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Fast, Cheap, and Filled With Tuna Salad

What’s so controversial about Australian sushi?

The display at Sushi Counter, which opened on Christopher Street in October. Photo: Courtesy of Sushi Counter
The display at Sushi Counter, which opened on Christopher Street in October. Photo: Courtesy of Sushi Counter

Two years ago, Alex Marks moved from her home in Melbourne to New York for a corporate-law job in Manhattan. Apart from the usual adjustments that come with relocating to the other side of the planet, Marks was disappointed by her weekday-lunch options. Where, she wondered, were the hand rolls that could be grabbed and eaten as easily as a slice of pizza?

“This was something I’d eaten multiple times per week for the last 20 years,” she says. “In Australia, they’re everywhere.” Spotting a gap in the market, she quit the firm and drew up plans for a fast-casual sushi shop that resembled the places she loved Down Under. “There’s a lot of amazing sushi in New York,” Marks says, “but I struggled to find affordable sushi that was easy to grab.”

In October, she opened Sushi Counter in the West Village. Hand rolls in Australia, and thus the hand rolls at Sushi Counter, are longer and more compact than the versions sold at Kazu Nori, Mari, or Daigo. The rice is packed more tightly, too, but it’s the fillings that will seem least familiar to Americans, especially the two most popular: teriyaki chicken with cucumber and cooked tuna salad. Marks and her chef, Alex Matos, an alum of Shinn East and Sushi Seki, spent months experimenting in order to re-create the exact flavor profile from home — and Marks says it’s resonating: “So many Aussies walk in here and the first thing they say is, ‘Oh my God, we’ve been saying forever that someone needs to do this.’”

You can probably guess what happened next. The shop picked up traction on social media, and it wasn’t long before chef Eric Rivera accused Marks of cultural appropriation, encouraging his followers to flood her brand-new business with fake one-star reviews. Marks deleted her TikTok account, and for a moment, Sushi Counter seemed destined to join the ranks of Lucky Lee’s — the infamous “healthy Chinese food” restaurant on University Place — before the entire conversation collapsed.

Never mind that Rivera once tried to open his own Japanese restaurant or that America — a country where California rolls stuffed with fake crab are piled into grocery-store buffets and where chef Guy Fieri ran a sushi-and-barbecue joint called Tex Wasabi’s for 20 years — is hardly a bastion of omakase purity. What non-Australians quickly discovered was that the only culture Marks appropriated was her own.

“It was sad to see,” one Australian told me recently while waiting to order at Sushi Counter. “I don’t know how anyone with a cuisine that’s not their own can be branded as appropriating something. It’s everywhere.”

Other customers expressed similar sentiments. “As an Asian, I think it’s funny,” one man told me between bites of salmon and avocado. “A lot of Koreans who emigrate to the USA open up Japanese sushi places or Chinese takeout places.” He took another bite before adding, “You can do whatever you want with your life, man.”

Australia isn’t some lonely island sinking under the weight of all its dangerous animals down near Antarctica. It sits within touching distance of Asia, and that proximity is key to understanding the national cuisine, as well as 100 years’ worth of diplomatic tensions. “If you haven’t been there, I imagine it’s hard to know what it’s like,” Marks theorizes. “We’re so lucky to have so many influences from so many places.”

What’s most interesting to me is that it took this long for my country’s take on hand rolls to arrive in the first place. Australian coffee shops, bars, and eateries have spread like Vegemite across the five boroughs over the past decade. “A lot of places in New York are owned by Aussies,” Marks notes. “Some of them very much market themselves as that, like Ruby’s. But there are also places where people don’t realize they are Aussie-owned and run, like Dante or Moonflower.”

Marks tells me that she’s already looking to lease new storefronts, and I suspect the Aussie-ness of it all won’t be the main draw as Sushi Counter expands. It’s affordable sushi ($5 per roll or three for $12) done well with red-and-white signage that recalls Glossier. One day, while waiting for lunch, I notice most customers aren’t even bothering to order the Australian-favorite flavors. Sushi Counter’s best-selling roll — and the one I order when it’s my turn — is spicy tuna. That filling, of course, was invented in Seattle in the 1980s.

What’s So Controversial About Australian Sushi?