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Serving Up Japanese Soul Food in Studio City

Learn more about Japanese culture and cuisine on "The Migrant Kitchen" S2 E3: Omotenashi.

'Don't forget to mention that it's all organic' Yuka, head of the restaurant calls out to her husband Yoshi from behind the counter.

‘Yes, yes, I’m getting to that’ her husband, born Yoshiaki Utagawa, replies. 

At Studio City’s Daichan, the back and forth banter of the owners reminds you of the aunt and uncle you love to visit. Their partnership is as strong as their friendship and even as Yoshi shakes his head his affection and pride in his wife's accomplishments are apparent when he mentions her previous career as a television reporter.

Both Yuka and Yoshi take great pride in sharing the Japanese culture with guests interested in learning. When my American boyfriend manages an 'Arigato gozaimasu' (thank you very much) when presented with his 'hot pot' she immediately smiles.   Later she stops by our table to instruct him on the Japanese way to best enjoy his hot pot order by adding his rice to the broth at the end of his meal.  His ‘hot pot’ is a delicate fish broth filled with an underwater buffet of shrimp, clams, sea vegetables, noodles and a few other fish he isn’t able to identify but still eats every last bite. 

I’ve been in Los Angeles for over a year now.  I moved here to work and more importantly to be with my American boyfriend.  My boyfriend Anthony has never been to Japan and every chance I get we grab fresh sashimi from the Little Tokyo Market or stop by Coco’s Curry House in Koreatown.  I once tried to make him onigiri (Japanese rice balls) but somehow it didn’t form the same plump triangle my mom would always be able to make.  Real Japanese home cooking, katsudon, hijiki rice, oyakodonburi, hamburg (not be confused with the American hamburger) I miss these everyday dinner menus that I grew up with.  And despite the hundreds of alleged Japanese restaurants that exist in the greater Los Angeles area, Daichan is that rare exception that serves everyday Japanese foods to its customers. 

And that is Daichan’s goal, to introduce Japanese food that is NOT sushi to the American palette.

“In Los Angeles when you say ‘Japanese restaurant’ about 80 percent of those restaurants are sushi.  It’s extremely popular here but in Japan, that’s not the only food we have to eat, we have a lot of foods to choose from. In Japan, for Japanese, sushi is not something we eat every day but maybe once in a month or twice in a month. Sushi there is kind of like hamburgers are for Americans.  Here sushi might be super fancy, but for Japanese it’s just a hamburger and it’s not the only food we have in Japan so I wanted to make a restaurant where I could offer my guests something different to eat,“ Yoshi tells us after a Saturday lunch time rush where raw fish looks to be the least ordered item on the menu.

Daichan Co-Owner and Head Chef Yoshiaki (Yoshi) Utagawa | Mariko Lochridge
Daichan Co-Owner and Head Chef Yoshiaki (Yoshi) Utagawa | Mariko Lochridge

We’ve ordered some tuna sashimi to start, the hot pot, a lunch set of rice, salad and kalbi — beef seasoned in a homemade sauce and a traditional Japanese dessert — dorayaki — a Japanese pancake with red bean filling.  Growing up half my life in Japan with my Tokyo native mother’s family I’ve had just about everything on the menu, while my boyfriend has only had sashimi.  Daichan is living up to its promise of introducing willing guests to new foods, but not every guest that walks through their doors has the same attitude.

“When I first started this restaurant (in 1992) Americans would 'put their nose inside' and ask if I was serving sushi. When I said no they replied that if you don't serve sushi in Studio City you’ll never make it and I just politely replied okay, thank you, but 25 years later I’m basically the only one not JUST serving sushi and I still have no competition.”

Though Yoshi has avoided the popular sushi restaurant market he has always included raw fish items on the menu.  In fact, it's a point of pride for Yoshi that Daichan is the first restaurant to ever serve poke. A historic culinary achievement recognized by LA Weekly last year in a December article. 

“What I did do was create what was at the time the FIRST poke bowl in Los Angeles, and now it’s something you find in a lot of places but 22 years ago putting poke on top of rice that started here,' Yoshi says in Japanese tapping the table to emphasize 'koko' meaning 'here' in Japanese.  A copy of that LA Weekly article hangs on the wall. 

Served with Kalbi Beef plate - steamed rice, pasta salad, a piece of watermelon, green beans, carrot & shredded cabbage.  Steamed rice replaced with hijiki seaweed rice for $2 | Mariko Lochridge
Served with Kalbi Beef plate - steamed rice, pasta salad, a piece of watermelon, green beans, carrot & shredded cabbage. Steamed rice replaced with hijiki seaweed rice for $2 | Mariko Lochridge
Kalbi Beef plate (no bone) with kimchee, sesame seed, sesame oil and salad. | Mariko Lochridge
Kalbi Beef plate (no bone) with kimchee, sesame seed, sesame oil and salad. | Mariko Lochridge

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And then Yoshi remembers he’s supposed to talk about that buzzword ‘organic’ to promote the restaurant. 

