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Koji’s Story

(Koko: 253 East Hastings Street , Vancouver )

There’s at least two things of interest at this modest east side Japanese Restaurant: very good sushi (not hard to find in Vancouver ) and a story that’s seminal to the city’s cuisinal history.

Food first. Koko is typical of Vancouver’s artisanal sushi, which is unique in North America for its primary use of albacore (or “white”) tuna, and the general availability of wild sockeye salmon (in most cities, you’ll get farmed Atlantic salmon, not something your liver wants a whole lot of). There are other specialities generally available at Koko, ones that are rarer now than a few years ago: geoduck, which is the muscle of a giant clam that was once plentiful along the coast’s tidal flats; and abalone, along with the extensive use of locally plentiful Dungeness crab, which is served cooked and has become a favourite for people who really don’t like eating raw fish. I should probably mention uni, or sea urchin roe, much of which comes from B.C.’s coastal waters but is still flown to Japan for processing and then flown back. Uni, or sea urchin roe, should only be eaten if it is very fresh—which means that you shouldn’t eat it in cities like Toronto at all unless you get to watch a fresh container opened in front of you. In Vancouver, you have a little more leeway, but not much.

Albacore tuna is superior in taste if not appearance to the red yellowfin tuna that is now the most widely available tuna in North American sushi restaurants today. The almost-extinct giant blue fin is superior to both, but is rarely to be found nowadays. Many restaurants will claim that their yellowfin is the real deal and will charge accordingly. The two will seem hard to distinguish—at least until you get the fish into your mouth. Yellowfin is rubbery and fine grained, with a flavour that is weak and slightly tinny. Bluefin is buttery and rich and will cost you about $50 a piece or more. It’s worth trying as a novelty if you trust the restaurant isn’t fobbing off yellowfin on you, but the flavour of albacore is comparable to bluefin,  it won’t have been caught in a drift net, and it won’t cost you an arm and a leg, not even the toro, which is especially rich and buttery.

Koko isn’t a beautiful restaurant. The lighting is too bright, the décor is pedestrian and the ceilings are too high. But its sushi is good; on balance the selection available is wider and fresher than most Vancouver restaurants, and the portions are generous. Make sure you sit at the 10 seat sushi bar, so you can be sure you’re getting the best they have. Order your sushi from the master, and be respectful. If you must have tempura and other cooked dishes, order those from the waiter, and never ask the sushi master for your bill or for anything he himself won’t have to make with his knife. It’s actually a solecism to eat anything but sushi and sashimi while you’re sitting in front of a sushi master, but everyone does it even though it affects the quality of the sushi you’ll be served.

Then there’s the story of Koko, which is extraordinary, and has several chapters. Koko, you see, is the last restaurant of Koji, Vancouver’s first sushi master, who started serving sushi in the mid 1960s in a tiny second floor dive above a Japanese grocery just east of Main Street on the north side of Hastings Street . I discovered the place around 1970, and so, eventually, did a lot of other people, including Chris Dikeakos, a visual artist and entrepreneur who realized how authentic and skilled Koji was, and arranged the financial backing to build him a sumptuous restaurant in a new building on West Broadway that opened somewhere around 1975.

There were problems more or less instantly with the new place. Koji, you see, was a character. He never learned to read and write English, and he had a drinking problem. More than once while I was at the old place at Hastings and Main, he got drunk—one of the customs was to buy him a beer when the food was especially good—and when that happened, off he would go. Sushi in increasingly strange and delicious permutations appeared in front of everyone, unasked for. It was good enough that it set the drinks flowing even more freely, and that made the sushi still more creative and better and at 1:00 a.m., I’d find myself stumbling out of the place on the tail end of a tab that was a quarter of what I should have paid. I learned to be scrupulous about this—more than once I left a tip that was larger than the bill. I knew that I’d been treated to something amazing, and I didn’t want to take advantage—or maybe I just didn’t want Koji to go broke. But of course I did take advantage of him, and so did many of his customers.

At the new restaurant, Koji’s drinking spun out of control. Part of the problem was that his inability to read and write English forced him to keep his customer’s tabs in his head, and his head emptied as his gut filled with booze—which at the new place was Japanese whiskey and cognac, not Labatt’s Blue. By 9:00 p.m. he rarely knew what he’d served anyone, and those working around him learned not to ask—he was the man with the sharpest knife, after all, and by 11:00 p.m. he was usually waving it in the air.

Eventually his financial backers got tired of the nightly festivities, and obtained a court order to remove Koji from the restaurant that carried his name. But that’s not quite the end of the story, and it isn’t even the best part of it.

At the original Koji, there had been a young, red-haired busboy who was working there because he’d fallen in love with Japanese culture and cuisine, and, I think, with Koji. He was, despite the red hair, the most Japanese of anyone around Koji, in manners, dress code and sensibility. I saw him at the new restaurant—now waiting tables—and got to know him a little. I think I learned as much of what I know of sushi etiquette from him as from anyone, and I also learned that he was frantic with worry at the train-wreck-in-progress at the new digs.

After Koji was barred from the new premises the place went slowly downhill even if it was more profitable, and Koji himself disappeared for several years—presumably to dry out. I moved over to the Kamei Sushi on the second floor of a building at Thurlow and Robson. The sushi there was good, the master competent, but the fun and the free food was done.

I’m not exactly sure when Koko opened—somewhere between 1978 and 1982, I think. The red-haired kid—now grown up—was running the place, and it was rumoured that he’d put up the money to open it. He’d also devised a complicated system for Koji that involved coloured plastic tokens on hooks for each customer, and it worked fairly well even when Koji got drunk. Despite the out-of-the-way location, the place did quite well. Koji, even when he was sober, made the best sushi in the city, and a lot of people knew it. But his health had begun to fail, and more and more frequently as the 1980s passed, he wasn’t able to work.

When I left Vancouver for Toronto in 1991, I hadn’t seen Koji for more than a year, and the red-haired kid had disappeared as well—who knows why? Today, the place is run by Koji’s son. He doesn’t quite have his father’s panache, but likely doesn’t have his demons, either. He does know what he’s doing with a sushi knife, and the restaurant stays alive. I still think that it’s among the top sushi joints in the city, but then, I’m a traditionalist. I wouldn’t, for instance, list the over-the-top Tojo, which is outrageously expensive and always seems to be filled with loud-mouth out-of-town movie dorks, in the top five.

Next time you’re in Vancouver, check Koko out. It won’t cost you an arm and a leg, and you’re be keeping one of the better pieces of old Vancouver alive. But if you sit at the sushi bar and want to order cooked food from the menu, don’t order it from Koji’s son. And don’t tell him I sent you.

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1424 w. October 16, 2006

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Brian Fawcett

Brian Fawcett

Brian Fawcett is a Toronto-based writer.

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