Every day for two years, Bird Owattragool drove past the same gas station in Apex on his way to work, and every day for two years, he thought the same thing: there, inside that Han-Dee Hugo’s, that’s where I’ll open my first restaurant.
Specifically, Owattragool had his eye on the gas station’s in-store Subway space, which he felt had the bones of a sushi bar.
The space—tucked at the end of a hallway, just past the Han-Dee Hugo’s restrooms—was intimate, as sushi bars traditionally are. It didn’t have a kitchen, but Owattragool didn’t need one. The sandwich counter, already outfitted with refrigeration, would do the trick.
And while the parking lot outside the Subway’s street entrance was always empty, Owattragool viewed that as a good sign; it meant the location was on its last legs, he thought, not that attracting customers would be a problem.
Sure enough, in December 2019, the Subway sputtered to a halt, and a year and a half later, Owattragool saw his vision through. Since then, Akami Sushi Bar has emerged as a profound metamorphism of its sandwich chain predecessor.
The counter that once harbored tuna salad with a controversial composition—its purveyor created a “tuna facts” website to “clarify any misunderstandings”—now boasts a sleek case stocked with freshly-caught bluefin, yellowfin, and a dozen other fishes.
The linoleum floors have been replaced with hardwood; the faux brick walls painted pebble gray and adorned with Japanese artwork. The seating, previously made up of hard laminate stools that compelled patrons to perch, not sit, is now comfortable enough that customers who land a coveted spot at one of Akami’s monthly Omakase dinners can enjoy the hours-long meal without growing tired.
What hasn’t changed since the Subway days is the presence of a somewhat satiric tagline (Akami’s is “Gas Station Sushi”; Subway’s, of course, was “Eat Fresh”); the price of a solid lunch, which runs between $10 and $15 (dinner is in the $20 to $30 range); and a chunk of the clientele, who happily shifted from footlongs to nigiri and sashimi mori.
Now, though, regulars hang around a bit longer. They get to know each other, and they get to know their chef, who stores personal chopsticks for them on a shelf behind the counter.
Owattragool borrowed the chopstick idea from one of his many mentors.
After moving from Thailand to the United States at 21 and attending college in Virginia, Owattragool relocated to South Florida and set off on what would become a years-long journey to mastering sushi, an art form he admired for its simplicity.
From the beginning, Owattragool showed the potential to one day launch his own concept. He knows this, he says, because two years into his first stint as a sushi chef, at restaurant company Benihana, he was told that he “was not worth it to teach.”
“When sushi chefs are training you, they are looking for a certain mentality so that when you grow, you grow with the company,” Owattragool says. He was too independent for Benihana’s liking.
He convinced his boss to give him another chance but, in a move that perhaps cemented his role as a maverick, promptly quit the next day. The pay was too low, he says.
After spending another two years at an independent sushi bar across the street, he jumped around for three more.
“Anywhere I could learn, I stayed,” Owattragool says. “If I had nothing to learn, I quit.”
Once he’d racked up as much knowledge as he could, he returned to helm the kitchen at the independent sushi bar for several years and eventually moved to the Triangle, joining the ranks at Wasabi Sushi & Thai Restaurant in Cary and, later, Osha Thai Kitchen & Sushi in Holly Springs.
Owattragool’s nearly twenty years of experience shine through at Akami. While it’s tempting, and worthwhile, to order the indulgent house rolls, which come in standard varieties like volcano, spider, and dragon, the best route—particularly for a newcomer—is the simplest one, the sashimi. Available in sets or a la carte, the sashimi puts Owattragool’s sourcing, and his knife work, on display. The firm, velvety cuts of king salmon, Japanese yellowtail, and the namesake akami, brilliant red bluefin back loin, need nothing beyond a daub of wasabi and a splash of soy sauce to sing.
Given the quality of the restaurant’s food, it’s hard to believe that the Han-Dee Hugo’s landlord almost opted to replace the Subway with another corporate chain instead of taking Owattragool on as a tenant.
When Owattragool originally approached the landlord about the space, he says, the landlord was reticent about taking on an independent tenant. Ultimately, Owattragool says he only landed the lease because he reminded the landlord of himself.
Kate Medley, a Durham-based photojournalist who has spent the past several years capturing gas station food spots across the South to compile in a book she’ll release this November, says it’s increasingly common for restaurateurs like Owattragool to be turned away from gas station settings.
“Thirty years ago, a lot of these gas stations had affiliations with petrol companies, but they were independently franchised and run,” Medley says. “Now, most of them are chains—and if you’re a Sheetz of the world, the last thing you want to do, from a financial perspective, is take a chance on a young entrepreneur.”
But it can have a big payoff, both for an enterprise like Han-Dee Hugo’s, which now sports a consistently packed parking lot, and for locals and travelers, who gain a gathering space and a taste of the region, respectively.
“Gas stations, to me, hold a mysterious quality to them,” Medley says. “You swing open that glass door and the bell rings, and what’s presented to you? The thrill of finding these treasures, finding these gems, finding these reflections of the communities that I’m in—it’s my way of learning about where I am.”
Medley learned of Akami when a friend texted her a photo of the restaurant’s tote bags, which say “gas station sushi” in a blocky black and red font. She stopped by to purchase one as a travel bag for her fall book tour and was blown away by the food, hospitality, and delightful slice of local life.
“People are literally rubbing elbows at the bar,” Medley says. “It’s one of these little-seen democratic spaces that we all share.”
Indeed, when I visit Akami for lunch, I’m seated at the bar, elbow-to-elbow with a man named Abdel. He used to come here occasionally when it was a Subway, he tells me, and now eats lunch at Akami almost every day.
Owattragool prepares Abdel’s usual, a personalized set of nigiri, and they catch up on each other’s lives. Abdel, I learn, is a car salesman. While I’m slurping down a piece of madai sashimi, he asks me to identify my dream car.
“Something red,” I tell him.
“No make?” he asks. “No model?”
“Okay, a red Subaru Forester,” I say.
“That’s like if I asked you what your favorite food is,” he says, “and you said a tuna sandwich.”
He’s talking about the kind of tuna that used to sit stewing in a container at this very bar, back when it was a sandwich counter, but his comment also rings true with something Owattragool told me, which is that people in the Triangle don’t seem to like tuna in general.
“They love strong fish, like mackerel,” he says. “They love oily fish, like toro. But they don’t eat tuna that much.”
The topic came up while we were discussing a lesson Owattragool learned from a mentor: that to be a good sushi chef, one must be adept at adaptation.
The lesson was imparted in the context of cutting fish of different sizes. But it’s become one of Owattragool’s core values in a broader sense, compelling him to do things like shape his menu around community tastes.
The name “gas station sushi,” too, was bestowed on Akami by locals. Owattragool sees the restaurant’s setting as incidental. But he’s adopted the moniker in genial stride.
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