For years now, Wasabi Express has held a place in Pulaski County as something of a curiosity.
But for those who call themselves its fans, its culinary quirkiness is only part of its appeal -- the quality of the food is what matters most.
Wasabi Express might sound at first like it serves Japanese food, and you'd be right. It does.
But sit down at a table and the first thing you'll be handed is a basket of chips and a bowl of salsa -- just like at other Mexican restaurants in town.
That's because Wasbai Express is also a Mexican restaurant.
There aren't many sit-down restaurants where one has been able to order both sushi and a burrito, particularly in southeastern Kentucky. But that's been the unique thing about Wasabi Express, which was founded and is operated by Hispanic individuals -- despite the name.
But make no mistake -- according to manager Regulo Sanchez, the Japanese offerings are the most popular on the menu.
Sanchez started working at Wasabi Express four years ago, about a year after it opened. The owner, Jose Perez, was out of town at the time of the interview, but Sanchez shared what he'd learned about the restaurant's origins.
"He used to work in Richmond, Ky.," said Sanchez, noting that Perez was inspired by working with people of Asian heritage there. "He made the decision to open his own business with both (Japanese and Mexican foods)."
Added Sanchez, "The owner is Mexican. We don't have any Japanese people working here. That's why it's crazy. It's like two different worlds together."
While popular items such as lo mein, pot stickers, crab rangoon and egg rolls are still on the menu, however, the restaurant is currently not serving one of the items it came to be known for -- sushi (like one would enjoy with the item the restaurant is named after, wasabi).
"We closed the sushi bar a few weeks ago," said Sanchez. "We're trying to find somebody who can make good sushi."
The previous sushi preparer has moved to another state, added Sanchez, and even then, it was difficult to find somebody who truly knew the art form, as the last such individual was said to have learned how to roll sushi off of YouTube.
Other changes may soon be in store for Wasabi Express. Sanchez said they're looking for a bigger space than the one they're currently in, the former Lee's Famous Recipe fried chicken restaurant on South U.S. 27.
Most popular items on the menu include chicken teriyaki from the Japanese side of things, said Sanchez, and the Pollo Bandito on the Mexican side (grilled chicken topped with cheese sauce and served with rice and beans).
There are plenty of other Asian options, like yakiniku beef, crispy orange chicken, and sweet and sour chicken, and Mexican favorites, like different types of burritos, chimichangas, and fajitas, along with seafood offerings, t-bone steaks, and flavorful street tacos.
And you get a lot of bang for the buck, with Japanese dishes coming with soup, fried rice, zucchini and onions, to make it a full, filling meal.
While locals have gotten used to the food fusion inherent to Wasabi Express, it's still likely to throw off someone from out of town who comes to eat there, said Sanchez. However, they often come away saying it's the best place in town, he added.
"Some of them came back," he said. "We have a lot of customers from Tennessee. They just come here to eat."
While the concept is certainly unusual, the secret to the restaurant's success is not. When asked what made Wasabi Express great, Sanchez said it's the way they treat the customer.
"We've always had good reviews on this place," said Sanchez. "We try to be friendly with everybody. ... We smile all the time. Even if we are in a bad mood, we have to give the best we can."