The menu at Moto Sushi + Spirits + Sustenance has its roots in pan-Asian cuisine, but the restaurant’s history tracks back to a different culture — high-speed racing at the Indianapolis 500.
Vince Heppler opened Moto Sushi in 2005, but his interest in Asia dates back to 1969, when his grandfather’s body shop was chosen to paint the car Mario Andretti drove when he won the race.
“There was a guy named Tommy Tsumi on the racing team,” Heppler said. “He was from Japan, where he was also a race car driver.
“My grandparents, who owned the body shop along with my father, went to Japan to visit Tommy. He introduced my grandparents to owners of a body shop in Tokyo. They thought it would be awesome if their son, Sam, could come to the United States to work with my parents.
“He lived with us for a year, and he turned me on to the great culture, the food, everything, of Japan. I fell into it, 100 percent.”
Heppler started working at a local Japanese restaurant when he was 19, and in 1983, after several years learning on the job about Japanese cuisine, Heppler opened Shogun restaurant at Cactus and Tatum. He also continued his education, visiting Japan several times.
“There were maybe four or five sushi bars in the entire state when we opened, not like around every corner like it is today,” Heppler said. “I was the first non-Asian sushi chef in town. I knew that because I knew every sushi chef in town.”
Today, his brother Bruce is Moto’s sushi chef.
Shogun’s mainly Japanese menu expanded to include other Asian cuisines, and Heppler sold Shogun in 1991 to focus on a new project: Shogun Express.
“We took the Shogun concept in a fast-food direction,” Heppler said.
Shogun Express grew to eight locations. All but one Shogun Express location was sold, and the remaining site, on 16th Street near Glendale, became Moto Sushi, opening in 2005.
Why Moto? Heppler also is a motorcycle enthusiast, so he combined ‘moto,’ which means original, or origin of, with sushi to christen the new business.
The menu, a combination of Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai and Korean influences, ranges from familiar appetizers (edamame, dumplings and spring rolls) to pho and miso soups, fried rice and pad Thai noodles and a customer favorite: Moto chicken salad, a mélange of shredded cabbage, sliced chicken breast, celery, scallions and crispy noodles with sesame dressing and peanuts. It was on the original Shogun menu in 1983 and has remained ever since.
Pad Thai is another favorite, and the Papa Tran riblets. But this is Moto Sushi after all, and the star is sushi. In addition to traditional sushi, sashimi and rolls, one customer favorite has local roots.
About 10 years ago, 3TV meteorologist April Warnecke participated with Moto in a charity event, for which Heppler created his “April roll,” stuffed with crab, sautéed shrimp, cream cheese and jalapeño, then fried tempura-style, sliced and topped with spicy tuna and scallions and served with eel sauce.
“April gave us a list of ingredients she liked and we created this roll,” he said. “It’s been on the menu ever since.”
Other favorites include the spider roll — soy paper and nori wrapping soft shell crab, cucumber, yamagobo (pickled burdock root), kiaware (sprouted daikon radish seeds) and avocado; and the surfer roll — spicy tuna, cucumber, avocado, shrimp and smelt roe with eel sauce.
The Moto menu reflects another Heppler passion — craft beer.
“The one thing I found was that no matter where we went, whether it was Japanese, Chinese or other Asian food, there never was a good beer selection,” he said. “We combined sushi and craft beer, and we’re the only one in the state that does that.”
There’s an ever-changing array of bottled and on-tap beers from every corner of the world, and dozens of beer taps — each one different — hang from the ceiling over the bar.
“Every one of those handles has been on tap here, and we have at least that many more in storage,” Heppler said.
“We have a very eclectic collection.”
Moto Sushi + Spirits, at 6845 N. 16th St., is open 11:30 a.m. to 8 p.m., Monday through Thursday; 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., Friday and Saturday; 2 to 8p .m., Sunday. For more information, call 602-263-5444 or visit www.mrmotorising.com.