By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS, Rafu Staff Writer
The ceilings in the historic, century-old building at Fourth Street and Main are threefold higher than the old place. Staring upward, Kenji Suzuki was certain what his late mother would say.
“Too high. Definitely too high,” he said softly.
Suzuki was describing the décor at the new location of Suehiro Cafe, the generational favorite restaurant established by his mother and aunt, that he now owns and operates.
For 51 years, Suehiro has been the go-to spot for home cooking in Little Tokyo. When Suzuki’s mom, Junko, and his aunt, Yuriko Morita Regaert, opened their restaurant on Second Street in 1972, a welcoming, comfortable atmosphere was an indispensable ingredient on the menu.
At first, it was Japanese businessmen in L.A. seeking a taste of home who frequented Suehiro, but word soon spread about the satisfying meals at reasonable prices.
Like many new restaurateurs, Yuriko and Junko struggled mightily to keep their business afloat, due in no small part to the reluctance of local banks to lend money to a pair of immigrants operating a fairly high-risk venture. Fortune smiled on Suehiro in the late 1980s, when the husband-and-wife owners of a building on First Street offered them a long-term lease in a prime Little Tokyo location.
“I was only a kid and didn’t know the parents,” said Kenji Suzuki, who as a 10-year-old used to help around the restaurant by washing dishes. “But I think the wife actually lived in Little Tokyo, if I’m not mistaken, and she was really a proponent of the Japanese culture. But the son is a total opposite of the parents.”
Having inherited the property from his parents, Anthony Sperl is Suzuki’s landlord for the Little Tokyo location. While the lease expired more than a decade ago, Sperl assured Suzuki that if he continued to pay rent faithfully, a new lease would be forthcoming.
Those assurances evaporated last spring, when Sperl filed an eviction notice in L.A. County Superior Court, looking to oust Suehiro from its familiar spot in the heart of Little Tokyo.
“We’re not the landowners, so he has a right to do what he did, but it’s not like we were there for a just a couple years. I mean, we’ve been there for over 30 years in that particular location, and we had been a model tenant,” Suzuki said.
“You know, we did everything to maintain the building, because the current landlord really didn’t help us at all. All he did was complain. Even though it wasn’t our responsibility to maintain the roof, we did all those things because he complained so much, I didn’t want to hear it.”
Suzuki said he began to realize that his rent checks were not being cashed. The eviction lawsuit cites non-payment of rent as a reason.
“This is a common strategy,” Suzuki’s attorney, Clifford Jung, told The L.A. Times. “They say, ‘OK, you pay the rent, but we’re not going to cash it,’ and they say, ‘Look, you’re not paying the rent.’ They use it to file the lawsuit to evict you, even though you pay. They don’t really care because they just want to evict you.”
His perceived attempts to force a legacy business out of Little Tokyo have also landed Sperl at the center of renewed protests, including over the 1983 incident in which as a police officer at the time, he shot a 5-year-old boy after mistaking a toy pistol for a real gun.
Suzuki believes Sperl’s attempts coincide with the development of properties and the opening of the new Metro Regional Connector in Little Tokyo. The potential for skyrocketing property values has created an environment that threatens to force out legacy neighborhood businesses and fundamentally change the complexion of Little Tokyo.
According to Suzuki, Sperl filed for permits to a marijuana dispensary in Little Tokyo in 2018, as Metro’s plans for Little Tokyo became clearer.
“He is more focused on creating a Melrose-type atmosphere here,” he has insisted, admitting that he has no idea if Sperl’s motives are purely financial.
“You know, that’s something that you would have to ask him but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that when he needed us, we stayed,” Suzuki said. “Back in the [late 1980s to early ’90s] when the Japanese economy went bust and everybody started losing all of the Japanese tourists, right when the riots happened, and everybody started moving towards Gardena and Torrance. Little Tokyo was really dying because of people not wanting to stick around because of the homeless and the car break-ins.
