Tojo’s opened its doors in 1988, as one of the very few Japanese restaurants in Vancouver at the time.
Before arriving in Vancouver in 1971, Chef Tojo was working in Osaka at a traditional Ryotei and he jumped at the opportunity to travel and see the world when he heard that Maneki Restaurant in Vancouver’s Japan Town was looking for a Japanese Chef. After seventeen years, Chef Tojo decided it was time to realize his desire to ‘do it my way’ and went about planning for the opening of Tojo’s
Chef Tojo didn’t want to limit his cooking, so he simply called the restaurant Tojo’s, instead of Tojo’s Sushi or Tojo’s Japanese Restaurant. Over the past 30 years, Chef Tojo has continuously evolved his cooking, from incorporating local ingredients and new cooking techniques alongside his traditional Japanese cooking methods. Tojo’s has repeatedly delighted Vancouver residents with their innovative culinary offerings rooted in tradition.
The road to longevity and sustainability in the restaurant business is difficult, especially when the industry was still in its early, development stages; back then, there were few Japanese restaurants, meaning less demand for quality seafood, and thus it was not easy to obtain basic ingredients such as nori, sushi vinegar, soy sauce, and wasabi. If a locale has minimal demand for such ingredients, suppliers are less likely to see the opportunity in supplying for the area. While all Vancouverites rejoice in the abundance of fresh, quality seafood and sushi nowadays, back then, residents were hesitant to eat raw seafood and sushi. How the world has changed!
Chef Tojo’s creativity is ingrained into the world of sushi, where he is bold and pioneering with his creation of the ‘inside-out’ roll, which is now a common technique seen in all sushi restaurants around the world; the California Roll was born out of this innovative technique, to which Chef Tojo said his peers had rejected back then, saying his creations were not real sushi. We are so glad that Chef Tojo continued to push the envelope, otherwise, we would not have today’s vast selection of tasty ‘inside-out’ rolls.
Now, if you visit Tojo’s today, located on Broadway Street just a few blocks west of its original location opened in 1988, what can you expect to see on the menu? There are both authentic, traditional dishes where one would consume in a Japanese household and restaurants in Japan, and also innovative dishes featured in their recently launched Cocktail Hour menu.
PACIFIC NORTHWEST ROLL
Chef Tojo says that his customers have hailed this signature roll as the ‘champagne’ of sushi rolls. Featuring beautiful ingredients from the Pacific Northwest, with Dungeness crab leg and avocado rolled inside out, the roll is topped with local scallops and tobiko. This dish is available as part of the dinner menu.
TUNA TATAKI NIGIRI
Local Albacore Tuna is lightly seared and marinated in Tojo’s secret sauce for this dish. The garnish consists of grated ginger, momiji oroshi, and finely diced green onion, a refreshing mix of scents that add to the overall experience of the dish. We wish we could reveal more about why the nigiri tastes so good, but you will have to grab a seat at the sushi bar and try to befriend Chef Tojo to gain more insight into the secret sauce!
With this dish, Chef Tojo shows us how he is infusing traditional cooking techniques into modernized dishes. The Seafood Salad is served Ceviche style, featuring seasonal seafood, which in this case includes smoked sablefish, smoked BC Salmon, Arctic Mackerel and jumbo prawn.
MISO MUSTARD LOTUS ROOT
Tojo’s recently launched Cocktail Hour, which is open every Thursday to Saturday from 4 to 6pm. This new menu features a whole new bar program in partnership with mixologist Jeff Savage that pairs beautifully with the food. Along with the new bar program, guests have the chance to taste the brand-new Small Bites menu, which showcases more “home-cooking” dishes compared to Tojo’s dinner menu.
For example, there is a sweet potato recipe that originates from Chef Tojo’s hometown, Kagoshima. Another Small Bites offering is the Dashimaki and Caviar dish (below) elevated with Ikura and Tobiko. Nanbanzuke is a local fish marinated in vinaigrette also highlighting homestyle cooking methods.
We had the opportunity to try the Miso Mustard Lotus Root from the Small Bites menu, which we loved because of the crunchiness of the deep-fried exterior and flavourful miso paste sandwiched between the two pieces of lotus root. This dish is perfect to go with a refreshing beer or an elevated cocktail, whatever it is that you fancy.
At first glance, this may seem like other tempura dishes you have had, but there is a surprise within. While most restaurants offer simple, vegetable tempura with carrots, zucchini, and prawns, Tojo’s serves up a unique tempura platter with zucchini flower stuffed with lingcod mousse (our favorite!), smelt fish, cauliflower, shishito peppers, and baby carrots.
DASHIMAKI + CAVIAR
Did someone say caviar? With Dashimaki? Dashimaki is a traditional egg-based dish found in every Japanese restaurant; it is said that one can judge the quality of a restaurant by the caliber of its dashimaki (a Japanese egg omelette made by rolling together layers of egg). At Tojo’s, the dashimaki is topped with golden tobiko and ikura, which guarantees a burst of flavour and texture with the mix of the two with each bite of dashimaki. Oishii!
We recommend visiting Tojo’s in the near future in order to try this seasonal dish. The morel mushrooms are stuffed with flying fish mousse and topped with ankake sauce. Chopped green onion and yuzu skin add a refreshing and balancing touch to the overall flavour. This dish is part of the omakase menu.
STEAMED SMOKED CANADIAN SABLEFISH
This dish, part of the Omakase menu, is a crowd favourite for its delicate flavors, creative cooking method, and beautiful presentation. The sablefish is smoked in a bowl covered by Japanese cooking paper, which allows the fish to capture the essence of seasonal mushrooms and vegetables. The broth is light and appetizing, helping the fish retain its tender texture and the vegetables stay moist and juicy. The flavors of this dish remind us of the healthy home cooking one would experience in a Japanese household. The presentation of this dish changes every season. The flower and leaf used for the presentation were handpicked by Chef Tojo from his own home’s garden - a special and thoughtful touch to connect with his customers.
Chef Tojo recommended that we consume this dish last because this is what his customers usually do to cap off their dining experience. The Nasu nigiri featured pickled Japanese eggplant topped with grated ginger and diced green onion. We recommend this dish if you are ready to take your understanding of Japanese cuisine beyond raw fish sushi and nigiri because pickled vegetables are actually a large component of the Japanese diet. Be prepared for the pickled vegetable juices that will pour out from the first bite; if you love pickled vegetables, this one is for you.
For those who have lived in Japan, you will understand that the Japanese take great pride in not just how the food tastes, but also how the dish is prepared and presented; every step in the journey plays an important role in the delivery of the culinary experience, and that is what you will find at Tojo’s - a menu prepared with the utmost care, dressed with the chef’s own garden blooms. When you visit, inquire about the menu’s latest creations and the thought process behind them, and you will be impressed by how the team continues to reinvent and refine their offerings after so many years in the business. A truly unique yet traditional Japanese dining experience awaits at this historic Vancouver establishment.
1133 W Broadway, Vancouver
Photos by Florence Leung