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“Soy Sauce Runs Through My Veins” Owner of popular LA-area restaurants, Michael Cardenas

Working in and around the LA area, restaurant owner Michael “Mike” Cardenas manages several highly acclaimed restaurants, including Sushi Roku, Katana robata and sushi bar, BOA steakhouse, and the Lazy Ox Canteen the latter of which the LA Times raved, immediately after its 2009 opening, that “reservations are probably going to need to be made well in advance.”

Mike, who speaks fluent Japanese, was born in Yokosuka city, Kanagawa, Japan. His father, an American, served in the U.S. Navy, and his mother is Japanese, from Osaka.

“My mother’s family was involved in the food service industry,” says Mike. Consequently, the restaurant business feels like home to Mike, no matter where he happens to be.

Raised in Japan until he was 17 years old, he then decided to explore his American roots by moving to California. After gaining experience as a teppan chef at Benihana, he worked at Teru Sushi and Chaya in Los Angeles. Later on, he “decided to travel around the world to try different cuisines,” and set out to areas around the globe such as Jamaica and Hong Kong.

“When I returned, I used up my money. So I pleaded to Nobu-san from Matsuhisa (Nobuyuki Matsuhisa of Matsuhisa Restaurants) to ‘Please hire me for just one month.’ Nobu-san was really good to me, and before I knew it I had been working there for five years. When I first started, Matsuhisa was only in Beverly Hills—but with the opening of locations in London and New York and the subsequent rapid growth of business, I was able to gain a lot of experience. My time at Matsuhisa was definitely a big turning point in my life.”

As Mike quickly climbed the ladder of success, he was promoted to General Manager of Matsuhisa.

“In 1997, I felt that it was the right time to test my own abilities. After graduating from Matsuhisa, I entered into a partnership to open my first restaurant on La Cienega and 3rd Street (inside the Beverly Center shopping mall): Sushi Roku.”

In the 13 years that followed, with every grand opening of his restaurants attracting more and more attention, Mike came to be known as the “Prodigy of the Restaurant Industry.” But when asked how it feels to be a successful person, about what the secrets are to becoming successful, he coyly replies, “I’ve never thought of myself as being a successful man.”

“I’m just happy if the restaurant continues to stay afloat; happy as long as I can safely welcome in another morning. It goes without saying that I love this business more than anything.”

I wanted to find out more from Mike about the aforementioned Lazy Ox Canteen. It is located directly across from the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center, right in the heart of Little Tokyo. As a mixed-race Japanese person, he discussed his hopes to play a part in supporting the resurrection of the Little Tokyo area.

“Many Japanese companies came here during the economic bubble. The town was flourishing at one point, but that momentum is gone now days. I hope that we can stir up some excitement for the community through my restaurant.”

Mike Cardenas, discussing his hopes to “play a part in supporting the resurrection of Little Tokyo.”

In December of 2010, Mike plans to open up a new restaurant, Aburiya Toranoko, directly next door to the Lazy Ox establishment. The concept is based on the Japanese izakaya. Inspired by his to visit Okinawa in 2006, Mike has become a big fan of Okinawan cuisine and cooking ingredients. The menu for the new restaurant will include staple Okinawan dishes such as goya champloo and rafute.

“Okinawa possesses an ambiance similar to Hawaii, which is a place that I love very much. I can’t say enough about the people and their warm hospitality. In terms of food, there are many unique ingredients that cannot be found anyplace else. We use Okinawan salt at our restaurants—it has a tendency to really bring out the flavor of the food. I can’t imagine using any other type of salt anymore.”

His restaurants also serve Orion beer and awamori (alcoholic beverage indigenous to and unique to Okinawa).

“The appeal of awamori comes from the uniqueness of the ingredients and fullness of flavor that you won’t get from any other drink. Everything from Okinawa is original.”

Finally, I asked Mike about his dreams and aspirations. “I want my restaurants to showcase not only Okinawan food, but Japanese culture in general, and I want people in America to learn more about real Japanese food. I think Americans still have a lot to learn about what Japanese cuisine truly is. Of course, there are many places where you can find decent Japanese food—but I’m dedicated to pursuing the real thing, and to provide that to the American community. Through the medium of food, I’m on a mission to strengthen the presence of Japanese culture here in this country. I can’t help it—being born and raised in Japan, I have soy sauce running through my veins” (laughs).

Behind his constant faint smile and soft speech, I clearly felt his passion toward business and his love for Japan, where his roots lie. Perhaps his humility and compassion for others have created a welcoming atmosphere at his restaurants, causing his patrons to return again and again. Naturally, as we said our farewells, I noticed myself wanting to come back to Mike’s restaurant—wanting to see him again soon.

© 2010 Keiko Fukuda

Aburiya Toranoko awamori food hapa japanese food Lazy Ox little tokyo Los Angeles Matsuhisa Michael Cardenas Okinawan food restaurant Sushi Roku