By GWEN MURANAKA, Rafu Senior Editor
“I appreciate that we have such nice customers,” said Steve Yamamoto, owner of Tabi-ji Restaurant, beaming as he celebrated 50 years in the restaurant business.
The Japanese restaurant in Orange is the new location of the business first founded by Yamamoto in 1972 on the corner of Ball and Dale Street in Anaheim.
The restaurant features both traditional and modern Japanese dishes including sushi, teriyaki, tempura and teppanyaki.
Many of his loyal customers joined in a surprise celebration for Yamamoto, organized by his longtime chef, Richard Sampouw, and featuring a performance by Daion Taiko. Tabi, which means journey in Japanese, aptly describes the road taken by Yamamoto.
Restaurants have been a part of the Yamamoto family, going back to Wakayama, where his grandfather ran a restaurant. Toshio Yamamoto, Steve’s father, emigrated from Japan in 1957, first working as a cook and harvesting grapes in Fresno.
The family moved to the Crenshaw District, where they opened Tenri on Jefferson and Fourth Avenue. Yamamoto worked as a chef at the Music Center and later at Hollywood Park. His culinary skills garnered a following and an invitation to cook for Elvis Presley.
“I had an offer from one of the companies where I was working. The big chef said, ‘Do you want to go on tour?’ They said Elvis is having a tour and he likes Japanese food,” Yamamoto recalled. “If I go there, I think my life would have changed completely. Talked to my father about it and asked, ‘What do you think?’ He said, ‘No!’”
The family moved to Anaheim in 1972, opening Tabi-ji, which had a tatami room and was one of the first Japanese restaurants in Orange County. Yamamoto would later found Shiki Restaurant in Orange. He closed the Anaheim restaurant in 1993. The current Tabi-ji in Orange opened in 2013.
“Going back 50 years ago, the price was really not expensive. Tabi-ji’s first combination was $5.95,” Yamamoto said.
Patti Hirahara is a frequent customer, often dining at Tabi-ji with Norio Uyematsu. Hirahara wrote a profile of Yamamoto for inclusion in the Anaheim Japanese American Heritage Project.
“Tabi-ji played a significant role because he was there so long. All the pioneers of JA Orange County would always go there. Steve was so personable to everyone,” Hirahara said.
The whole family has been involved in the restaurant. Brother Sam Yamamoto was the tempura master for many years and also worked at the sushi bar. Mom Reiko was the hostess, counting among her favorite customers singer José Feliciano.
At the 50-year celebration, Lisa and her brother, Steve, thanked the customers for their loyal patronage.
“It truly is a family business. We started when we really young washing dishes in the back, prepping food, working catering events. Steve stayed in the kitchen. I worked in the front. Thank you all for all your patronage, support for all these years. It’s because of you we’ve made it so far,” she said.
“The regulars are everything to this place and we really appreciate you guys supporting the business for so many years,” said Steve.
Yamamoto’s work ethic has meant little time for outside hobbies, although he said he enjoys karaoke. He said he has gratitude for his workers and his customers who have helped him in his journey.
“Times go so fast. Surprised it’s eight years at Tabiji — no wonder I’m losing hair,” Yamamoto said. “By that times go by little by little, it is a nice group of support for the employees. That’s what I’m most glad. If you don’t have good employees you’re going to have a hard time.”
Tabi-ji Restaurant is located at 665 N. Tustin St., Orange. Normal business hours are 5 to 9 p.m. The restaurant will be closed on Christmas Day. More information at: www.tabi-jirestaurant.com
Rafu Shimpo photos by GWEN MURANAKA