Featured image courtesy of Nami Nagaoka
By Nami Nagaoka
Yelp, Zomato, Tripadvisor and Facebook are becoming popular tools for people who are searching for a new spot to eat. Five star-reviewed eateries with a large number of reviewers are more likely to be chosen.
There is a small, 30-year-old local restaurant where these four websites have more than 90 percent of reviews from customers. Zomato has 4.7 stars with over 380 reviewers, as well as 4.8 stars with over 270 reviewers on Facebook.
With such high appraisal, it is easy to learn about this small local restaurant online. To find the building in person, however, is a different story.
About five minutes from Youngstown State University, there is a small, white building where half of a sign hangs, reading, “Tokyo… Japanese.”
The sign looks severed in half and no one thought to replace it. At first glance, the building appears abandoned, even if you manage to find it on your first try.
On an early March afternoon, the only evidence that Youngstown’s Tokyo House restaurant is open for business is the presence of five cars in the parking lot.
Vel Wall, a Youngstown resident who frequents the restaurant, arrives in the parking lot nearly an hour before Tokyo House opens. A friend told her about the restaurant when she was in high school. Nine years later, she says it is still her favorite place to eat.
“It’s all word of mouth,” she says. “I didn’t even know this place was open… I thought this place was run down.”
Wall says Tokyo House is a hidden gem that many people drive past, but she’s glad because people would otherwise be there all the time.
“It’s super intimate,” Wall says.
As soon as the restaurant’s doors open, people hustle out of their cars, eager to get one of the six hibachi tables available in the restaurant.
Tokyo House was converted from an old gas station 30 years ago by the owner, Can Dao. Dao and his wife are the only employees, even though the restaurant is packed with customers from open to close.
Tokyo House is open weekdays from 4 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
He used to hire some workers when he owned Tokyo House in Austintown, but he stopped hiring people after moving to Youngstown. He says he keeps it family-run because he hates firing people.
“People tell me I’m too nice,” Dao says. “I don’t know how to fire people.”
Due to the small number of workers and limited business hours, Dao and his wife often have to tell people to come back another time.
Once getting into the restaurant, there is a waiting area for people anxiously waiting for a table. While people are sitting all those seats, everyone was smiling and waiting for Dao’s food.
“Hi, how are you? Long time no see!” he greeted customers who were waiting near the entrance while he was cooking at one of the hibachi tables.
Dao says he often jokes and tells a few ‘fibs,’ and when I was speaking with him about his business, he lightheartedly suggested I not take notes, “because I lie a lot.” Dao is from Vietnam, but he did not specify where.
“I’m Mongolian! Because I move a lot,” he joked and laughed.
Dao says the Tokyo House closes after May until whenever he comes back from vacation. He says when being asked by a customer if he would come back to Tokyo House, he always tells them, “If I’m not dying, I’ll be back.” But he feels like he is getting too old to work at a hibachi restaurant.
He repeatedly says he really loves his customers.
“Everybody is so good to me here,” he says. “No one judges me.”
He tells all kinds of jokes to anyone, even to a first-time customer.
“I cook for Brian! Do you know Brian? Oh! You know Brian,” he laughed and the customer laughed following after him.
He laughs in a unique way and people laugh with him. It is a high pitched tone, almost like a witch from an anime.
“We all have fun here,” Dao says.
He really loves people in Youngstown.
“People here are real,” he says. “People here are so good to me.”
Dao says he’s a cheap guy and that’s why they set low prices. He tries to set cheap prices so students can eat there easily.
“This is not a business place, it’s a family place,” Dao says.
He says more than 99 percent of customers are regulars for many years.
Jill Chambers, whose family is a big fan of Tokyo House, has been coming to the restaurant for 20 years.
“[Can and his wife] knows my kids, they know my parents… we got a family relationship with them,” she says.
She tries to come to Tokyo House every year for her birthday to celebrate together in a family atmosphere.
“It’s just fun to come here,” she says.
Most of Dao’s customers were pouring the homemade Yum Yum sauce all over their food. He will never tell anyone the recipe, even those who have known him for more than 30 years. If you ask him, he will jokingly say, “You have to marry my son or daughter.”
“We ask him all the time… he just laughs,” Chambers says. “We never know what he will say.”
Sfury Kuzma, one of the customers, has been a fan of Tokyo House for about 10 years and eats there at least once a month. Her family members and she have been trying to figure out the mystery behind the sauce since her first visit, but without any luck.
“He won’t tell what’s in [it],” Kuzma says.
She says Dao and his wife are such amazing people and that it’s not just food but also people, atmosphere and everything. She said the owner remembers not only her face, but also what she talked about.
“He has the greatest memory,” she says.
Kuzma always orders sweet and sour chicken. She says it’s the best in the area and different than every other restaurant she’s been to.
She said she sometimes waits six hours for a seat. She would never wait for several hours to have a meal anywhere else.
Jennifer Farrs, a friend of Kuzma, comes to Tokyo House at least once a year. She explains that Dao still remembers her almost a year ago.
AJ Boggs, a barista at Pressed Coffee Bar and Eatery, joined her coworkers in a dining experience at Tokyo House in December. It was her first time to try any Asian-style cuisine.
“It was a pretty slow day,” she says. “He was hilarious and awesome… He has no filter at all.”
Their Yum Yum sauce is her favorite, and she pours it all over the rice.
“Start out with an entire plate of rice… Throughout the entire dinner, he keeps piling on more and more and more [food],” she says.