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COVER STORY: Roll Playing

STARRING ROLLS - Joe Lin, the creative owner of Capilano Sushi, presents the Empire State and the El Mexicano.  - Rob Newell
STARRING ROLLS - Joe Lin, the creative owner of Capilano Sushi, presents the Empire State and the El Mexicano.
— image credit: Rob Newell

The North Shore has a seemingly endless demand for sushi.

That’s why Joe Lin wasn’t afraid to open shop, even with more than 40 sushi restaurants nearby, including three within just a block.

But competition is still tough, so breaking away from the ordinary is the only option.

“Yes sushi is popular, but it’s been the same for about 15 years,” Lin explains, taking a break from making rolls at Capilano Sushi in North Vancouver.

“I knew all the restaurants, did my research, and when we opened I knew what I had to offer.”

Besides the typical California roll combos, he makes specialty rolls that are more like artistic creations to this UBC fine arts graduate.

The names say it all.

There’s the El Mexicano:
Spicy tuna and radish sprout inside, topped with fresh guacamole and drizzled with honey citrus sauce and tobiko (fish roe), $10.

And the Empire State:
A jumbo hotdog and cream cheese inside, topped with pastrami and grated dill pickle, drizzled with creamy honey dijon, $10.

If it weren’t for his restaurant, Lin says he would probably be working in the creative side of advertising. But his career plans changed within months when he realized the sushi spot he worked for was going up for sale.

In early 2010, he bought the restaurant near Save-On-Foods on Marine Drive with a partner, quickly renovated it and revamped the menu.

The competition didn’t daunt him. With two sushi restaurants directly across the street and a few more within a quick walk, he still spotted something missing in the market.

“We don’t want to copy them. We provide something different,” he says as customers shuffle in and out.

Capilano Sushi stays unique with weekly menu items like Japanese style fish and chips:
Your choice of tuna, salmon or oyster with yam fries, dill pickle and house tartar sauce, $10.

Lin even tried to make the restaurant’s atmosphere stand out from other sushi spots. Shortly after moving in, he covered up the evergreen murals with dark wood and abstract paintings.

More upscale than some other sushi restaurants, he says it’s a good place to take a date. And, don’t worry, it will be an affordable one.

To be competitive in a North Van market that’s saturated with sushi restaurants, Lin says he has to keep the prices low. Besides his specialty rolls, he also has a popular $7-sushi combo with a choice of three items and miso soup, which goes well with weekly deals like $2.99 pints of Granville Island Honey Lager.

“The trick is to be as efficient as possible. It’s easier to do with a smaller place like this,” says Lin, who learned to make rolls to pay his way through university. It was those five years of experience that let him experiment with different ingredients.

“I noticed a lot of people like only vegetable rolls, but they only had simple rolls to choose from,” he says about his idea for the vegetarian-friendly Golden Coast:
Asparagus and cream cheese inside, topped with fresh avocado and mayo slices, drizzled with honey citrus sauce.

“I wanted to make something with the same high quality as other sushi, but with just vegetables.”

There are only two sushi restaurants across from Capilano Sushi now; the other burned down a couple of years ago and never reopened. But another soon popped up three blocks away.

“We want to be ourselves, to be different,” says Lin. “Unique food, good quality. That’s why customers keep coming back.”

Capilano Sushi is located at 1240 Marine Dr., attached to Save-On-Foods.

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