"We've had sushi for years in Baltimore," a joke goes. "We've just called it bait."
That joke pretty much summed up my feelings about the chances for success of the Samurai Sushi Bar in the Cross Street Market.
I never thought much of sushi. I thought sushi, rather than food, was more a form of amusement for "fashionable" folks. Something that looked pretty, was once "in" in New York, and definitely not for the masses.
And so every time I went down to South Baltimore, where real folks and real panhandlers can be found, I expected to see an "out of business" sign on the sushi stand.
Moreover, I was sure that in this town most folks like their oysters raw and their fish fried. While there were some raw-fish eaters scattered throughout the city, they tended to congregate in restaurants. A sushi bar in South Baltimore's city market would, I told myself, never make it.
To succeed, a sushi bar would have to attract both the nearby office workers in their freshly creased suits and the guys in baseball hats and T-shirts.
Which is exactly what it has done. Every time I go to the stand I see guys in work shirts shoulder to shoulder with guys in designer shirts. Everybody is hollering "Tony! Gimme some of that sushi!"
Tony is Antonio Purisima,the fellow with the bandanna around his head. A 40-year-old native of Manila, Purisima, along with some occasional help from his two children, Lisa, 11, and Dino, 13, runs the Samurai Sushi Bar, part of the Nick's Inner Harbor seafood operation in the Cross Street market.
The success of sushi has surprised Purisima's employer, Tommy Chagouris. Chagouris is from a long line of Baltimore fishmongers. His father, Nicholas, operated a seafood stand in the Lexington and Hollins markets before moving to Cross Street in 1971.
Like other seafood retail operations around Baltimore, Chagouris sells both raw and cooked seafood on the premises. But unlike others here, all the raw fish isn't wrapped up and taken home. Here some is sushi.
Chagouris, a market veteran, was a reluctant sushi patron.
"I told Tony it wouldn't work," said Chagouris. "He has proved me wrong." The sushi bar brought new customers into the Cross Street market, he said. And it has made sushi eaters out of some market regulars.
The other day I asked Purisima how he got shy eaters to try sushi. Purisima worked as he spoke, slicing squid for a customer who was wearing a shirt that looked as if it had just tangoed with a car engine.
"People tell me they never eat raw fish before," Purisima said. "I tell them if you can deal with raw oysters and raw clams, you can eat sushi."
From there, he said, he leads fledgling eaters to another familiar taste, crab meat.
"I give them crab meat [cooked], avocado, and cucumber with rice on the outside . . . very mild, very nice." he said.
Next on the sushi taste ladder is raw salmon and tuna, then all the way to squid, baby octopus and sea urchin.
"I tell customers sea urchin tastes like crab eggs. Some folks don't like crab eggs, but some do. One customer, Mike, he eats three orders," Purisima said. The descriptions are part of Purisima's style. "If someone asks about squid, I tell them it is raw, and chewy, sometimes slimy. I want them to know, so they aren't surprised."
His customers seem to take to the treatment. A few have offered to help him buy more equipment, he said. Another helped him find a new cutting board. But mostly his sushi-eating customers are loyal.
"They tell me they like not having to get dressed up to eat sushi," he said. "They say they can come here after working construction."
In my own narrow view, I would have never predicted that construction workers would like sushi.
But I was wrong.
So the other day, rather than eat my words, I took my starched-white-shirt self to Tony's sushi bar.
I ate Unagi,also known as eel.
I ate eel for several reasons. First, it was not something I would get at home.
Secondly, eels are local. The Chesapeake Bay is full of them, although most end up being salted and shipped to Japan.
Thirdly, baseball season was starting, and long ago I had read that Lou Gehrig, one of the greatest baseball players ever -- even if he was a Yankee -- had eaten eels. His mother, being a good German, fried them. I'd figured that if I ate eels, maybe I could hit like Gehrig.
And finally I ate eel because I thought I wouldn't like it. And if I didn't like it, then I could tell myself that even though other folks like sushi, it was not for me.
The eel, slightly broiled, surprised me. It was flavorful yet not overpowering. I liked it.
Since I had been wrong twice, both about the predicted success of the sushi bar and the predicted flavor of eel, I had two servings.
Rarely have I enjoyed being so wrong.