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A Patriarchy-Defying Latina Sushi Chef, a Chef From Argentina, and a Peruvian Taquero Bring DTLA’s First Full Nikkei Restaurant

[dropcap size=big]A[/dropcap] local cuisine-blending taquero recruits a renowned chef with Peruvian roots and a Mexicana trailblazing sushi chef thriving against a male-dominated tradition to open the city’s first full-fledged Nikkei restaurant in downtown, how’s that for an L.A. restaurant origin story?  

Welcome to MiKaza Nikkei Sushi by Pablito’s

Nikkei is a Japanese word that refers to people of Japanese descent living in other countries. However, nikkei has recently become synonymous with a subgenre of Peruvian cuisine over the years, emphasizing Japanese flavors, ingredients, and techniques. Often simplified as Peruvian-Japanese “fusion,” this particular foodway evolved from a niche culture of about 100,000 nikkei living in Peru. If you’re familiar with Nikkei cuisine, it’s probably thanks to Nobu Matsuhisa. Arguably the most high profile chef doing nikkei-style seafood in the food world since 2000.

Tiradito at MiKaza. Photo by Erwin Recinos for L.A. Taco.

It Started With a Taquero

To understand who would undertake an ambitious project, you have to know the taquero pursuing it. 

Danny Rodriguez, better known as Pablito of Pablito’s Tacos, is the audacious taquero spearheading this passion project mid pandemic. He is a dynamic natural-born hustler who’ll start spitting 90s rap lyrics, like “can’t stop, won’t stop,” when you point a camera at him while he’s carving a trompo.

He jokes around that he grew up in the “mean streets of Burbank” after his family moved to the states when he was ten years old. Though, that love for his homeland of Peru never faded. He went back yearly and soaked up the food and culture. For example, he learned to make ceviche from Charlie Thompson, a pupil of chef Javier Wong, known as the ceviche nazi of Peru who Anthony Bourdain famously visited during his show, “Parts Unknown.” 

Amplifying Peruvian culinary excellence has been an endeavor he first started with Pablito’s Kitchen in Burbank. He served more familiar Peruvian food like a brilliantly marinated tender lomo saltado, a ceviche served in a succulent leche de tigre, and wok-charred chaufa. In this kitchen, Danny created his famous green “crack sauce,” a jalapeño version of Peruvian aji sauce fortified with Peruvian secrets. It’s helped fuel the success of his next venture, Pablito’s Tacos, a Valley pop-up serving Tijuana-style tacos with a Peruvian twist. 

Rodriguez hopes that his passion for his culture’s bright-tasting cuisine and having an outdoor drinking location with good food, ambiance, and proper health protocols in downtown L.A. is enough to overcome the odds of succeeding as a new restaurant during a pandemic. 

Miguel Torres, Danny Rodriguez, and Elizabeth Valencia. Photo by Erwin Recinos for L.A. Taco.

El Chef De Buenos Aires Saves The Day

While negotiations for the restaurant space were on hold, Rodriguez communicated with a private network of renowned Nikkei chefs. He was hoping to recruit a professional from South America to help him realize this dream. “So I was in contact with them,” he tells L.A. Taco. “But it was always an issue with visas and lawyers to bring somebody over here. I was like, man. This a lot of headaches.” 

The project seemed doomed until chef Miguel Torres called up Rodriguez out of the blue. Rodriguez tells L.A. Taco, “He's like, hey, I'm actually in Hawaii. Are you still going through with this concept? I got stuck over here. I can't get back to Argentina because the borders are shut down. They're not letting any international flights in. I'm like, alright, so you're already here. Come on down.” 

Rolls at MiKaZa. Photo by Erwin Recinos for L.A. Taco.

Chef Torres built a name for himself as an innovator helping restaurants curate their menus. His resume includes opening up the Osaka restaurant in Buenos Aires in 2005, a Nikkei restaurant chain that ranks in Latin Americas 50 Best Restaurants. From there, he worked on Fabric, a restaurant concept similar to Osaka that has since expanded to 45 locations in South America.

Regarding MiKaza, chef Torres says that apart from consulting, “I would like to stay, because I can see that Nikkei food hasn’t hit here yet.” He is working with Elizabeth Valencia, who will be working in the kitchen. She is trained in traditional Japanese techniques and has been learning the Nikkei nuances from Torres. 

