Kuishimbo is a Koreatown mainstay, cranking out Japanese grilled, deep-fried and stir-fried basics in a no-frills strip mall on the northwest corner of Wilshire and Wilton since 1979. While a visit to the restaurant might suggest it has remained mostly untouched by the neighborhood's relentless evolution, longtime customers recall a sad period when Kuishimbo Wilshire vanished. But this story winds up with a happy ending, and the original Kuishimbo is securely set to celebrate its 35th anniversary next year.
Kuishimbo shuttered in 2005, decamping soon after to the ground floor of an office building on Sixth Street between Kenmore and Catalina, next to popular K-town spots Ice Kiss and Ham Ji Park. Meanwhile, back on Wilshire, a new concept called Kalbi Burger replaced the business Petsuya ("Sam") Takayama had opened with his family more than two decades earlier.
Tokyo-born Takayama moved to Los Angeles from Japan as a student in 1968, and after studying accounting at LACC and Cal State L.A., he noticed a particular niche that needed filling for those in search of quality Japanese cooking.
"There were many Japanese students in Koreatown," he says, so "my brother and my mother said, 'Let's open a restaurant, just family.' We made it [counter service with] no waitresses, so they don't have to worry about tips. We were the first to do that for a Japanese restaurant."
Takayama had the right instinct for this type of fast-casual and take-out operation. "I didn't want to do fast food," he notes, so that meant focusing on "good food, with a reasonable price, all from scratch."
Kuishimbo hit its stride with a range of locals who reflected the diversity of K-town: the students, Wilshire Boulevard office workers, a burgeoning Korean population and even the striving Hancock Park set. He left Wilshire when a lease negotiation didn't work out. While reports of the new tenant seemed favorable enough, in the end, Kalbi Burger's fusion menu failed to find the loyalty its predecessor had.
"I got many customer requests [asking], 'Why don't you go back?'" Takayama says. So when the space became available again, it was a no-brainer. The mosaic tiles, flowering-pendant lighting fixture and frosted glass touches are a departure from the purely utilitarian Formica counters and white T-bar ceiling of 1979, but otherwise the interior's feel and layout were ready and awaiting Kuishimbo's return in January of this year.
Takayama's staff, many of whom returned from other jobs or relocated from the Sixth Street location to work at Kuishimbo Wilshire 2.0, continues to make everything according to his own family recipes. Chicken and beef teriyaki left on the grill to the point of ideal char; tonkatsu; yakisoba stir-fried with veggies and plenty of plum vinegar–pickled ginger garnish to mix in; short ribs; shredded cabbage salad with dressing that brings a soy-based flavor and creamy texture to new heights: These dishes and the Takayama family's signature style continue to resonate.
The second Sixth Street location is still open, and Takayama's brother runs a Kuishimbo outpost on the Jersey Shore, too. (Kuishimbo Sherman Oaks, however, was short-lived.)
The Takayama who'd eventually be more widely known by his first name, Masa (no relation), left Saba-Ya to establish a deluxe and discreet restaurant just east of Wilton in a brand new, bigger, two-story shopping center. That was before he moved to Beverly Hills, and later dominated a piece of serious Manhattan real estate serving among the most expensive Japanese food -- or restaurant food, period -- in the country. "We talked sometimes," Petsuya Takayama recalls of his former neighbor.
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Takayama has added a few new menu items over the years to satisfy customers' requests, such as California rolls, and incorporated more vegetarian and seafood dishes into Kuishimbo's repertoire. But so much of Kuishimbo's tastes the same in the best possible sense, to the point where one suspects the restaurant's grill and flattop have acquired flavors and characteristics thanks to intense use over the course of many, many years.
Not the case, Takayama insists, since Kuishimbo's equipment mostly dates from the most recent reopening. That said, he understands the value of seasoned cooking gear. "It's been almost one year -- I can taste it getting much better," he says.
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