A new generation of sushi chefs is taking center stage at Phat Boy Sushi in Fort Lauderdale
By Rebecca Cahilly-Taranto Photography by Richard Taranto
The dining room at Phat Boy Sushi is prepped and ready to greet patrons for the evening. Co-owner Thuan Lam introduces a smiling young man wearing a Rasta tam to the rest of the team.
“You’re no longer the only Filipino, Jay!” Lam jokes to one of his sous chefs. Chill lounge tunes accompany the laughter amidst the mélange of Vietnamese and Tagalog chatter.
Tattooed and muscled, the 37-year-old Lam doesn’t immediately convey the persona of a Japanese chef (he studied fire science in college), but he fell in love with the restaurant business – and the flavors and ingredients of Japanese food – at an early age. After 12 years as a chef and manager in various kitchens in Fort Lauderdale, Lam was ready to take the next step and began searching for a partner in a new restaurant venture.
That partner came in the form of 23-year-old Swedish-born John Maser, who apprenticed as a sushi chef under Lam after moving to the United States four years ago.
“It took us a while to find a good location,” Lam says, “because we wanted to make it a great restaurant for locals.”
The duo settled on a 30-seat space on Federal Highway in Fort Lauderdale, and Phat Boy Sushi & Kitchen opened in April 2016.
“A lot of people think sushi is just putting fish in a roll and adding eel sauce and spicy mayo,” says Lam, who was born in Vietnam and grew up in California. “It’s much more complicated than that.”
Lam and Maser set out with a different approach to their creations, elevating traditional Japanese style and incorporating other cultures to create their own kind of Asian Fusion in a “jeans-and-T-shirt” atmosphere.
The vibe at Phat Boy – that’s phat as in “cool” – is decidedly casual, albeit edgy, thanks in part to a hand-drawn Hannya mask mural by Takeshi Kamioka (owner/chef of Gaysha New World Sushi Bar in Wilton Manors) dominating one wall. Alternately whimsical and eerie, the horned demonic visage emerging from a cannabis patch gripping a double-edged knife in its fangs declares: “We’re creative, we’re fun, and, oh yes, we aren’t your average sushi joint.”
“We like that we can bring a South Beach feel to Fort Lauderdale,” says Lam, who says the small plate, tapas-style encourages patrons to put down their phones and share food and conversation.
Distinguished among such traditional menu items as dumplings, Hamachi jalapeño sashimi and spicy tuna rolls are Phat Boy originals, such as Chef John’s Miss Liz roll – tuna, avocado, cucumber and cilantro wrapped in soy paper and topped with a signature house sauce and fried shallots – and the house-made dried kawahagi (tilefish), a sweet and spicy Japanese fish jerky.
“Right now our most popular menu items are our ramens,” Lam says of the selection of six kinds of steaming concoctions made from scratch – including the broth – and served in a bowl the size of a football helmet.
To Lam and Maser, atmosphere and energy are just as important as Phat Boy’s cuisine.
“We hire high-energy people, we socialize with the customers, we alter the music to suit the energy of the crowd,” Lam says.
Maser adds: “Energy is very important, especially with an open kitchen. We look for chefs who will interact with the customers. We’re joking around, having a good time. These days people want to customize their food, so it’s also important to have chefs who will cater to everyone’s needs.”
Phat Boy looks not only to satisfy its local customers but local businesses as well, some of which have namesake menu items, the Pump Fit roll, for example. Dining hours extend until midnight on weekdays and 2 a.m. on weekends to cater to the employees of local restaurants.
Now it’s late in the afternoon and the dinner crowd begins to trickle in. Maser chats with a bearded brewer pitching his latest local concoction – a lemongrass ale infused with Thai chilis. I ask what’s on the horizon for the young co-owners, who say the plan is to open a second location in south Fort Lauderdale.
“Your original vision is never what it ends up being, you change things here and there and you learn more about each other,” Lam says. “Our grand opening was 250 people. The next one will be 10 times smoother. Now we know, so we’ll be prepared.”
