- Associated Press - Wednesday, August 9, 2017

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) - A new sushi restaurant co-owned by former Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron is opening, according to one of the partners in the restaurant.

The restaurant, Ajian, is located in downtown Tuscaloosa near the university.

“It’s a build-your-own sushi roll (concept),” Pete Zimmer, co-owner and operator of Ajian, told AL.com in an interview. “We are taking advantage of that whole fast-casual, build-your-own model that started with Chipotle and Subway and has blossomed into Mediterranean food and pizza. Sushi seemed to be one of the few venues where it has not really hit its stride yet, so we thought we would jump on the front end of it.”

The name Ajian is a play on McCarron’s name and the restaurant’s Asian food concept, Zimmer said.

Guests at Ajian may create their own sushi rolls from a choice of 12 proteins, eight vegetables and fruits, seven sauces and eight toppings, Zimmer said.

“What we are trying to do is provide a healthy, affordable option to fast food,” he said. “With sushi being the chosen food of the millennial generation, it seemed like a natural fit to start this concept. Obviously, with 40,000 students down here (at the University of Alabama), it seemed like a great place to roll it out.”

Among the proteins are raw tuna, raw salmon, grilled chicken, grilled steak, poached shrimp, poached shrimp, shrimp tempura, crab stick and roasted tofu.

“We really are trying to introduce sushi to people who have never had it before, or think that it is just raw seafood,” Zimmer said. “We have only three raw proteins, and then we have a lot of cooked proteins, as well.”

Vegetables include asparagus, avocado, carrot, cucumber, green onion and jalapenos. Sauces include spicy mayonnaise, wasabi mayonnaise, sweet soy sauce, sweet chili sauce, sriracha sauce and an orange sauce. Toppings include sesame seeds, tempura crunch, bagel spice, wasabi pea crunch and chopped peanuts.

Ajian also will feature about nine sushi rolls — including the California roll with crab stick, avocado and cucumber; the Boston roll with poached shrimp; and the Philadelphia roll with smoked salmon and cream cheese — that will be standard to the menu, Zimmer said.

“For people who are new to the whole sushi thing, we have a few suggested rolls that we have put together that might make it a little easier,” he said.

Zimmer, who previously lived in Cincinnati, said he met McCarron through a mutual friend, Michael Johnson, who is also a partner in the restaurant.

McCarron, who quarterbacked Alabama to BCS national championships in 2011 and 2012, and Johnson, a defensive end who played at Dallas County High School and at Georgia Tech, are teammates with the NFL’s Cincinnati Bengals.

In Cincinnati, Zimmer owned a barbecue restaurant called SmoQ, which he and his other business partners sold earlier this year to open Ajian in Tuscaloosa, he said.

The 50-seat restaurant has only a few football touches — including a “Maki Tide” sign above the front door exit, and framed McCarron Alabama and Cincinnati jerseys.

“Our goal is to open many of these, so we wanted to make sure we could carry out a theme that would translate into other states where we certainly would pay homage to AJ but not necessarily be over the top with the Tide,” Zimmer said. “Here in Tuscaloosa, we will play into the Tide a heck of a lot more than we would in some other locations, if we are fortunate enough to do that.”

McCarron, who is in training camp preparing for his fourth season with the Bengals, will drop by the restaurant when he is in Tuscaloosa, Zimmer said.

“AJ will be around,” he said. “Our goal right now is, the week of Oct. 9, which is the Bengals’ bye week, is to actually do our grand opening. We will have a soft opening starting (this) week, and we will do our big grand opening during the bye week with both AJ and Michael here signing autographs throughout the day.”

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