick for this 10 Best list.)
There’s a copy on the wall of the magazine story, and Zhu says this kind of unexpected exposure, as well as dedicated social media like Facebook, has brought him customers from as far away as California. He regularly sees people passing through on their way to Florida; other new customers are in Jasper to attend flight school at the nearby Sanders Aviation. But it’s his regulars who are the heart and soul of his business, he says.
Zhu, who is from China, bought the restaurant in 2012 from a Vietnamese family. They were from Mobile and ran a fishing boat in the Gulf, he says. It was named Bayou Fresh Seafood then, and he kept the name. Then he served fresh seafood dinners with Southern sides and some Cajun flavor, if you’d like, which he continues.
A few years after he bought the business, a customer suggested Zhu add sushi to the menu, so he did. There was a bit of a learning curve, he says, so he made sushi with fried shrimp to show people that “all sushi is not raw.” Zhu says he started off giving away pieces of sushi to get customers to simply try it.
“People would say, ‘Oh that’s good. But why you open here? Why you no go open somewhere else? … It’s a gas station. Nobody is comfortable.’ … I say, ‘I’m already here. I already spend the money here.’ … I just tried working hard, tried to make everybody comfortable when they eat. Then they come back again. It’s not like they eat and ‘bye-bye.’” In fact, one customer came for 50 straight days, he says.
His customers soon grew to love Zhu’s sushi, and now many come in just for that. Sushi, he says, accounts for most of his business.
Little wonder. The sushi made by Zhu and his wife, Janice, is as delicious as it is beautiful. You can choose from the sushi menu or, if time allows, they can create a roll for you.
His Rockin Roll is a work of art and a beautiful mix of flavors and textures – from the crispy shrimp tempura, tender crab and cream cheese inside to the tiny, boiled crawfish, spicy crab and fresh jalapenos he carefully places on top to the finishing drizzle of spicy mayo and eel sauces.
There are California rolls, of course. This becomes an Alabama roll when he wraps the pieces in fresh tuna. Similarly, the Tennessee roll is a California roll wrapped with fresh salmon. The Huntsville roll is spicy tuna and cucumber topped with salmon, crunch and eel sauce. Summer rolls are made with salmon, crab stick, cream cheese and avocado and then deep fried and topped with eel sauce. The Three-Color roll is salmon, tuna, white tuna and cream cheese deep fried with yum yum sauce on top. The sushi is available in several combos, too, served with miso soup and ginger salad. You’ll want to try that ginger salad. It’s a simple, lovely, crunchy mix of iceberg lettuce and seaweed salad topped with a gingery dressing and scattered with delicious roe that bursts delightfully with every bite.
At the bottom of the sushi menu, you’ll find dishes from the kitchen; these are what you’d expect from any Southern seafood place. Shrimp, crab claws, frog legs, catfish, grouper, mahi-mahi, red snapper and oysters. Get these separately or in combos; order them fried, grilled, steamed or blackened. The lunch special (from 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.) includes a fish (or chicken finger) box with your choice of three wildly different sides (spring rolls, hushpuppies, french fries, corn on the cob, fried pickles, gyoza dumplings, some truly excellent smoked sausage, red potatoes, ginger salad, miso soup, coleslaw and white rice). There’s a similar menu in the evenings; dinners come with fries, hushpuppies, coleslaw and an extra side from that interesting list. You’ll also find a variety of po’ boys (chicken tenders, tilapia, catfish, shrimp, oyster, grouper and alligator). Fresh crawfish are celebrated in the summer, and people line up when Zhu has snow crab legs.
Ingredients for these dishes come to Bayou Fresh Seafood several times a week. Zhu says he gets his sushi ingredients – the spicy tuna, the baby octopus, the various kinds of roe, the salmon, the squid and more – from JFC International in Atlanta. Shipments of Gulf-fresh shrimp, snapper, grouper, crab claws and oysters come straight from the coast via Bon Secour Fisheries Inc.
At a time in the food and hospitality industry when restaurant owners are having difficulties hiring and keeping staff, Zhu has a cadre of loyal employees who have been with him for years.
Zhu says they are “family.” He’s talking about Alex, who has been in his kitchen frying and steaming seafood for 10 years and says the restaurant “is like home.” He’s talking about Ashley, whom they call “Peavey,” and Lacey, who also have been working at Bayou Fresh Seafood for a decade. He points out Kerri and Camelia (Castillo), who have been there for six years. During their time together, he has learned from them, he says, and they, in turn, have learned from him. “That’s the story about Bayou,” Zhu says. “It’s not about the food. It’s about the family.”
Castillo, who is quick to step up and expertly make sushi rolls when Zhu talks to customers, agrees. “Zhu and Janice are like mom and dad to us,” she says.
Zhu and Janice have children of their own, but he says he is proud of his restaurant family, too. Some of the young people working in his restaurant started when they were teenagers, and now they have children of their own. “They work hard,” he says. “They work so hard.” And he’s proud of them for it. But he’s also setting an example. “I am Chinese. I come here for family. I no go to college, but I still own my own business.” But, he’s quick to add, his staff and their dedication make this restaurant work.
Zhu says when his customers are happy, he’s happy.
“A lot of customers tell me they go everywhere and eat sushi and I’m pretty best. And I’m so glad. And, also, that’s why we’re working so hard.”
Bayou Fresh Seafood
217 N. Walston Bridge Road
Jasper, Alabama 35504
11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday (Zhu takes a break from making sushi Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday from 3 to 4:30 p.m.). Dine in or carry out. A menu is available on the Bayou Fresh Seafood Facebook page.