“But there were a few of us who made a stand. We didn’t want to be like rats jumping off a sinking ship. We started the patrol group because we cared about Little Tokyo. But when things start to go well, like the news of the Metro station opening up, that’s when his attitude towards us all of a sudden changed because all of a sudden he didn’t need the Japanese influence in Little Tokyo anymore. As of now all I know is that he doesn’t want any more Japanese influences in his building. And that upsets me because you know, we put in so much work. It is really kicking sand in our face, that’s what it feels like.”
Though it was announced that Oct. 1 would be the last day for Suehiro on First Street, Suzuki and his legal team have managed something of a reprieve. The closing was extended for a month, then extended again, this time without a set end date. At lunchtime the Thursday before Halloween, the diner was as busy as ever, filled with customers jonesing for the ever-popular lunch combos.
There is also a takeout location, Suehiro Mini, that opened in Chinatown in 2019.
The new location sits on a corner in an area that is emerging as somewhat of a foodie heaven. For teams and families looking for a bite after league basketball at the Terasaki Budokan on Los Angeles Street, the new Suehiro is actually closer than the old eatery.
Suehiro on Main had its grand opening last Wednesday, after a soft open of several weeks. The local clientele is measurably different from the Little Tokyo crowd, more represented by younger residents who live in the historic buildings in the neighborhood and dine out more frequently.
“One of the reasons we picked this place is because it was still close to a Little Tokyo, and it happens to be another historic building, just like the historic building in Little Tokyo,” Suzuki explained. “I liked the architectural design of the building. It’s an eight-storey building, and we are occupying the ground floor. The building itself used to be an old bank, I believe, and it kind of looks that way. It has more space than we had before, more airy.
“But we at the same time, we are trying very hard to try to give it the homey feeling like our old store. I think the kind of the reactions that we get from people is that we’re going in the right direction. They like the decor – it feels a little bit more upscale, but at the same time, we try to keep the homeyness so that people feel comfortable, you know, so they know that they’re at a spot they already know.”
Possible plans for the new space include establishing a matcha bar in the area that opens up the the corner sidewalk, a photo exhibit in the underground stair landing, and somehow incorporating the traditional plastic sampuru models of Suehiro’s menu items.
“This is the taste of Little Tokyo,” said Mike Murase, who was part of a large group that came for dinner during the soft opening on Oct. 2. “If we lose a place like this, we lose much more than just a place to eat.”
Suzuki said he and his wife, Tomoko, have been fielding comments from several customers who used to visit the Little Tokyo diner, but live nearer to the new one and will likely eat there more often.
“It’s really nice to hear that people know who we are, so it’s not like we have to start from scratch,” he said. “We have that added benefit of having that brand name that people recognize, but we still might not know 99% of the new customers here, so we still have to earn our keep. That’s how my mother did it, you know, one customer at a time. When someone new comes in, I talk to them, I try to explain who we are and make sure that our service is up to our required level. And of course, food has to be terrific.”
While there isn’t much distance between the Suehiro locations, the menu at the new restaurant will certainly be adjusted to the local taste. For example, the vegetarian gyoza enjoy more popularity than in Little Tokyo.
“We definitely see a trend in the Downtown area where a lot of non-meat items are pretty popular, even though we have grills in both locations. Even though we’re a few blocks away, it’s a totally different demographic,” Suzuki said.
In at least one sense, Suzuki is trying to see a silver lining around the arduous tasks of building a new restaurant, as well as the legal wranglings complicating the process – and his life. He figures Suehiro will ultimately leave its First Street location, but hopes another spot in the heart of Little Tokyo is on the horizon, possibly in the planned development near the Go For Broke Monument, just steps away from the current cafe.
“Under this horrible situation that we’re in right now, I just keep telling myself that my goal is to be able to go back and tell the landlord, ‘Thank you very much for evicting us because now we’re doing much better than we did before.’ That’s probably the only thing that I could tell myself to keep some sort of hope.”
Sperl has not responded to requests for comment from local media.
Photos by MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS/Rafu Shimpo (except where noted)