Kyoto Japanese Restaurant – bringing Japan to Utah

Story and slideshow by RICH FAHEY

View a slideshow of Kyoto Japanese Restaurant

Japanese paintings featuring koi fish, birch trees and buildings hang on the walls. A vase of fresh lilies sits on each table, illuminated by a paper lantern hanging overhead. Diners at a table to the left are just out of view thanks to a thin paper wall, allowing light to pass through. To the right, a family of five sits cross-legged with their shoes off. The place is Kyoto Japanese Restaurant.

From the cuisine and décor to the staff, Kyoto Japanese Restaurant is an authentic Japanese eating experience in Salt Lake City.

Founded on Aug. 16, 1984, by Osamu Tada and his wife Yoshiko, Kyoto has developed a large customer base of locals and out-of-state visitors alike. The restaurant is popular among members of both the Asian and white communities.

“We get a lot of customers from around the neighborhood, so we see a lot of the same people eat here often,” Yoshiko Tada said.

Located at 1080 E. 1300 South, Kyoto is easily accessible for visitors as well. The restaurant sees a lot of customers who come for conventions, such as the Outdoor Retailer Market held biannually in August and January. In the winter, snow sports enthusiasts who are on vacation frequent the restaurant.

“When people visit on one vacation, they always come back the next time,” Tada said.

Kyoto has both a lunch and dinner menu and a wide variety of dishes. It also serves Japanese beer such as Sapporo, and hot or cold sake. While the establishment does serve teriyaki chicken, tempura, sashimi and gyoza, it is known mainly for its sushi.

“We serve more traditional sushi than most places in the city,” Tada said.

Three different chefs, all of whom were trained in northern Japan, make the sushi rolls. It serves more traditional sushi so beginners are not as likely to eat at Kyoto, Tada said. One specialty roll that is a common choice for the experienced sushi eater is the Red Dragon roll.

Charles S., an online restaurant reviewer on Yelp, wrote, “My daughter ordered it and it was phenomenal! Best roll I’ve ever tasted … anywhere!”

Another dish served at Kyoto that is difficult to find anywhere else is Dobin Mushi. Made from the very rare pine mushroom, Dobin Mushi is a soup that also includes chicken and vegetables. What makes it special is the rarity of the mushroom and how long it takes to make. Each bowl of soup is heated and served individually in a small clay pot. The lid of the pot doubles as a cup to sip the soup from, similar to tea.

“Japanese people very much appreciate it,” Tada said.

The décor contributes to the authentic feel of Kyoto. The waiting area decorations are replaced every few months to accompany the changing of the seasons. Currently, pumpkins, leaves, an autumn bouquet and paintings representing fall give the small room a festive feeling.

“In Japan it is very important for people to feel the seasons,” Tada said.

Most of the paintings, some of which are extremely rare, are imported from Kyoto, Japan. Others were created by local artists. Kyoto is also home to a variety of beautiful furniture from Japan. In the front of the restaurant is a chest of drawers made of weathered wood. Crafted metal handles and designs give the drawers a worn look. On top sits a well-manicured bonsai tree. At the back of the restaurant in one of the high-occupancy booths is a similarly designed hutch, displaying different Japanese plates and sculptures, all imported from Kyoto.

The seating in the restaurant offers an authentic Japanese experience as well. While Kyoto has standard tables and chairs, it also offers traditional low tables where customers can sit on pillows and take their shoes off, which is customary in Japan.

Adding to the authentic atmosphere is the service. During dinner hours the waitresses, all of whom are Asian, wear kimonos. A kimono is a long robe traditionally worn in Japan that usually depicts a floral design.

“It is unique for Salt Lake City. I can’t think of another restaurant where they wear kimonos,” Tada said.

The staff at the restaurant is helpful and courteous. Some of the waitresses have been working there since it opened more than 26 years ago.

“We are just like a family,” Tada said.

Heather Scaglione, 23, a University of Utah alumna and sushi lover, said, “It’s not just the food that keeps me going back. Every time I’ve gone to Kyoto I’ve had a good experience.”

Southeast Supermarket – helping to maintain culture and diversify Utah

Story and photo by RICH FAHEY

For the majority of Utahns, eating a traditional meal means going to the grocery store for a wide selection of American foods. For the Asian community, eating traditional cuisine requires a little more effort. While most chain grocery stores offer an ethnic aisle, it lacks in authentic Asian food. But several specialty food stores that stock a wide selection of Asian cuisine can be found throughout the valley.

These Asian-specific supermarkets not only supply tasty foods, they also help the Asian community to maintain its heritage and culture.

“Just like language is part of their culture, so is their food,” said Linda Oda, director of Asian Affairs in the Utah State Office of Ethnic Affairs.

Southeast Supermarket, located at 422 E. 900 South in Salt Lake City, is one of these stores. The family-owned and operated business is the largest Asian-specific supermarket in the downtown area. It carries Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Hmong and Thai goods, including foods, drinks, teas, medicines, decorations and kitchen supplies.