La Sushi Chef Que Sí Pudo

“The sushi industry has been very difficult for me to make it in,” Elizabeth Valencia tells L.A. Taco. At 16-years old, she dropped out of the university and moved to the states from Puebla, Mexico, to pursue better opportunities.

Elizabeth started working in a sushi restaurant as a prep cook. That’s when she fell in love with the process of making sushi. “For me, it looked like fun, like a game, the way they made sushi.” That’s when she approached the head sushi chef, an older Japanese man, who scoffed at her request to learn. “He told me it wasn’t possible because, first I was a woman, and second, a woman’s temperature was higher than a man’s, and that ruined the sushi before it got to the table.” 

“I told him he was wrong. That Latina women are always fighting to achieve their dreams, and that we do not let ourselves be defeated so easily. We are single moms who pull their children ahead, daughters who help our fathers, and sisters who always take care of our brothers. This obstacle that this chef was talking about, for me, didn’t exist in my mind. So it became a goal of mine to start this and one day show them that I could do it.” 

Wagyu at MiKaza. Photo by Erwin Recinos for L.A. Taco.

For Elizabeth, becoming a sushi chef as a woman was only one of the obstacles she had to overcome. The other obstacle, as Elizabeth says, “was that I am a Latina. Not just a woman, a Latina woman.” 

Eventually, Elizabeth found herself working for another sushi restaurant where she found a supportive male chef. A Brazilian executive sushi chef noticed her interest in sushi and brought it up to the restaurant owner at that time. According to Elizabeth, the restaurant owner was happy to hear that she wanted to pursue this career and convinced her to go to school. He paid for half the tuition. 

In 2001, she attended the California Sushi Academy to learn the fundamentals and philosophy behind the Japanese tradition. She not only graduated but for the last five years, she had been the head sushi chef at Hama Sushi in Venice, showing her doubters that a Latina can do it. 

Scallops at MiKaza. Photo by Erwin Recinos for L.A. Taco.

“No nomás soy Latina, soy Mexicana Azteca!” (I’m not just Latina, I’m Aztec Mexican!”)

A thyroid complication forced her to quit her sushi job. After recuperating from her medical spat, Elizabeth was hired by Flor Oropeza, her sister and Danny’s partner at Pablito’s. That’s when she met Danny Rodriguez.

And on Tuesdays, Pablito's Tacos will be popping up at the space, making downtown L.A. a serious competitor for the best taco neighborhood in the city. 

The tenacious sushi chef tells L.A. Taco that she is excited to learn the Peruvian cuisine from chef Torres and heading up this new venture at MiKaza. “I love the idea of this new experience. It gives me the opportunity to once again explore the possibility that different cultures can fuse their food. I want to demonstrate to the world that a Latina can mix Japanese food with other cultures. That food is a game for the palate, and the palate needs to taste new dishes and flavors while still respecting the food’s cultures and traditions.” 

What To Expect

MiKaza’s target day to open its doors on September 4th. It’s located at the end of the long food hall that runs between Broadway to Spring in downtown. They’ll be hugging the Broadway facing end; Guisados is on the Spring side. They’ll have outdoor seating for about 60 to 80 guests during COVID, with a second floor inside waiting for normalcy to arrive. 

There will be a cocktail menu. Pisco and passionfruit sours, Japanese whisky, beer, and sake can be expected on the cocktail menu. Tiraditos with their respective ‘leche de tigres,’ and rolls will dominate the menu. ‘Conchitas a la parmesana’ is also a traditional tapas you’ll find in Peru, and now in downtown L.A. It’s a scallop on the half-shell covered and flamed with parmesan cheese. Wagyu beef will be seared tableside and garnished with chimichurri sauce. 

It’s a one-of-a-kind cuisine that’s become a favorite in South America that will now be available for all Angelenos to experience. And on Tuesdays, Pablito's Tacos will be popping up at the space, making downtown L.A. a serious competitor for the best taco neighborhood in the city. 

Nikkei tacos? Only in L.A.

MiKaza ~ Opening September 4th, 2020 ~ 542 South Broadway, Los Angeles, CA 90013

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