Koko – Vancouver, BC


Koko
2053 E. Hastings Street
Vancouver, BC
604-251-1328

Koko on Urbanspoon

I paid homage of sorts a couple of days ago. It was homage to a slice of Vancouver gastronomic history: Sushi history to be precise….I had lunch at Koko – one of Vancouver’s oldest sushi restaurants. Koko is located on Vancouver’s East Hastings St — just east of the infamous, downtrodden Downtown Eastside. If this road is part of your regular commute, then you should be familiar with the funky yellow sign. You may have already dined there yourself, but probably did not attribute anything “special” to the place. Koko, you see, is part of Vancouver’s sushi heritage.

Like in most large North American cities, Sushi, has become a staple for many people here in Vancouver.  Most Vancouverites (and perhaps most North Americans) who partake in a regular sushi habit will probably tell you that they had awakened to raw fish some time in the early 1980’s…around the time sushi went mainstream. (That is around the time I  had it for the first time too….maybe 1981?) Most will be surprised that Vancouver has had a sushi scene since the 1960’s…around the time of its ascent in Los Angeles, the veritable center of North American sushi culture and the city where the first sushi bar in the US opened in its Little Tokyo in 1965.

It should probably have come as no surprise that Vancouver cottoned on to sushi relatively early – Vancouver has had a long history with Japan and Japanese fishermen. This city has had a distinct Japan Town since the late 1800’s and Japanese settlers from various shipwrecks have lived in the area since the early 1800’s. That influence continues to be felt today – the city streets are teeming with Japanese foreign students…and you can’t swing a salmon without hitting a sushi bar or an izakaya.
koko_sign
So how does Koko relate to sushi history in this city? It is connected to Koji- one of Vancouver’s first sushi chefs – arguably this city’s first true itamae. I will not fully recount the Koji’s story here. Instead I will send you off to an article written by Toronto based writer Brian Fawcett. In that article, he recounts the tale and thus the backstory of this restaurant:

Then there’s the story of Koko, which is extraordinary, and has several chapters. Koko, you see, is the last restaurant of Koji, Vancouver’s first sushi master, who started serving sushi in the late 1960s in a tiny second floor dive above a Japanese grocery just east of Main Street on the north side of Hastings Street. [Excerpted from Koji’s Story by Brian Fawcett]

That dive, which is close to the Patricia Hotel, now houses a Buddhist temple. Koji, by the way, is still alive and kicking…long retired from the sushi trade. Koko is now run by Koji’s son Kuni, pictured here.

koko_kuni

Inside and out Koko looks like what sushi restaurants used to look like: a open raw bar in the back with divided semi-private tatami tea-room sections….you know…where you take your shoes off and sit on low benches as if to simulate the way the Japanese eat at home. The staff are also all Japanese.

koko_interior

That day, I sat at the bar and had the sushi assortment platter. The fish was fresh and expertly made (Kuni learned his craft from a master, after all…and he also apprenticed in Japan for a number of years to further hone his skills and to become a “proper” itamae).

koko_sushi_plate_1

I don’t recall exactly how many times I have been to Koko in the years I have lived in this area…perhaps less than ten times. The meals I have had here were not that memorable, but the food was always honest, well prepared and fresh. The sushi here is perhaps not the best in town or even in the vicinity (I will give the nod to Lime on Commercial Drive for that one)….but that is not the point. I was paying homage…like I said.

Koko on Urbanspoon

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8 thoughts on “Koko – Vancouver, BC

  1. Thanks for the kind thoughts. Not to digress from the sushi goodness too far, but the trip was great. There is nothing like working, living in an area where a typical canadian meal isn’t even available so you are surrounded by pure Latin American cuisine. Tortillas, beans, chicharron, pupusas, chorizo..and oh yeah, lard!

  2. Another place I’ve never heard of introduced by gastronomydomine! For some reason their exterior signage reminds me of the LUSH cosmetics shops with its bold capitalized lettering, use of yellow color and the four letters dominating the image.

    Interesting to hear the long history of this place, though will take that third party narrative with a grain of salt – I think its been “adjusted” to make for better reading. 🙂 The assorted set looks pretty good I must say.

    Just a side note, “This city has had a distinct Japan Town since the late 1800’s” is a bit misleading since the WWII internment wiped out the real neighborhoods that Japanese-Canadians resided in. And in the years following 1949 legislation that allowed the members of the community to even come back to the BC coast, their numbers were drastically reduced and its never been the same as the heights of the pre-WWII geographical density.

  3. Yes indeed you are correct to point out the internment of Japanese Canadians during the War. And also…Japan Town around Powell St has really lost its character after the 1980’s when in started on a heroin-induced downward spiral. It is a shadow of its former self. Chinatown too has lost much of its character around that time.

    There was another interesting sushi spot in that area that really got the ball rolling in terms of sushi’s acceptance here in Vancouver – The Japanese Deli. In Vancouver’s early stages of “Hollywood North” – movie stars flocked to the place as that area was a popular spot for filming. People started eating sushi to get a glimpse of Johnny Depp and the crew from 21 Jump Street 😉

  4. Crazy to think now in the GVA, there are probably hundreds (two, three?) places that advertise themselves as selling sushi on their menus, given the history of the region, and the still relatively new place on the culinary scene that Japanese cuisine holds in this country. Wonder what all those movie stars and their fans who probably stalked them to this Japanese Deli, think of our good old city now? 😉

  5. I recently drove by Koko and reminisced what was likely my very first sushi experience in Vancouver (actually in life) there, circa late ’70s. I’m quite sure of the decade because I hadn’t started high school yet (1980). Amazing to see them still around. In fact I think I will take my own family there one of these days.

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