Aisle

A wide range of items, both in bulk and individual portions, can be purchased at Southeast Supermarket.

Southeast Supermarket caters to a large number of Asian students from the University of Utah. According to the University of Utah Center for Ethnic Student Affairs, more than 1,300 Asian students are enrolled at the U. This creates a sizeable customer base for the store, especially while school is in session.

“We see a lot of international students, because we have products that they identify with,” said Thanh Trang, a Southeast Market employee and son of the owner.

According to Trang, items like dumplings, pot stickers and instant noodles are popular choices for students because they are quick and easy for people on the go.

These specialty food stores can also have a large impact on Asian-American children growing up in Utah. Growing up in a primarily white city, it is easy for children to become assimilated with American culture.

“You start becoming more American by being part of the community,” Oda said.

Without being exposed to traditional Asian cuisine, a portion of Asian culture can be lost in younger generations. By being part of both communities, children are able to retain some of their heritage and keep an important part of who they are.

“Although I was raised here in the States, and in Japan, I prefer to cook Japanese food for myself because it is always a nostalgic reminder of my childhood,” said Penelope Moffett, 20, a fine-arts graphic design student at the U. “Southeast Supermarket is the only way I can go to Japan, without actually flying anywhere.”

More recently, Southeast Supermarket has seen the number of white customers rise. According to Trang, over the past several years the clientele has changed from mostly Asian, to nearly half Asian and half white. This increase in white patrons shows a larger acceptance of the Asian culture. Oda said this acceptance of Asian cuisine is great for both cultures, and can be attributed to the availability of Asian restaurants and markets throughout the valley.

“It’s a substantiation that I’m OK, and you’re OK,” Oda said.

Another reason for the diversity among customers is the staff at Southeast Supermarket. The store takes pride in its customer service, and the fact that most of the staff speaks English makes it easier for American customers who are unfamiliar with the items.

“I can’t get to this place enough. The place is packed with aisle upon aisle of ingredients to bring your cooking alive,” wrote Stuart M., a Southeast Supermarket customer who posted a review on Yelp.

Common octopus is anything but

Story and slideshow by KEITH R. ARANEO-YOWELL

Go to any Asian food market in Salt Lake City, and you will likely find bags of deep, blood-red flesh packed in ice. Go to any sushi restaurant and you’re likely to see on the sashimi or nigiri menu an item called “tako” (pronounced like the Mexican “taco”). Buy or order it for the first time and you’ll likely change any previously held beliefs about octopus.

Long considered a delicacy in Mediterranean and Asian (especially Japanese) cuisine, octopus is thought of by many to be prohibitively tough to prepare and chew.

“It’s rubbery, hard to bite and it doesn’t break apart very easily, even when it’s fully cooked,” said George Mateo, a visitor to the Living Planet Aquarium in Sandy.

Still, others wouldn’t hesitate to try it. Mason Childs, 21, works as a server at Market Street Grill. He said, “If it was on our menu at work I would probably try it once or twice.”

Splendidtable.com contributor Mark Bittman writes, “If octopus is properly handled, without fuss, it is reasonably tender. It remains chewy, but so does lobster, or sirloin steak.”

Home cooks can reduce the rubbery texture of octopus using a number of different strategies.  These range from the unusual Italian method of boiling it with wine corks to the brutish, yet obvious, method of beating it against rocks.

Bittman wrote even though these methods are effective, the key to eliminating most of the toughness is slow cooking time at very low temperatures.

Sue Kim, the owner of the Oriental Food Market at 667 S. 700 East in Salt Lake City, said she probably only sells one bag containing four tentacles and the head of an adult common octopus every day on average.

Kim attributes the relatively low rate of sales to the “rubbery” label attached to octopus meat as well as its alien appearance, and at $24.99 per bag, and similar pricing in restaurants around town, it’s considered a delicacy and not a staple.

Nina Clark, 23, is an exercise and sports science major at the University of Utah who said she hopes to pursue a career in public health education. She said octopus is an uncommon dish in Utah because there’s no coast. “We’re not exposed to it,” Clark said. “We’re land-locked.”

Childs said he could see why some people would be hesitant to eat octopus. “They’re scary creatures. To think they can open a mason jar without hands and do it while sitting on top of it. They’re pretty violent in the ocean.”

Others hesitate because of the octopus’ unusual appearance. Lacy Mateo, 20, who was visiting the Living Planet Aquarium with her husband, George, said she would never eat octopus because of the suction cups. Clark expressed similar reservations because of the fluidity of octopus movement.

With a single bulbous sack (or mantle) housing all their internal organs, surrounded by eight suction cup-covered arms and skin that looks like it’s been dead for a number of decades along with its reputation for rubberiness, it’s no wonder Clark and the Mateos find the look of the meat “gross.”

For all their physical irregularities, however, John Lambert, aquarist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, said they pale in comparison to the strange behaviors he observes on a daily basis.