Daichan is named after Yoshi and Yuka’s oldest son, and homestyle is the word most often associated with the Studio City restaurant in Yelp reviews. 

“It is written on our menu somewhere, organic, but the older I become, the more I think about my health. Homestyle for me means food I’ve had since childhood, food that when we eat it, we grow.  Also, the other point is when I’m cooking, well I am cooking for my family so I take care to and this is for all ingredients, chicken, eggs, tofu, beans to have them be organic.  Our chomiryo, seasonings in a Japanese kitchen, are very simple, fish broth, seaweed broth, sugar, salt, sesame oil, these are the basics and really the only flavors we use in our kitchen.  We are not using any of those prepared sauces,” and even though he’s speaking in Japanese, my boyfriend is nodding in agreement because he recognizes the word organic and his health-conscious personality agrees with the food at Daichan even if he has a language barrier to understand Yoshi’s explanation. 

(L) Dorayaki - Japanese pancake with red beans, crushed chestnut $2.50 (R) Steamed Cheesecake | Mariko Lochridge
(L) Dorayaki - Japanese pancake with red beans, crushed chestnut $2.50 (R) Steamed Cheesecake | Mariko Lochridge


“I’ll often be asked what is the brand of my teriyaki sauce or where can I buy this sauce and they can’t because everything is made here.  No preservatives.  And I really believe moving forward in the restaurant business we need food that is good for the health.  Delicious and flavorful, these might be delicious for the first bite but by 60 percent you’ll feel like you’ve had more than enough.  To be able to eat until the very last bite and finish 100 percent feeling satisfied, those are simple and healthy recipes.  And that’s my thinking as I am creating and dreaming,” and it shows in both the precision of language and youthful appearance of Yoshi and his wife Yuka’s appearance.  They are their own poster models for the food served in Daichan, their energy level and clear skin is a testament to the food they provide to their guests. As Yuka bustles about the restaurant switching between Japanese and English depending on the guests, her energy and laughter are infectious.  There’s something in the sauce for sure.

“I tell all the staff in my kitchen to cook with the feeling that you're cooking for a girlfriend, not for a customer. In that way, you're sure to 'impress'.  Make it delicious and make it beautiful and in that way when you’re cooking with that feeling, and you’re sure to make something good,” Yoshi says laughing, he emphasizes ‘girlfriend and impress’ by repeating them in English so that everyone at the table can follow his sense of humor.

The one thing you can’t miss when you walk into Daichan is the decorations that cover every inch of the walls.  There’s no specific era represented or color scheme followed.  A handwritten ad for DAIFUKU MOCHI — sweet azuki bean cake — hangs next to a tiny ceramic ninja from Kyoto.  No matter how many times you visit this restaurant your eyes will find a new knick-knack every time.  And while they’re new to you, they’ve likely been hanging on these walls for over a decade.  Yoshi would know, he knows the story of every decoration in the restaurant. Me, I’m just amazed at the lack of dust on this dense populations of trinkets and what-nots.

Demon mask made by Yoshi dates back to opening of Daichan in 1996 | Mariko Lochridge
Demon mask made by Yoshi dates back to opening of Daichan in 1996 | Mariko Lochridge
Wall to the left as you enter. Daichan’s walls are full of decorations old and new, gifted, purchased and handmade.  Yoshi claims to know the backstory and location of every single piece. | Mariko Lochridge
Wall to the left as you enter. Daichan’s walls are full of decorations old and new, gifted, purchased and handmade. Yoshi claims to know the backstory and location of every single piece. | Mariko Lochridge

Some are pieces that Yoshi has made, like the monster mask, a Japanese oni, that hangs high to the right as you come into the restaurant.  Others are gifts from guests that brought back souvenirs from Japan but couldn’t find a place for them in their home.  Those regular customers bring their travel memories to Daichan and hanging their souvenirs on Daichan’s walls they treat the restaurant as a second living room. When those loyal patrons visit for lunch, their souvenirs are there to welcome them. 

I’ve visited Daichan half a dozen times since moving to LA from Tokyo a year ago.  Mostly with Japanese bosses and colleagues but it’s my first time to speak with Yoshi.  His dialect of Japanese is the same as my family members back home in Nakano, Tokyo.  We know the same places in Tokyo, and the station names he mentions when talking about his hometown are all recognizable to me.  He’s the Japanese neighbor I’ve come halfway around the world to eat with and introduce my boyfriend to. 

And in 10-15 years when my time in the U.S. finally starts to catch up to his here I could still be visiting Daichan and finding some new decoration on the wall I haven’t seen before. 

“I am in the kitchen most of the time and I'll look out and have a moment when I'm looking at a customer trying to figure out where I know them from and then I realize that it's so and so’s kid from 10 or 15 years ago and now 20 years later they are still eating at our place and maybe bringing their girlfriend or their family and that feels good, those connections with our community. They’re coming here for ten years, eating my food for one or two decades.  So I do my best to avoid raising prices and make this a place that people can keep on visiting over time.”

 

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