Etsuko Tani is the heart of Sakae Sushi, the beloved sushi restaurant in Gardena that is keeping true to the original flavors and high standards set decades earlier.
The traditions at Sakae Sushi remain very much the same since the small restaurant was opened by Aya and Sumizo Tani in 1962. Their signature white box tied with a green string offers just six varieties: ebi (shrimp), norimaki, inari, saba (mackeral), California roll and tamago (egg).
For Japanese Americans, the flavors evoke the sushi that we grew up with. It isn’t the fancy, expensive sushi served at so many restaurants today; it has a homey taste that evokes family gatherings, celebrations and summer picnics.
Etsuko is shy, reluctant to take the spotlight and quick to give credit to her mother-in-law Aya, whose recipes form the foundation of the family’s business.
“I don’t get credit for the flavors, that’s bachan’s,” she says.
Aya worked at ABC Nursery in Gardena, where she would sometimes make sushi for the workers using the recipes she learned as a young girl in Uragami, a small fishing village in Wakayama Prefecture. She loved to make people happy by sharing her cooking. From selling at Motoyama Market on Western Avenue, Aya eventually opened up Sakae Sushi at the same location where it remains today.
Today, Etsuko and her extended family continue this proud tradition, with the same meticulous attention to detail. Etsuko works six days a week, preferring to stay behind the scenes making sushi, as her daughter Emi takes orders and talks to customers.
“Everyone has a specific talent,” Etsuko says with pride.
Born in Kumamoto Prefecture, Etsuko moved to Los Angeles in late 1954 when she was just 11 years old. Her mom emigrated first from Japan, bringing her daughter later, which was difficult on young Etsuko.
“That was how it was back in those days,” she explained of the long immigration process.
Her grandparents ran Sato Hotel at 327½ First Street, and she attended Hollenbeck Middle School and Garfield High in Boyle Heights.
Etsuko went to school to become a beautician, first working for her uncle and later at a beauty shop on San Vicente in Brentwood.
She met her future husband Tom through her aunt and Tom’s aunt.
“They were kind of matchmakers,” she said shyly.
Etsuko and Tom married in 1970 and the couple lived in Gardena. Tom operated a liquor store in Lawndale. When he became sick, Etsuko quit her beautician job to help out at the store. Together, the couple raised three children: Emi, Jason and Jeff.
Etsuko and Tom were asked to take over Sakae Sushi in 1981. Like so many women, Etsuko balanced the needs of everyone around her: taking care of young children, ailing parents and in-laws. Husband Tom was just 50 when he stricken with a brain aneurysm that left him with a permanent disability. He passed away in 2007 at age 64.
Etsuko credits her extended family for helping the business stay so successful. All the family pitches in at the restaurant and traditions have passed from Aya to her children to the next generation.
Jeff seasons and prepares the rice in a tradition handed down from Aya to her sons Tom and Joey. Etsuko leads the team, making sushi and taking care of small details such as delicately using tweezers to remove the bones from the saba for their saba sushi. On their busiest times during the holidays, the line of people waiting to place their orders snakes around the building.
“We’ve stayed with the same vendors that my grandparents started with, the same ingredients. We didn’t change anything, we try to keep it all the same,” says Emi.
For the Tani clan, Sakae Sushi has been at the center of their lives for three generations. The rice is prepared on a stove at Sakae, in a recipe and method handed down through the years. Doing things the old fashioned way is the best — even in their own homes.
“None of us own a rice cooker!” Emi reveals, smiling.
Etsuko is the calm center of Sakae, her daughter Emi says she thrives when the restaurant is at its busiest. The family has recently expanded with the addition of three grandchildren.
“She is hands down the strongest lady ever,” Emi says.
Etsuko isn’t sure whether her grandchildren will carry on as sushi makers, but she loves her work and making customers happy.