Sushi Pioneer Johnny Lin Opens Third Montauk Eatery, Street Food on the Green
If it’s a restaurant that makes and serves sushi in Montauk, the back of the house probably knows Johnny Lin.
That’s because Jun “Johnny” Lin is a pioneer in the hamlet, a kind of pied piper of Asian specialties (and the specialists who make them) who happened to be at the intersection of world-class fishing and American sushi-mania.
“The restaurants out here know they want sushi because their customers want it,” says Lin’s longtime co-worker and general manager Karen Wanag. “And every restaurant that has sushi knows Johnny.”
He personally doesn’t want the credit for setting up the beautiful marriage between sushi and Montauk, but Lin has been working behind the scenes and overseeing successful local kitchens for 15 years, initially at local favorite Inlet, where he was a celebrity-loved sushi chef, and then soon after by importing many of the students he had personally trained as sushi chefs to work in local fish houses as the demand in the hamlet skyrocketed.
These days, in what seems a perfectly logical next phase, he’s the owner/chef behind two small but punch-packing eateries and a brand new sit-down restaurant in Montauk, each with their own take on some of Lin’s familiar Asian treats. There is the flagship Seaside House on Flamingo Avenue, the Street Food Market on Erie Avenue, and, his newest, a restaurant on the downtown plaza called Street Food on the Green.
While his fingerprints are all over Montauk’s sushi bars, his presence now in the competitive local restaurant scene offers something tangibly different to much of the fare served nearby, including a mix of cooked-with-love street foods and high-quality, beautifully presented sushi delights.Pan-fried pork and chive dumplings, scallion pancakes and tempuras are highlights on Street Food on the Green’s appetizer list, while entrees range from spicy udon to panko-fried fish and chips to barbecue spare ribs and steamed whole black sea bass.
And then of course there is the maniacally fresh and beautifully prepared assortment of sushi, rolls and poke available at On the Green, or Seaside House a little further up the road.
The first sign he could make it on his own as restaurateur came after the two Chinese takeouts in the hamlet closed within the same year. There was suddenly a void in a niche food market. “Nobody jumped on it, so I said why don’t we give it a try, it’s so different than Chinese takeout, it’s food that I would cook myself, for my family,” he says.
As a chef at the Inlet, he prepared his signature sushi to the delight of local crowds, who took note of his wizardry with a knife. To prove it, he will happily show you the selfies he’s taken with satisfied diners, including the actresses Scarlet Johansson and Naomi Watts.
Jumping off from there, he used his connections to import chefs from New York City’s Chinatown — many of them students he’d personally trained — and outsource them to local fish places interested in serving artfully crafted raw fish. He found them jobs and housing and said the chefs he brings out to The End are happy to work in a seaside town and especially love to take advantage of local fishing.
And then came the moment he branched out and opened his own place, the unassuming, mostly-takeout Seaside House, off Flamingo Avenue near West Lake. Don’t blink because you might miss it on the way to the harbor.
You won’t want to because it’s the best sushi bar on the East End. While there is some seating available indoors and out, it is primarily a takeout and catering spot. Items on the menu here include citrus or spicy poke bowls made with salmon or tuna, exotic specialty rolls, and sushi and sashimi that is so fresh, Lin says, what you’re eating could have been swimming in local waters “30 minutes ago.”
“It’s really small, and I was nervous about the foot traffic, but the fish is the most important thing,” he says. “The chefs, I always tell them, ‘not fresh, not good, throw away.’” In spite of its easy-to-miss location and limited seating, he says Seaside House has had a consistent, loyal following since its inception, and makes up for its lack of space by catering private events and providing incredibly fresh and thoughtfully prepared takeout for a loyal customer base.
For Lin, the thing that has always made the difference is the local seafood. “For sushi guys, the quality of the fish out here is really fresh,” he says, noting that he personally hand-selects only “sushi-grade” fish off the docks at Gosman’s. “They let me pick first,” he says.
At Street Food Market, located across the parking lot from Zebrowski Memorial Field and next door to the Montauk Ale House, Lin offers casual to-go Asian specialties at reasonable prices and the locals have been discovering it’s not just Thai bubble tea, even if that’s been a major hit with kids playing on the ball fields.
Now, he’s combining his signature sushi with his Asian street-food specialties at Street Food On the Green. It’s an airy, sit-down version of Street Food Market that offers the same great menu, plus the delectable sushi that you would find at Seaside House.
If this all sounds like a dream sequence of events, it hasn’t been, according to Lin, who says the period before he opened Seaside House was a tumultuous time personally for him and his family. But “everything started to turn around” for him after he opened his first eatery. “The local people, they love me and I love them back,” he says. “Being in Montauk has been good luck for me.”
Seaside House is located at 57 Flamingo Avenue, Montauk, seasidehousebar.com; Street Food Market is located at 58 South Erie Street, Montauk, mtkstreetfood.com; Street Food On The Green is located at 99 The Plaza, Montauk, streetfoodonthegreen.com.