DELIGHTS OF ASIA
With no shortage of sushi, Thai, Japanese, Vietnamese, Chinese or other Asian-inspired restaurants in South Florida, we shortlist the notables that stand out along the drive from Palm Beach to Hollywood.
Bamboo Asian Bistro
Eat-in or take-out, delicious Chinese and Pan-Asian creations.
4350 N. Federal Highway, Fort Lauderdale, 954-990-8656, bambooasianbistrofl.com.
Basilic Vietnamese Grill Flavorful pho and baskets
of shrimp chips.
217 Commercial Blvd., Lauderdale-By-The-Sea, 954-771-5798; also 200 S. Federal Highway, Boca Raton, 561-409-4964.
Coco Asian Bistro
Authentic Thai, Korean, Asian Fusion in an elegant atmosphere.
1841 Cordova Road, Fort Lauderdale, 954-525-3541, cocoasianbistro.com.
Rolled ice cream, like that served in the marketsof Thailand.
1832 S. Federal Highway, Delray Beach, 561-877-3839, eathaiflorida.com.
Gaysha New World Sushi Bar Health-conscious sushi in a hip atmosphere.
2223 Wilton Drive, Wilton Manors, 954-530-0153.
The cure for late-night
2035 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, 754-263-2826, eatgobistro.com.
Quiet gem wowing locals and visitors alike.
Colony Shoppes, 7400 N. Federal Highway, Boca Raton, 561-235-5364, ichibansaigon.com.
Imoto Palm Beach
Small plates, big flavors.
350 S. County Road, Palm Beach, 561-833-5522, imotopalmbeach.com.
The chefs greet with ohayou, konnichiwa or konbanwa as you arrive, and the authenticity
doesn’t stop there.
2736 N. Federal Highway, Fort Lauderdale, 954-563-2888, japanspirits.com.
Musashi Thai &
Neighborhood restaurant serving delicious Thai cuisine.
6237 N. Federal Highway,
Fort Lauderdale, 954-771-7322.
Nakorn Roll & Bowl
Hidden ramen and sushi gem. Sheridan Plaza, 5341 Sheridan St., Hollywood, 954-374-8722, nakorn.us.
Nana Noodles & Sushi Bar Serves elevated Thai and
5195 W. Atlantic Ave., Delray Beach, 561-450-6912,
Phat Boy Sushi & Kitchen
Hip casual neighborhood
joint in a league of its own.
4391 N. Federal Highway, Fort Lauderdale, 954-533-4218, phatboysushi.com.
Authentic fine Chinese
banquet cuisine experience.
2787 E. Oakland Park Blvd., Fort Lauderdale, 954-565-5652, rainbowpalace.com.
Sasaya Japanese Market Japanese market and sushi take-out.
1956 E. Sunrise Blvd., Fort Lauderdale, 954-761-8010, sasayajapanese.com.
Sozo Sushi Bar
Quaint, family-run, quality sushi bar.
2362 Wilton Drive, Wilton Manors, 954-630-1916, sozosushibar.com.
Emphasis on quality and freshness; Nobu-trained chef/owner; the wasabi looks like little sumo wrestlers.
477 N. Federal Highway, Boca Raton, 561-347-7888, sushigojoe.com.
Temple Street Eatery Neighborhood dumpling and noodle bar with Chinese, Vietnamese and Latin influences. 416 N. Federal Highway, Fort Lauderdale, 954-828-2394, templestreeteatery.com.
Thai Moon By The Sea
Thai, Japanese and a touch of Latino fusion.
3026 E. Commercial Blvd., Fort Lauderdale, 954-772-7766, thaimoonbythesea.com.
What the Pho
Creative Vietnamese dishes punctuated by desserts worth the search for parking.
2033 Wilton Drive, Wilton Manors, 754-779-7769.
Ziree Thai and Sushi
Family-owned, classic Thai.
401 W. Atlantic Ave., Delray Beach, 561-276-6549, zireethai.com.