By Frier McCollister
Pasadena Weekly Contributor

Roe Fusion began its “soft opening” in early August. Occupying the space in Sierra Madre previously held by the restaurant Sierra Fusion, Roe Fusion intends to celebrate its grand opening starting Sept. 10.

“The reason we wanted to have a prolonged soft opening was to smooth out front-of-house and back-of-house (operations) and ensure that we have a great restaurant establishment for the city of Sierra Madre,” explained Edward Weng, the restaurant’s director of business relations.

Weng is partnered with his best friend, chef Phillip Ozaki. Roe Fusion represents the culmination of a dream for the pair, who grew up in the area.

“Phillip and I met over 10 years ago now,” Weng said.

“We actually met playing basketball at a nearby park and just hit it off, right out of the gate.” They played on the highly competitive pickup courts at First Avenue Middle School in Arcadia.

“It was the place for basketball,” Weng said. “For anyone in the SGV, if you want a good five-on-five full-court basketball game, this was the park. It has over six different basketball courts, and on any given weekday night, it would be packed. We called them ‘battles.’ We were kids in our late teens, and this was our shared passion, playing basketball. So, that’s how we met each other and became the best of friends.”

Ozaki grew up in Arcadia and attended Arcadia High School before joining the culinary program at the Art Institute in Orange County. Weng earned his diploma at San Marino High School and MBA at USC. Weng pursued a career in commercial real estate, while Ozaki began an eclectic circuit of notable kitchens and local culinary opportunities.

“Chef Ozaki has worked in multiple, renowned kitchens,” Weng said. “To name a few: Gyu-Kaku (Japanese barbecue) in Old Town Pasadena, Plan Check Kitchen + Bar on Sawtelle Boulevard. He was one of the main chefs there. He helped kick-start Dirt Dog, which is known as LA’s official hot dog, and then after that, he made his way to Katsuya, where he added Japanese fusion to his skill set and arsenal, and here we are.”

For a talented and ambitious young chef with an eye toward opening a restaurant, it helps to have a best friend and partner with an expertise in commercial real estate.

“We wanted to open a restaurant more than two years ago. Being in the commercial real estate space, I had familiarity in to how to negotiate and acquire an opportunity,” Weng explained.

They always intended to open their restaurant in the area.

“We had been looking at Old Town (Pasadena),” he said. “We were born and raised in the Pasadena (area). This was our home, and we always wanted to open something nearby to share with our family and friends and to give back to the community.”

They discovered an available space in Sierra Madre early this year.

“When this property was on the market and we took a gander at it, we realized this was a really good opportunity. It just happened to be adjacent to nearby Arcadia, where we played basketball.

“We couldn’t sleep on this opportunity. We decided to pull the trigger. Using my real estate skill set and his culinary expertise, Roe Fusion was formed.”

Sierra Fusion was owned and operated by chef Edward Ungrue, the former executive chef at San Gabriel Country Club and Caltech’s Athenaeum. Before the pandemic, Ungrue garnered a popular following at Sierra Fusion, while also establishing a robust catering operation and a popular local food truck, Slammin’ Sliders. Weng and Ozaki acquired those businesses in the sale as well.

“We ended up becoming very good friends with chef Edward,” Weng said. “He was an integral part in helping us to kick-start our business. He provided a lot of advice and mentorship to two young guys looking to give back to their city. For that, we are grateful to him.”

Weng and Ozaki are determined to use Ungrue’s fusion cuisine as a platform for their new venture.

“Sierra was the fusion restaurant for the city of Sierra Madre, and we wanted to keep that integrity alive,” Weng explained.

It also helped that Ozaki had been most recently running the kitchen at the popular branch of Katsuya at the Americana mall in Glendale.

These days, the word “fusion,” when applied to culinary invention, can conjure a variety of associations, not all of them good. In the case of Roe Fusion, the cuisine is inspired by Japanese influences, without strictly adhering to traditional notions and techniques.

“I’m a die-hard Japanese foodie,” Weng said. “I love sushi. It’s my favorite food in the entire world, and I’ve been blessed to travel to Japan and experience those types of culinary adventures. That’s why we wanted to brand ourselves as ‘fusion.’

“To be clear, we are not traditional Japanese with sushi chefs trained for decades with the art of sourcing different fishes or doing traditional (service) like kaiseki or omakase. That is not our expertise. That’s not our art form. We incorporate hot plates and Japanese-inspired spices and seasonings into our menu.”

There’s an emphasis on steak at Roe Fusion, and Weng points to the blackened prime ribeye with miso butter ($64) as a fusion favorite. The chef’s favorite is listed as a wagyu skirt steak ($34) prepped with garam masala and served with steak-cut potatoes and a coconut bearnaise.

There’s also a wagyu filet mignon ($42) served with a wasabi ponzu sauce. Miso glazed black cod ($24) is served sunomono style on sushi rice with broccolini. There’s also fried chicken, kaarage style ($8), as well as a baked crab mac n’ cheese ($12) and yakisoba garlic noodles ($8).

A house burger ($16) and a kids’ bento box ($14) with either shrimp tempura or chicken teriyaki suggests that there is likely something for everyone here.

Fear not, sushi enthusiasts. The bar menu features a creative selection of nigiri and rolls, priced at $8 or $15 a pair. Tuna, salmon or yellowtail hand rolls ($3) provide apt bar snack options to accompany the intriguing list of Japanese and Taiwanese whiskies at Roe Fusion.

Ozaki and Weng hand-selected the menu’s craft beers and worked with associate mixologist Carmen Lui on the Roe “Tokyo” old-fashioned.

“It seems to be our most popular drink during our soft opening,” Weng said. “Not only does it look fantastic, but it’s also very aromatic and refreshing. The idea behind Roe Fusion is to create a lounge-like ambiance, where people can enjoy good food inspired by Japanese culture and enjoy high-end exotic whiskies and craft cocktails.”

There is a vivid sense of genuinely enthusiastic anticipation as Roe Fusion heads into its grand opening weekend.

“We’re very excited to bring forth something new to the city of Sierra Madre,” Weng said.

“We love this city from the bottom of our hearts. We wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. We hope they will be receptive to our ideas, because we have a lot of them. We plan to be a part of the community for a long time.”