SPRING HILL — After a couple of years of rolling sushi at a local buffet restaurant, customers started asking Ivan Cheng the same question.
Your sushi is good, they said. Why not open your own place?
So Cheng did, with his brother, Jay, their father and other family, transforming a shopping plaza storefront into Wasabi Japanese Sushi & Grill.
"The first day we opened, it was all his customers," said Jay Cheng, 26.
Since that day last June, business has increased steadily as customers rejoice in that rare species among Hernando County restaurant options: the sushi bar. Now it's typical to have to wait for a table or a spot at the eight-seat sushi bar during prime time on Friday and Saturday nights.
Ivan, 24, smiles and uses his still-progressing English to express what it means to have the hard work pay off: "I'm so happy."
The family, in fact, is Chinese, hailing from Fujian Province, on the country's southeastern coast. The Chengs' father, Xie Fu, came to the United States about 15 years ago, working as chef in a Chinese restaurant in Louisiana. Jay, Ivan, their sister, Ming, and their mother came five years later.
The parents now live in New York, and Ming has a hibachi-style restaurant in Virginia. Jay was living in Brooklyn, working as a waiter, when Ivan moved to Spring Hill and came up with the idea for the grill. The entire family, plus three uncles still in China, chipped in the capital.
With its dark wood, modern light fixtures and faux stone walls, the Chengs have transformed the 3,200-square-foot space that formerly housed a Dollar Tree and pet store into the kind of hip eatery found in the place where Ivan got his start making sushi: Manhattan.
The menu offers more than 90 sushi rolls, with standard options ranging from $3.50 to $5.95.
Then there are the special rolls, offered for as much $17.95, where the sushi chefs get to show their skills. The brothers just added several options to that part of the menu, including the Longhorn: spicy tuna stuffed in jalapeno, fried with cream cheese and topped with snow crab and spicy mayo sauce.
Customers shouldn't be shy about asking for their own variations.
"Anything we can do, we'll do it," Jay said.
Diners who enjoy rolls and sashimi can opt for combination platters. And "love boats" serve up to four people.
The seafood comes from all over the world. Some tuna from Hawaii, salmon from Alaska and Scotland. Some inventory comes stamped with the time and date it was caught. But after years in the business, the brothers have a sixth sense for freshness.
"Nobody comes and says 'Oh, the fish is not fresh,' " Jay said.
The Chengs estimate that sushi comprises about 70 percent of their sales. Diners can wolf down 20 pounds of tuna in one night, but they like salmon even more, plowing through some 160 pounds in a week.
People who shy away from raw seafood have plenty of cooked options. Beef, chicken and vegetables dishes are plentiful on the menu, with sections for fried rice, tempura and hibachi selections.
The menu boasts 10 kinds of sake and plenty of Japanese beer. Domestic beer is available, too, along with wine.
Alex Canner, a 50-something resident of Crystal River, headed south Wednesday to meet a friend at Wasabi. They polished off three kinds of sushi rolls, ended with fried green tea ice cream, and now qualify as regular customers.
"It's excellent," Canner said. "And the decor is a plus."
It's a boon to have another sushi option here, said Canner's friend, 36-year-old Terri Kelczewski of Spring Hill. Folks who have lived here long enough, however, know what it's like to fall in love with a place, only to have it close.
"That was the first thing my husband said," Kelczewski said. "I hope it lasts."
The Chengs plan to stick around and are now on the verge of a new venture. The Wasabi Japanese Store, located a couple of doors down from the restaurant, is set to open in a few weeks.
The 1,600-square-foot space will be packed with Japanese groceries, cooking supplies and small gifts.
"A little bit of everything," Jay said.
Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or email@example.com.