Jane Woo’s first foray as a restaurant owner was sidelined when a shady contractor absconded with her money and materials in the middle of the buildout. To this day, she’s still trying to hunt him down. The original October 2019 ribbon-cutting in the new 2nd & PCH complex in Long Beach came and went with Woo’s hopeful “Opening Soon” sign still hanging on her designated restaurant space. Just as her new contractor was busy at work while she began confidently preparing for a March opening – COVID-19 shutdown the economy and then riots boarded up businesses in Long Beach. Otosan Sushi’s opening date was shelved, indefinitely.
But for Woo, quitting was never an option on the table.
“Did I ever consider giving up? Nope, not once,” says the millennial, a first-generation Korean American who comes from a well-respected Portland, Oregon, restaurant family. “I had put too much into it. It still remains to be seen, but I felt that once I got past all these hurdles, I just knew the restaurant would be fine. I believe in the food; I believe in the team and the location. I just wanted to get back to what my forte is: serving food and making people happy. Everything I had done in my life with my family had prepared me for this and I didn’t feel like I’d ever get an opportunity like this again.”
Otosan, meaning “father” in Japanese, is an airy indoor/outdoor sushi spot that pays homage to her own father, Chong. He and her mother emigrated from Korea in the 70’s to Alaska, where they began working in the restaurant industry and eventually landed in Portland, where both Jane and their sushi restaurant business were born.
“They moved around a lot, it was a typical immigrant story,” says Woo, who has worked in her family’s restaurants since she could crawl. “They started off with nothing and the food space is an easy place for immigrants to start. My mom waitressed and managed and they finally opened up their own place, which expanded to additional locations.”
You’ll find Chong in the kitchen every day since the official August 6th opening, bringing his wisdom to the young staff. Are the Woos proud of their daughter carrying on the family legacy that came with years of blood, sweat and tears?
“I think they probably are, but Asian parents don’t tend to admit that out loud,” she says. “Me and the chefs were all having dinner here one day after work and one of them asked my dad how he felt about his daughter leaving the family business to start her own. My dad gave this very stoic Asian man answer: ‘I’m just an investor, as long as I get my money back I don’t care.’”
The menu is a mix of sushi from young chefs and her father’s time-honored kitchen recipes like gyoza. The omakase and sushi flights are specifically curated with dressing and garnish on top of Japanese fish, like halibut, amberjack and sea bream with grated daikon radish, ground shishito peppers and eel sauce. No soy sauce needed.
Woo took a very untraditional approach to seeking out a young sushi star, in contrast to usual seasoned chef. She turned to Instagram.
“I stumbled across one of Chef Tamuro Siego’s pop-up dinners while he was operating on the DL in Long Beach and I found him on IG. I’d never gone to one of these dinners before and was just blown away by his food. We kept in touch and I started visiting the restaurant he was working at. Then COVID hit and he was out of a job; we just continued the conversation. I knew that I wanted that young energy. I had managed many older Asian chefs and encountered road blocks when it came to a young woman telling them what to do. This just felt right, and he decided to join the team.”
New to the California market, the current Buena Park resident says that the learning curve and increased demands on restaurants have not discouraged her and has faith in the future of dining, even if it means welcoming a new model of business and customer.
“I definitely don’t think I have all the answers, but my intuition is telling me that this year is going to require everybody to change their behavior – for proprietors, customers and landlords.” Woo says. “ From a proprietor’s perspective, we have to stick to what we’re good at. Our job is to understand the customer. It’s not like people are going to stop eating out. There’s still a place for restaurants and it just becomes a question of if your restaurant is a place where people want to eat.
“I think people have also found the importance of being able to connect with others through food and appreciate it a lot more now. It’s something people took for granted. It’s much more of an endeavor now and people are more mindful about it. Those are good things. Proprietors are more appreciative of their customers who are more appreciative of small businesses staying open for them. People’s comfort levels are different, their budgets are different, the things they are seeking out are different. The only thing we can do is stay responsive and evolve as the world is changing.”