From left are Jana Lilayuva, Emeril Lagasse and Leck Lilayuva.
By John Mullen
March 20, 2018 - Orange Beach, AL (OBA) - When Leck Lilayuva, who owns iconic Big Fish Restaurant & Bar with his wife, Jana, was a kid his dad would wake him up at the crack of dawn to help handle the truckloads of fish that arrived daily at his fish distributing business.
“As a young boy he would wake me at 4 in the morning banging on my window because the house was right behind the restaurant,” Lilayuva said. “It wasn’t a restaurant at first, just a shop. He’d wake me up to come shovel ice, pack fish.”
His dad was also later the owner of a Niki’s and there Leck would put on an apron and work wherever needed in the restaurant.
“Somebody said Niki you need to open a restaurant to sell all this fish and seafood you get,” Lilayuva said. “So, he opened a restaurant. I was in the restaurant business from 6 or 7 years old busing tables. I remember at 11 or 12 years old washing dishes. At 15 and 16 years old I was actually waiting tables.”
All of these experiences left a lasting impression on young Lilayuva.
“I told myself ‘man, this is the worst business ever,’” he recalled. “’I will never open a restaurant and never have anything to do with fish.’ But here we go.”
Now he’s again handling fish daily and running one of the most popular restaurants in South Baldwin County. He cuts fish filets and steaks most mornings before returning at night to run the night shift.
Lilayuva and wife, Jana, are now looking back at a successful eight-year run that started three months before the BP oil spill sullied the 2010 tourist season. It’s become Emeril Lagasse’s go-to place when he brings his sports fishing yacht to the marlin tournaments at The Wharf each May and July.
“On his way in he usually calls us and say I’m on my way in town, I need a reservation for seven or eight people, his crew,” Lilayuva said. “He comes in the night he gets here and then usually comes in for lunch the day after the tournament before going home.”
Lagasse loves the sushi but sometimes will just order a bunch of different things for him and his party to sample, Lilayuva said.
“They usually crush the sushi and saki,” Lilayuva said. “Recently they have been smorgaborging it. They’ll get the dinner Asian fried rice, a couple of types of fish, two or three different appetizers. They’ll have like a buffet spread and they’ll pass it all around. It’s all pretty cool.”
In the summer season, Big Fish will serve up to 500 customers a night clamoring for the succulent sushi and fish served “Big Fish Style.”
Get your fresh fish Big Fish Style.
“Big Fish style is whatever fish you chose, it’s sautéed with house seasonings over jasmine rice and sautéed spinach with fresh ginger and fresh scallions,” Lilayuva said. “It’s got like a sherry soy broth in the bottom of the bowl.”
In the peak season, the restaurant will have 12 or 13 different varieties of fish available and the most popular is the offering Big Fish Style, Lilayuva said.
The star of the sushi menu, he said, is the Chili Garlic sashimi. It comes with cubed tuna and avocado, tossed with cilantro and a special chili garlic sauce, served in a wonton cup and drizzled with sweet soy reduction.
But the real star of the sushi, Lilayuva says, is his sushi chef, Mimi Yi.
“We got Miss Hollywood over there, Mimi,” Lilayuva said “She’s been here longer than she’s been anywhere. She’s worked at every place or Asian restaurant that sold sushi on the island from years ago. She’s been here almost five. She’s family.”
Chili Garlic Sashimi: star of the sushi menu
Family was the driving force behind what Leck and Jana envisioned when they decided to open their own place. And that means not just the customers but members of his staff as well.
“I think the most important thing about Big Fish in our customers’ eyes, they tell us on a daily basis ‘every time I come here I feel like I’m at home because y’all are like family,’” he said. “That’s what we wanted when we very first opened. That’s what we’re still trying to instill in our staff. Treat ‘em like they’re family. That’s the number one goal. Everyone’s family.”
Somehow, over the years, the pair’s family, casual restaurant evolved into something akin to fine dining while retaining the family feel.
“It just kind of gravitated toward that,” he said. “We just wanted a nice place, casual. We’re at the beach if you’re wearing a tank top it doesn’t matter. But now it kind of does because of the clientele that we’re getting.”
Though not a trained chef Lilayuva created the Big Fish menu and it reflects an Asian influence from his six or seven years living in Europe and Asia.
“When I was in Asia I would sit there and watch them cook on the streets,” he said. “So, when people ask ‘where’d you learn to cook?’ I say literally on the streets.”
The menu sticks to the traditional fare you expect from Gulf Coast restaurants but those years of Asian influence can be found throughout the Big Fish menu.
“When we started writing the menu we incorporated all these Asia seasonings,” he said. “I didn’t want to open an Asian restaurant I just wanted to have southern flair but Asian ingredients to make it a little different, not the same as the other restaurants down here. Twist it up a bit.”
The nightly packed houses during the summer season and weekends during the shoulder seasons have shown he and Jana are on to something.
“It just gets busier and busier every year,” he said. “Our slowest months are November and December but even in November and December, we have strong weekends. Our November and December are mostly locals. I know we enjoy, Jana and I, enjoy that the most because it’s all familiar faces. It’s like going to Cheers.”