story by Rose Kahele
photo by Ann Cecil
When Alessia Ucelli moved to Hawai‘i from Brazil five years ago, she developed a serious craving for a hometown food that she couldn’t get anywhere in her new neighborhood: sushi.
Alessia is a native of Sao Paulo—with a population of eleven million, the Southern Hemisphere’s largest city. It’s also home to the largest population of ethnic Japanese living outside of Japan—some one million residents. So now Alessia was living on O‘ahu, where you can’t swing a dead fish without hitting a sushi restaurant … except in Hale‘iwa, where steak, pizza and tacos ruled. The nearest sushi bar was in Pearl City, a half-hour’s drive away.
“In Sao Paulo we have Liberdade, a whole Japanese neighborhood with such good sushi,” says Alessia. “Sushi is healthy food, so it fits the lifestyle here—surfers like to eat healthy.”
Four years ago, Alessia returned to Sao Paulo, where she took a crash course in sushi preparation. She came back to Hale‘iwa two months later and found a space for her new restaurant, a small house tucked in a corner of the North Shore Marketplace. After seven months of paperwork and then only a week to build an outdoor deck, Alessia opened Banzai Sushi, which quickly developed a loyal following among locals, snowbirds and itinerant big wave surfers.
Don’t expect to find an Ipanema Roll or Amazonian Maki at Banzai. The restaurant’s menu is pretty conventional, featuring traditional Japanese nigiri along with American-style rolls. Alessia’s only nod to her South American roots is ceviche, the raw, marinated fish dish that hails from Peru. Instead, Banzai is pure North Shore: Most guests dine outside on the open-air deck, eating on low, wooden tables while sitting on large zabuton. Six nights a week, Ucelli shows surf movies on a large pull-down screen. On Wednesday night, the restaurant features live entertainment. But in typical North Shore fashion, the party never lasts too long.
“In the summertime we see a lot of families, but in the winter, we see a lot of surfers. We might see the same customers three or four times a week,” says Carie Shedd, Banzai’s co-owner. “It can get really, really crowded, but we’ll always shut down around midnight. Hale‘iwa is an early-to-rise kind of town. No one wants to sleep too long and miss the waves.”