Wheels without wheels
Sushi On Wheels / A little-known kiosk hidden in a Waipahu supermarket is offering customers a new perspective on sushi with an unique, innovative menu.
Co-owners Ramon Rojales, 25, and Arnold Pontillas, 36, opened Sushi On Wheels in July in hopes of expanding their catering business, in which they make sushi on the spot for guests at parties; hence the name Sushi On Wheels. Already successful as caterers, Rojales and Pontillas wanted to open a small-scale establishment that would help generate more publicity for their catering business and at the same time, be a stepping stone to opening a full-scale restaurant.
Sushi On Wheels is a small contemporary sushi bar. Its eight seats allow Rojales and Pontillas to know their customers by name –and by sushi preference.
“I know just what you need,” Rojales reassuringly told one of his regulars as she plopped down at the bar, looking glum and exhausted. To help wake her up and fix her bad day, he made her a kicked up shrimp tempura roll topped with spicy ‘ahi and chili flakes.
At Sushi On Wheels, every customer is a VIP and receives specially made rolls catered to his or her taste buds.
“We’re almost like Burger King,” joked Rojales. “Have it your way.”
The location and set-up of the restaurant might throw some visitors off, but looks can be deceiving. Also, it isn’t really mobile. Rojales and Pontillas kept the name Sushi On Wheels because people already knew it from their catering business.
Located in the Waipahu Festival Marketplace, the sushi bar is located in front of vendor stalls, hawking everything from seafood to boba drinks. If it weren’t for the roof, customers would feel like they were dining in an open-air street market in Asia.
At Sushi on Wheels, space is cramped and socializing is just as necessary as eating. It’s a great place for friendly conversation and delicious food. The kitchen is simple–a refrigerator, a microwave and toaster oven. Since the kiosk is inside a supermarket, open burners and stoves are prohibited. Luckily, most of the preparation, like chopping, is done beforehand in a main kitchen in Kalihi. Some items, like the tempura or soft shell crab, is pre-fried and reheated in the oven but everything else is prepared on the spot. Sushi is only rolled upon customer request.
Prices range from $5–$10 for a roll. Platters are available for $25 to $40. Nigiri bentos and salads are also on the menu. The spicy ‘ahi salad is worth ordering, especially if you’re looking for a low-carb meal. Spicy ‘ahi is piled on top a bed of mixed greens and dressed with a homemade wasabi vinaigrette.
Some patrons, like Cindy Han of Waipahu, first complained about the price.
“It is kind of expensive,” she commented. Rojales asked her how many times she’s visited him this week. “Three,” she admitted. “The sushi is very good, that’s why. Take all my money.”
When asked what her favorite roll is, Han replies with a laundry list of favorites, “I like the sunshine roll, California katsuo roll, spicy ‘ahi…oh! And the seafood medley salad.”
Such creative rolls sprung from the innovative minds of the two owners, both graduates of Kapi’olani Community College’s (KCC) Culinary Institute of the Pacific. A former med school-bound Biology student at KCC, Rojales, dubbed the “Sushi Doctor” by one of his customers, ditched the white doctor’s coat for a chef’s hat.
“Food belongs in my family,” explained Rojales, whose grandparents used to own the well-known Filipino restaurant Joni’s. “It’s one of our core values. I always knew I wanted to be involved in the food business.”
Although Joni’s is no longer in business, Rojales still uses some of his family recipes in his creations, like the adobo roll. Joni’s adobo sauce has the perfect balance of sweet and sour, making it just flavorful enough and not too rich.
Not only does Rojales draw inspiration from his own Filipino background in the creation of his specialty rolls but he also finds influence in all different types of cuisine ranging from Italian to Chinese. His specialty rolls usually come together when he’s “just messing around.”
“I like to play with different textures and unexpected flavors,” he said. The Kilauea roll, currently the sushi bar’s most popular roll, was borne from one of Rojales’s test sessions. It’s a shrimp tempura roll topped with spicy ‘ahi, katsuo bonito flakes and three special sauces.
Rojales and Pontillas decided to go into business together after meeting at The Kahala Mandarin Hotel. Pontillas was a waiter at The Plumeria Beach Cafe and Rojales was an intern running the different food departments. Both already had side businesses doing private catering. Rojales made desserts and various types of foods while Pontillas, a seasoned sushi chef, specialized in live sushi bar catering. They decided to combine their skills and create Sushi On Wheels. Their services, usually spread by word of mouth, have been used by many islanders. Even Mayor Mufi Hannemann is reportedly fan.
“I gave him some sushi at a party,” said Rojales.
“Yeah, he came the other day but you were closed,” said one of the regular customers, Walter Omori of Walter’s Sound and Karaoke Shop.
A missed opportunity perhaps, but Rojales and Pontillas plan to continue expanding Sushi On Wheels in hopes of reaching a wider range of customers. Aside from the sushi kiosk, the two currently still run the catering business and also have a sushi bar at every University of Hawai’i home football game. In the next couple of months, they plan on implementing a fresh sushi delivery service to Waipahu area residents. However, they hope to open a restaurant in the next few years–one complete with a kitchen and liquor license.
“We will keep it small though,” Rojales made sure to point out. “That way we can provide better quality sushi for the price. It’s more personal because when a restaurant is big you don’t know who you’re talking to. Customers become just a number.”
Sometimes customers might even need to take a number when it’s either Pontillas or Rojales working alone behind the sushi bar. Business is definitely picking up, said Rojales, so it might get backed up on a busy day, but one ‘Ewa resident, who favors the Kilauea roll, said the sushi is “definitely worth the wait.”
Sushi On Wheels
Waipahu Festival Marketplace,
94-340 Waipahu Depot Rd.,