4th Ave South has a hidden Japanese gem that you probably have driven past many times. Koko Japanese Restaurant is a family owned Japanese restaurant that has all the charm and tastes of Japan.
Owner, Nori Yamada and his family moved from Iwate Prefecture, Japan to Lethbridge, Alberta, 15 years ago. Yamada had been exposed to the business way of life from an early age. His father owned a Panko business for many years, where he made panko breadcrumbs from scratch and sold it to customers as far as Florida.
Yamada’s father had been a businessman for many years, however Nori and his mother Keiko Yamada had a dream of owning their own restaurant some day.
“We love our life here in Lethbridge so we thought maybe we could open our dream restaurant here,” says Nori.
Koko in Japanese means, “this place” or “here” explains Yamada. You can find the definition featured on their menu, followed by “A place of gathering for friends, family and good times”. This motto Yamada deeply cherishes.
Prior to opening, Nori and his family searched for the perfect building to open their restaurant. After a few years had passed, the Yamada’s found the perfect spot on 4th avenue south.
“We know downtown is fast paced and has a lot of energy which would give our restaurant more potential to succeed,” says Nori.
While Nori manages the restaurant, you’ll find his mom in the kitchen, cooking all the delicious Japanese cuisine.
Nori strongly believes in the importance of a family run business. Not only does it maintain the consistency of every dish, but also allows for Nori to step into many roles in the restaurant to help out his family. Whether it is popping into the kitchen to help his mother cook or running the front of house, Nori treasures the time spent with his family.
“It’s hard work so I can’t let my mother do it all by herself,” says Nori.
While Nori is helping his family in the restaurant jumping into any role that is necessary, the community has been supportive. Having customers bring family, friends, and loved ones puts on smile on Nori’s face.
“We even have customers coming from out of town just to eat here,” says Nori. “Because we are a family based business, we are happy to see our customers bring their own family and all their generations. It makes us really happy to see that.”
Because Koko strives for always serving fresh food, it’s no wonder people come from far and wide to eat at Koko. Even the panko breadcrumbs are made from scratch every second day, which his father prepares.
“We try to make our food from scratch as much as we can. We want it to be fresh,” says Nori.
One of the most popular dishes on Koko’s menu is Chicken NanBan, which just so happens to be very popular in Japan. The chicken is lightly breaded and is drizzled with tartar sauce. This may seem like an odd combination as tartar sauce is usually served with fish, but Koko’s customers love it.
Nori’s personal favourite is Ebi-Chili, a shrimp and scallop stir-fry tossed in a tomato based chilli sauce with green onion.
“The recipe was created by a Chinese chef who moved to Japan. Traditional Chinese food is really spicy for Japanese people,” Nori explains. “So the chef created a dish that wasn’t so spicy. Now you will find this recipe all over Japan. It is very popular.”
Nori’s genuine love for his family and how he values every customer who walks through their doors is not only apparent in the experience of walking into the restaurant, but it speaks even larger volumes when you taste their food.
Creating a space that makes his customers feel at home is very important to Nori, which reflects back to the meaning of Koko, a place of gathering for friends, family and good times.