By MIA NAKAJI MONNIER
This year, Little Tokyo witnessed the birth of two new restaurants: Aburiya Toranoko and Fat Spoon, co-owned by Michael Cardenas of the beloved Lazy Ox Canteen.
While Cardenas has had a long involvement in the restaurant world, graduating from the Benihana Chef School and working with Nobu Matsuhisa before developing his own series of restaurants, the other two co-owners came by a more circuitous route.
Eugene Inose and Jeff Louie, described by Inose as “best friends since freshman year of high school,” started out not in a kitchen but in a garage, as the Matt and Ben — or the Trey and Matt, if you prefer irreverent fourth-graders to math prodigies — of the aftermarket automotive industry. Until just over a year ago, they were co-owners of Pro-Motion Distributing Inc., a wholesale distributor of sport compact car parts based in the City of Industry and Memphis, Tennessee.
Inose and Louie founded Pro-Motion together in 1989, during a time when Inose remembers many Asian Americans being interested in the sports compact car.
“We got into it almost out of a hobby,” he says. “We loved it so much that we wanted to do it.”
They started modestly, in a small 700-square-foot space in Montebello and, over the course of two decades, grew the business into a company that Inose now proudly describes as being the largest distribution center of its kind in the United States.
In 2006, however, Inose and Louie sold Pro-Motion. They continued to run the company for the new owners for over four years, but in 2010, says Inose, “we decided to do a career change, and to do something completely different… We decided that we wanted to open up some restaurants.”
If this seems an out-of-character move for a couple of car aficionados, it wasn’t. At least, not entirely.
“A lot of people don’t know about the past where I worked for four years at my aunt and uncle’s restaurant,” says Inose of his time spent at Fuji’s Famous Teriyaki in the ’80s. “A lot of people don’t know that because, you know, it was back in high school and that was a long time ago.”
Between that early experience as a short-order cook and life with a mother who knew her Japanese dishes, Inose grew up with a deep appreciation for food, vowing to get back into the restaurant business one day.
Motivated in equal parts by a love of food and a shrewd business sense, the partners were happy to have the opportunity in 2003 to talk to Cardenas about the possibility of opening a restaurant together. “I like to diversify my businesses, get my hands into different things,” explains Inose, who in addition to his auto and restaurant work also deals in real estate, currently owning two office buildings in L.A. and Las Vegas.
By 2009, Inose and Louie were investors in BOA Steakhouse, a restaurant on Sunset in West Hollywood for which Cardenas was part-owner, and soon after, the three decided to team up to create a couple of restaurants of their own.
Born in January and August of 2011, in closer succession than is possible for human siblings, both Aburiya Toranoko and Fat Spoon have been met with warm reception so far, each garnering solid 3.5-star ratings on Yelp. Beyond that, however, the two couldn’t be more different.
Toranoko is a high-end izakaya/sushi bar, where a team of gifted chefs, led by Nobu alum Hisaharu Kawabe (nicknamed “Chef Hisa”), create what their website describes as “true Japanese cuisine with market-fresh ingredients, esoteric beverages, and service from the heart.”
“The quality of the food over there? I would put it up there with anybody out there in all of L.A.,” says Inose. “It’s very good quality, very good presentation, great service… Admittedly, we’re one of the higher-priced places out here in Little Tokyo, but I think the quality substantiates that… So that’s been one of our biggest challenges, to get people to try it, because some people may think it’s too expensive. But once they go there, they try the food out, they can see the disparity between us and probably some of the other people out here.”
On the other end of the spectrum lies Fat Spoon, a laid-back curry and noodle house on First Street reminiscent of the Japanese yoshokuya, or Western food restaurant. Here you can find pasta topped with tarako or squid ink, and the well-loved curry cheese fries.
With plenty of other curry options in Little Tokyo, Fat Spoon attempts to distinguish itself by serving a vegetable-based curry that Inose boasts has a “cleaner taste” than your average meat-based curry.
“You know, people have a preconceived idea of what Japanese curry should be already,” he says. “The curry [at Fat Spoon] is way different than any other curry out there. It’s actually vegetable-based, not meat-based, so it’s vegetarian-friendly… there’s no chemicals, no MSG, so it has a much cleaner taste than some of our competitors’ out there. To some people it may not be as heavy or as punchy as our competitors’ either — it’s a little bit lighter curry.”
With two parents from Japan, Inose has a lifetime of first-hand knowledge about Japanese food to back up his restaurant concepts. “My parents, they fortunately taught me well on some of the traditions. Of course, we did a lot of American things, but I grew up on curry rice and stuff like that… My mom is a great cook — a fantastic cook.”
About his parents, who still live in the L.A. area, Inose says, “They and a lot of my friends are very shocked by the 180 that we’re doing by getting out of an industry we’re comfortable in and trying something very new. [But] they’re very supportive, they really are, and they give me feedback all the time…. I think they’re my number one customers.”
This holiday season, like most of the others before it, Inose will be returning to his parents’ house for Oshogatsu, and his favorite seasonal dish, ozoni.