2053 E. Hastings Street
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.