Osaka is a tiny storefront with a few hundred seats if you count all the tables and chairs arranged around the food court in the Hamilton Mall. Sandwiched between an assortment of fast food stalls, ethnic and otherwise, two neon signs proclaim their name "Osaka Japanese Cafe" and remind us that they have "teriyaki" available.
Beverages are stacked in a refrigerated case on the left side of the counter, and fresh seafood of all kinds are presented on trays in the sushi counter display for all to see.
Like many other Asian restaurants, the story of their food is told in colorful pictures, numbered one through 10, in a light box behind the counter. That may be where the similarities end.
"People think that sushi in a food court is not good," says Jian Weng, 50, owner/chef of Osaka. "Our sushi is good, a lot better than from the outside."
The sushi at Osaka is less expensive than in the average Japanese restaurant. The food court at Hamilton Mall has many different types of food competing for the same customer dollars, and that translates into more reasonable prices, but the sushi still has to be good.
Many of the rolls on the regular menu are recognizable: the California roll ($3.50), still the most popular choice, includes surimi, cucumber, and avocado; and the Philly roll ($4.99) has smoked salmon, cream cheese and avocado; crispy spicy salmon ($3.99) is made with spicy Japanese mayonnaise and tempura flakes.
Spicy scallop ($5.99) features Japanese mayonnaise, avocado, tempura flakes and scallion. Mackerel and white fish ($4.99) features a ginger-lemon vinegar on the mackerel and a wasabi mayonnaise, cucumber and scallion filling that Weng has made his own.
Weng immigrated to the United States in 1992, from a small town called Suzhou, an hour outside of Shanghai. Becoming a cook at his uncle's Chinese/Japanese restaurant in northern New Jersey, he quickly absorbed the ways of a new culture, calling himself James.
After buying the business in the Hamilton Mall in 1996, Weng moved his family to Somers Point.
When Weng's uncle closed the North Jersey restaurant, he came to help Weng with his new business. After his uncle retired in 1999, Weng's wife, Ping Li, 50, began working at Osaka.
They quickly realized that Weng would need to work outside of his own business in order to keep it afloat. Weng began working full time as a hibachi chef at Caesars Atlantic City's Hyakumi, and later for Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa at the sushi bar in mixx, contributing his days off and all of his free time to help make Osaka succeed.
Although Weng had attended cooking school and learned Chinese cuisine, when he arrived in the states his lack of experience held him back. Weng was creative and liked doing decorative work like carving fruit and vegetable garnishes for the banquet table.
Weng's uncle advised him that he would never be able to make a living here with just those skills.
With a background in art, Weng soon realized he was more interested in Japanese cuisine anyway.
"I liked the color and design in the Japanese sushi," Weng says.
While Weng uses his artistic skills on all of the sushi he creates in his restaurant, catering allows him to do some specialty rolls that he may not have the time to do during a busy lunch or dinner rush.
It is with his special rolls that Weng's artistry really shines.
Weng's version of a green Dragon roll (eight pieces for $10.99) includes eel, surimi, and cucumber with a special eel sauce. The sliced avocado on top is cleverly cut and arranged to look like scales running down the back of a dragon's tail.
Another special roll is called a summer roll. Using his cleaver, Weng cuts a thin continuous sheet of cucumber. Next, he lays a slice of nori seaweed down and adds some spicy mayonnaise.
The rice in a summer roll is replaced by tiny pieces of crispy tempura flakes from a batter that has been deep-fried. With flying fish eggs, called tobiko, surimi, avocado, raw salmon, green scallion and cream cheese, the finished roll is sliced into rounds, making a colorful work of edible art.
Served with wasabi and pickled ginger, it's a good choice for those who don't eat rice. For those who don't like the taste of seaweed, Weng can replace that, too, by using soy paper.
"If people like raw fish I can put that. If people like cooked fish, I can use that," Weng says.
The sushi chef can be flexible and creative with many different options for his customers.
"I learned sushi one step at a time," Weng says.
With little chance of a Chinese cook moving up to sushi chef, Weng volunteered to help do sushi prep after he set up his own station at the restaurant. Eventually, his tenacity paid off. He was promoted to sushi helper, directly assisting the chef. Finally, with Osaka, he is able to bring everything he learned along the way to his customers.
Watching Weng work may be the most interesting part. Constantly wiping clean his work area, while layering seaweed, vinegared rice, assorted seafood and garnish, Weng then wraps each roll in Saran Wrap to hold it together, shaping them with a bamboo mat.
Weng dips his razor-sharp knife into water and, using the heel of his knife, cuts each roll into four exact portions. The results on the plate are as much pride as they are passion.
Osaka is kept busy with shoppers, college students, workers from the Federal Aviation Administration, and many families who come in to taste Weng's creations.
Weng suggests eating sushi within a few hours of it being made, at room temperature.
"Many people put it in the refrigerator and eat it the next day," Weng says. "It's just not the same."