Mom & Pop umami
by Frier McCollister

“Nice people. Mom and Pop. It’s a great place.”    

This is how Dan Lee of Pasadena succinctly explained his ongoing regularity as a patron of Rotisserie Chicken of California. We were standing outside the front door on a random Monday evening, because the small dining room area already had a few people in line waiting to pick up orders. Social distancing suggested we should wait outside. Take note: it’s Monday night and there’s a line out the door.

Lee had managed to call in his order. I decided to just show up after getting a busy signal on nine attempts to call the tiny eatery. What’s Lee waiting for? “The Pasadena Sandwich. They also have a Katsu and they make their own Japanese mustard.” Confused yet?

Because Lee had affably submitted to my sidewalk interrogation, I allowed him to go ahead of me, as I considered my choices. Rotisserie chicken would seem to be the specialty here and some modest research suggested that the “Thirty Two” style ($16.95), featuring a house-made blend of 32 different spices might be the way to go. I thanked Lee as he exited, finding myself facing the masked and silent Chef Yasuto “Yosh” Yohiike, 74. In a stammer, I explained my inability to call ahead and note the fact that they seem quite busy. “Thirty minutes!” Yosh intoned.

It’s just Yohiike and his trusty sous chef—Alvaro Loera—at the stoves, behind the counter and I jokingly offer to jump in on the line to help, an offer Yohiike declines. When I come back to pick up my whole Chicken “Thirty Two” Yohiike tells me he’s also giving me a bowl of steamed rice and a salad. “You know why?” he asks. “Because I like you!”

I ask Yohiike how long the place has been in business and he simply replies, “1993.” That’s 27 years. How is it that I’ve only managed to venture in here until now? In part, because if I’m in the market for a rotisserie chicken, I can always get one, well, in the market. Whether it’s Vons, Ralph’s or the Vallarta, a bird in a plastic box warming under a heat lamp can be easily and cheaply procured. If I have a taste for something a bit more reliably fresh and tasty, there’s always Zankou. However, back home, as I examined the unusual, nearly black, crusted skin of the “Thirty Two” I realized this was something completely different.

Umami. It’s common parlance with foodies by now. It’s the elusive, savory “fifth taste” that somehow makes everything tastier. It’s also a Japanese word. To say that Yoshiike knows something about umami is like saying Einstein knew something about physics.

It goes without saying, once you taste his food. There is a humble and subtle mastery at work here that is both unmistakable and indescribable. But trust me, Yoshiike is only half the story.

As voluble and expressive as Yoshiike is circumspect, his wife and partner of over 40 years, Harumi Yoshiike, 77, bustles about the small dining room looking for a proper mask to replace my clumsy bandanna, when I return for an interview.

As we chat, Yoshiike silently slips in to present me a plate of fried tofu, dressed with bonito flakes and a mirin-based sauce that also packs a light, irresistible smack of umami.

“We were both born and raised in Japan. I went to school in Yokohama and Yoshiike is from Nagano. We met in Indiana. We both worked at a Japanese restaurant in Indianapolis in 1977.”

When that restaurant was destroyed by a fire, Harumi began a 25-year career in business development and international sales with the Hyatt hotel chain. Her work brought them to Southern California and specifically Pasadena, where Harumi’s extended family had settled.

By the way, the couple raised three daughters in Pasadena, all proud graduates of John Muir High School. Seven grandchildren round out the brood.

In the meantime, Yoshiike opened a sushi bar in Downey, but the food cost became prohibitively expensive and the rotisserie chicken concept began to evolve.

Harumi duly confides, “The cost of chicken was a lot less than fish. It was the food cost.” So it was, that the couple opened their first location in Pasadena on Colorado Boulevard and El Molino in 1993. Six years later they moved west to Arroyo Parkway, before finally landing at the present location on Los Robles in 2006.

At the advent of the lockdown in March, the restaurant remained open for takeout, but they had to trim their staff and hours. Monthly revenue also declined but as their regular customers began to return, the business stabilized.

“We have so many regulars that come weekly. We have a such a good following!” Harumi declares. How good a following? Throughout my mid-day Saturday conversation with Harumi, a stream of regulars enter and interrupt us to greet her with genuine enthusiasm and a familiarity that suggests family. One of these regulars, Sandy Barajas of Pasadena comes twice a week. For how long? She pauses and replies, “Gosh, maybe 10 years, 15 years? They’re amazing. You can tell right? The food is delicious and fresh!” Turning to Harumi, she exclaims, “You guys are amazing! I love you!”

“He gives all of our ‘regular’ regular customer specials,” Harumi further confided, referring to off-menu treats that Yoshiike provides to loyal members of his long-time local fan base. More evidence is provided several days later, when we return for a quick photoshoot. I’m reminded of Harumi’s assertion that, “We make all our sauces and all the dressings. Nothing comes out of a bottle. Our most famous dressing is the Japanese mustard.”

The lunch rush is approaching, as customers begin to arrive. A spare plate of salad dressed with the legendary sauce is thrust at me.  I sit down at a corner table, pull down my mask and begin happily gorging, when a police officer enters. I’ve already noted in these pages that cops definitely know where to go for lunch but now I’m not sure if I’m about to be cuffed and fined for violating pandemic dining protocol. Far from it.

Pasadena Police Cmdr. Jason Clawson is sympathetic to my situation. If you haven’t guessed already, he’s also a regular.

Without prompting, he offers, “We’ve been coming here since they were on El Molino. There’s a cult following here. I happen to know there’s a guy who eats here every single day.”

He turns and points to a lady exiting with a bag of chicken. “That’s the assistant city manager,” he notes before resuming. “Every Christmas I ask for the recipe for the Japanese mustard dressing. He won’t give it to me!” There’s still hope for this Christmas, Cmdr. Clawson.

In the meantime, if you’re not one of the regulars yet, come on down. I’ll let you cut in front of me in line.”