Extreme Measures

Restaurateur Khue Dinh puts the raw in sushi.

click to enlarge THE X FACTOR: "Everybody thinks I'm on drugs," says Khue. "I tell them, I piss positive for substance X ... Sushi X." - Max Linsky
Max Linsky
THE X FACTOR: "Everybody thinks I'm on drugs," says Khue. "I tell them, I piss positive for substance X ... Sushi X."

Khue Dinh doesn't care if you don't like him. In fact, he welcomes it. Call him the Joe Redner of sushi.

"Yes I'm controversial. Yes, I'm hardcore," he asserts with snarling bravado. Sushi Extreme, his restaurant in Ybor City, may have just opened last month, but Khue (pronounced Quay) is determined to make a name for himself in the landscape of Tampa characters.

If his restaurant catches on, he might just have a shot. He runs it like an extension of himself.

Dressed in camo pants and a chef's jacket, with a radio earpiece permanently clipped in his ear and a backwards baseball hat concealing the "X" shaved into the back of his head, he explains his philosophy: "There are three types of people in this world. People who don't know me, people who hate me, and people who love me."

For those who don't know Khue or his restaurant (as he'll proudly tell you, he hasn't done any advertising), they're in for a surprise.

Khue calls it "restaurantainment."

"This is my playground. How far can I push the envelope? Can a customer get a lap dance?"

Loud music booms from the stereo system, waitresses in short skirts dance on a second-floor platform, staffers are given to impromptu shouts of "Sushi X!" and, yes, the waitresses can sometimes be found in patrons' laps.

Sushi Extreme is open only for dinner, because, Khue says, he "can only create that ambience at night." After 11 p.m., only those 21 and up are allowed in.

The food presentation is no less over-the-top. A word of warning: Watch out if you order the Lonestar Roll. A chef will come to your table with a blowtorch and make mooing noises as he blazes the filet mignon atop the roll. And if the cow imitation isn't enough to dissuade you from eating, he tops it off with what he calls "cream of sum yung guy" sauce, moaning as he pours.

But behind the veneer of Khue's abrasive and perhaps off-putting antics, he maintains his commitment to his cuisine. "I am here for the food. That's my number one priority," he says. "The rest is extra."

He's serious — extreme you might say — when it comes to the operation of the restaurant. He runs the place like the military.

Camouflage pants for the men and camo mini-skirts for the women are standard issue for employees. They all have to pass through "basic training." He calls them pissants and numbnuts. If they prove themselves worthy, they get a dog tag stenciled with Khue's handpicked nickname. So far, only three have been rewarded, Rico Suave, Pit Bull and Dr. Jones. Khue's The General, of course.

His servers, although they seemed a bit skittish when questioned, had positive things to say about Khue's style. New recruits Samantha Pieffer, 18, and Crystal Fisher, 19, both freshmen at USF, agreed that the relationship among the employees is "more like a family." The military is "a theme, but it's not like we're at boot camp or anything," said Samantha. But, as Crystal remarked, "Only the strong survive."

Rico Suave, or Anthony Marzolo, Khue's house manager, describes himself as the mother of the group. "Khue's the father. He screams and yells and they come to me for comfort," he says.

As the first person Khue hired seven months ago, Anthony has seen Khue through the struggles of opening a new business. There were times, he says, when he thought "This is nuts, what are you thinking? But [Khue] always manages to pull things off."

Khue isn't afraid of appearing nuts. He revels in it. "Everybody thinks I'm on drugs," he says. "I tell them, I piss positive for substance X ... Sushi X."

Beneath the flamboyance, though, Khue is highly methodical. He's been involved in the restaurant business for nearly his whole life. Born in Cantho, Vietnam, the 36-year-old chef came to the U.S. in 1978 after escaping from Vietnam on a rickety boat to Malaysia. He and his family ended up in Ardmore, Okla., through the help of a local Baptist minister, Tom Cotton.

Khue's adjustment to American life was difficult. He and his family spoke no English, and Khue says they were the first Asians in town. His parents opened Chinese restaurants in Oklahoma, and after the family moved to St. Petersburg in 1987, his siblings opened Beijing Garden and the Great Wall restaurants.

Khue's been planning his first solo effort in the restaurant industry for 10 years. He's trained in kitchens throughout the area, including Lee Roy Selmon's and The Cheesecake Factory, and was also part-owner at Sushi Rock Grill in St. Petersburg.

First-time customer Damon Dimmick was impressed with Sushi Extreme. "I haven't seen anything like this in a sushi place," he said. He approved of the unconventional style. "It definitely makes it stand out ... People go out not just to eat but to be entertained."

It's too early to tell whether others will share Dimmick's attitude or whether Khue's zeal will get him where he wants to go.

The pressure is on, though. He borrowed money from family members to get his place up, and to top it off, his house is on the line.

Khue's confident, but cautious about the future of Sushi Extreme: "If I fail, so be it. Kiss my ass. I'll come back stronger the next time."

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