They can change the color and texture of their skin in a blink of an eye to avoid detection from predators. An article that appeared in Advanced Aquarists Online Magazine described the mimic octopus, which reproduces the rough appearance and movement of more than 15 different marine species native to its habitat of tropical Southeast Asia.

While feeding cancer crabs to the Giant Pacific Octopi at the California aquarium, Lambert, 52, and Aquarium Communications Director Ken Peterson, 61, described the difficulty associated with keeping their two Giant Pacific Octopi, Nano and November.

“There was an institution that was losing fish out of one of its tanks,” Lambert said. “They set up a camera over night and discovered that an octopus in an adjacent tank was crawling out at night, making its way over to the tank the fish were in, and helping itself and then returning to its own exhibit.”

Peterson later added that it had actually happened at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Because of the octopi’s desire to explore outside their enclosures, all outer edges of the octopus habitats are lined with Astroturf, which “prevents the octopus from being able to get a grip on it with their suction cups,” Peterson said.

Despite anecdotes of rather adventurous octopi, they spend most of their time in small crevices between rocks on the sea floor and are, therefore, extremely hard to fish. A fisherman for Monterey Fish Co Inc., who wished only to be called Dane, said just shrimp-trapping boats in Monterey regularly catch octopus.

Because the only hard structure in their bodies is a small parrot-like beak where all its tentacles converge, octopi can fit through the extremely small holes in shrimp traps. Lambert also said octopi are apt problem solvers and shrimping traps don’t really pose a challenge.

“They’re certainly very intelligent animals,” Lambert said. “[Researchers] put an item in a jar with a screw lid and the octopus can figure out how to unscrew the lid and get to the item. The first time they see it, it will be a challenge, but they work at it. They’re very tenacious animals.”

Their intelligence and ability to deform their bodies causes problems for shrimping boats in Monterey. Dane said, “Octopi will crawl into the traps and eat the shrimp.”

Shrimpers in Monterey lose an indeterminable amount of money each year due to octopus. According to the California Department of Fish and Game’s 2010-2011 Ocean Sport Fishing Regulations, octopi can only be caught and kept if line or hand-caught.

“[Shrimpers] usually throw [octopi] back,” Dane said. One shrimper who doesn’t always follow regulations said, “If I’m going to lose my catch, I at least want to sell the thing that cost me my paycheck.” For obvious reasons, this fisherman asked that he and his boat not be identified.

With the exception of when fishermen actually bring in an octopus, it is very difficult to find restaurants in Monterey that serve octopus. This is partly due to the aquarium’s decade-long effort to raise awareness across the U.S. about common fishing practices.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium publishes reports on commonly eaten seafood items. According to the 2008 report for common octopus (the species that is sold for food), most of what is sourced for use in the American sushi industry is sold as common octopus, even if it is of a different species.

Kim said she orders the octopus in her store from a Japanese fishery.

According to the report, Kim’s octopus comes from either Morocco or Thailand where the preferred method of octopus fishing is a practice called bottom trawling, in which boats drag fishing nets along the sea floor.

Octopus distributors in Japan also work with fisheries in Spain that catch octopus in pots, which is an artificial habitat perfectly suited to octopus. These pots lie on the sea floor for two to three days before fishermen reel them back in to collect the octopi.

In either case, after it is caught, it is blanched and shipped to Japan to be prepared for sushi by removing the beak, the poison and ink glands, the eyes and the internal organs. It is then frozen and re-exported to the U.S.

Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Program assesses the ecological sustainability as well as the safety of eating seafood items commonly found in U.S. fish markets. According to the report, “due to the difficulty associated with discerning the actual country of origin of octopus found in US sushi restaurants, [octopus] should be avoided as a general rule. While Spanish octopus (especially pot-caught) is a preferred alternative to North African and Vietnamese octopus, it is rare that sufficient sourcing information is available to the consumer.”

The report, however, does little to address the adverse health effects of heavy metals that continue to build in species moving up the food chain.

In their report titled, “Bioaccumulation of Lead, Calcium and Strontium and Their Relationships in the Octopus vulgaris,” researchers Sonia Seixas and Graham Pierce found that “aquatic animals take up and accumulate lead from water, sediment and food.”

Because there is no way to rid tissue of lead by natural means, Seixas and Pierce observed “concentrations higher than the maximum legally permitted concentration of lead in food.”

Being conscious of how food gets to the dinner plate is a crucial element in public health, exercise and sports science major Nina Clark said. “That’s a big reason I try to avoid seafood in general. I’m aware of the patterns of how fish is shipped, exported and re-exported.”

Market Street server Mason Childs said the surprise he felt learning how octopus gets to the dinner table in a land-locked region illuminates a good deal about his previously held beliefs about seafood and sustainability. At the end of the interview, he asked for a copy of Seafood Watch.

“Eating is one of the most intimate things humans do,” Clark said. “It’s crucial that we educate ourselves on the repercussions of our choices.”