Off a desolate strip of Federal Highway a short drive south of Hillsborough Boulevard, Kevin’s Sushi & Thai has taken up residence in a small storefront tucked into yet another aging South Florida strip mall. Flanked by a nail salon and a tattoo parlor, only a small sign above the door lets you know you’ve arrived.
The restaurant has been there a year now, but the regulars have done a good job of keeping quiet about this sleeper sushi spot. They don’t want you taking their seat at the sushi bar, ordering all the uni, or drinking up the last of the house pineapple-infused sake before they get there.
Of course, it’s not hard to pack such a small space. There are just a half-dozen tables and only ten seats at the sushi bar. This is they way Ongtua likes it.
“I can see everyone, and I know what’s going on,” he says. “Any bigger and I couldn’t interact with my customers. Who wants to stare at a kitchen wall all night?”
Ongtua was born and raised in Thailand, in a small town just outside Bangkok. He remembers cooking rice over an outdoor charcoal fire with his grandmother, a method that imparted so much flavor, it’s a dish he craves to this day but has a hard time replicating in an American kitchen.
“That way of cooking is more labor-intensive, more rustic, but [has] so much more aroma and flavor,” says Ongtua. “I can’t cook like that here, but I can create a similar experience with the right ingredients and the same hard work.”
Although Ongtua studied banking and finance, he later gave it all up to cook. After working several years with Le Méridien Bangkok Hotel, in 1992, he relocated to Florida to attend culinary school. Rather than jump into his studies, he began making sushi for several local establishments, including Mido’s Japanese Restaurant in Boca Raton and later Su-Shin Thai in Lauderhill.
“I’ve always loved Japanese cuisine and making sushi,” says Ongtua. “It’s a way of cooking that is all about respect: respect for tradition, for technique, for ingredients.”
Several years ago, Ongtua decided to go rogue and began making sushi for his cousin at China Gourmet, a Chinese-American restaurant in Deerfield. The idea was to offer customers who frequented the busy takeout and delivery operation some affordable sushi as well.
“I wasn’t opening my own restaurant, so I didn’t have the cost of staff and overhead,” recalls Ongtua. “Today, my prices haven’t changed. Because I do most of the cooking and all the sushi myself, I can translate those savings to my customers.”
In October 2013, Ongtua opened Kevin’s Sushi & Thai to expand and provide for his growing clientele, many of whom had followed him from China Gourmet. If you like peace and quiet, go for lunch. You’ll dine in solace, with the chef’s full attention. If you desire the hum of a well-packed dinner crowd, go at night. Ongtua will be still be there, but his attention will be focused on the sushi, not you.
The chef is a flurry of activity behind the bar. The counter seats fewer than a dozen, and these coveted spots are the perfect vantage point to watch as he prepares the restaurant’s most impressive menu items: enormous sushi rolls the size of sand dollars, most priced $10 to $12. More pricey rolls go for $16 to $18 thanks to more pricey ingredients like hamachi, conch, or tuna but can be made in half-orders for nearly half the price.
For this reason, Ongtua will make hundreds of rolls each day, using fish delivered to his restaurant six days a week. There’s a small section dedicated to “customers’ favorites” — homage to the loyal patrons who have supported him over the years.
There are also the classic and standard gourmet rolls, each an uber-Americanized take that has gone the route of the McDonald’s supersize. Here, a rainbow roll is enough to feed a family of four, whopping slices of rice-encased krab, cream cheese, and scallion topped with salmon, tuna, and a sprinkling of masago.
The American Dream is just that: fat tempura-fried shrimp and thick cuts of eel fused together with cream cheese and avocado, topped with a splash of gooey-sweet eel sauce and sesame seeds that act as binder, helping to keep it all neatly bound as you configure a way to fit a single slice in your mouth without taking a bite.
The small kitchen at back produces the menu’s other highlights, creative dishes Ongtua has perfected over the years. There are dozens of appetizers, from soups and salads to sashimi. Next, you can order the sushi à la carte or in jumbo-sized rolls. The Thai side of the menu comes into focus with fried rice, pad Thai, and curries. A small hibachi section is available as well, but this one comes without the show — just miso soup, vegetables, and steamed rice.
Standout starters include Ongtua’s homemade tum ka kai soup, with cubes of ripe tomatoes, diced chicken, and shoots of lemongrass bobbing in a fragrant, lime-laced coconut broth. Or a platter of seared wahoo tataki, thick cuts of fresh-sliced fish seared just enough to render the edges a pearlescent sheen, drenched in a light wasabi yuzu sauce.
The stuffed jalapeños might sound fast-food familiar, but they’re Ongtua’s favorite appetizer. Fresh peppers are stripped of their seeds (or ask him to keep them for a spicy kick) and filled with minced salmon slathered in a house-made spicy sauce, rolled in tempura batter, and flash-fried. The resulting dish offers a satisfying roll of flavor and texture, the crackly fried tempura paired with the rich, creamy interior of slightly seared salmon.
For 17 years, Ongtua has been making his own pineapple-infused sake, and now, you’ll find it on Kevin’s menu. Large containers in the refrigerator at back advertise the specialty and hold gallons at a time, buckets where fruit and sake meld into a mild-sweet treat.
A whiteboard to the left of the sushi bar advertises specials, scrawled in Ongtua’s own handwriting. One week, it will be frog legs, uni, and bluefin toro. The regulars will know to ask Ongtua for his shoshito peppers, a simple dish but prepared with a loving hand, fried in olive oil with fresh minced garlic, salt, and pepper.
“Can you eat sushi every day?” asks Ongtua. “Yes, if you can afford it. I guess that’s why I see my customers so often.”
Kevin’s Sushi & Thai is located at 706 S. Federal Highway, Deerfield Beach. Lunch hours are 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. Dinner hours are 5 to 10:30 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 5 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Call 954-418-6218, or visit kevinssushithai.com.
Tum ka kai $5
Soy ramen $9
Stuffed jalapeños $12
Jenny’s roll $16
Shrimp pad Thai $14
Nicole Danna is a food blogger covering Broward and Palm Beach counties. To get the latest in food and drink news in South Florida, follow her @SoFloNicole or find her latest food pics on Clean Plate's Instagram.