- Young Kwak
- Spokane Sushi Chef Charlie Yang
At 4:30 am, a line appears on the horizon east of Airway Heights. Charlie Yang is in his pajamas, a simple white tunic and pants that reach to his shins. His wife Lucy blends juice in the kitchen of their California split-level. The juice begins its life a frothy gradient of hues from reddish to yellowish, before settling into a uniformly deep peach color, much the way the sun does.
But the sun is barely on its way when Charlie Yang, proprietor of Sushi Yama in Airway Heights and, lately, Baek Shun Sushiyama in the old Arctic Circle on Third Avenue in Spokane, emerges from his master bath in jeans and a subdued Hawaiian shirt, making for the door. Lucy is there with coffee, a cooler of goodies and a few spirited-sounding admonishments in their native Korean. Charlie takes the two steps down into his garage and then breaks into a trot. At the curb, he jumps into a box-bed truck free of any adornment, blowing Lucy a kiss as he pulls out of the sub-development.
From here on, Yang will be driving, and when he’s not driving, he’ll be running. He has 600 miles to cover and about 16 hours to cover it — all in the name of getting Seattle’s freshest fish to Spokane’s most fervent sushi connoisseurs.
No one needs to do this. Not in this modern age of intercontinental travel. A sushi chef can have his fish sent from Seattle or Sydney or Singapore or wherever. He can have it overnighted to his doorstep.
That’s certainly the way most restaurants in the sushi trade handle things around here. Sushi.com buys from four Seattle companies and one in Honolulu. Ichiban buys from Ocean Beauty in Seattle. Nate Weber, a sushi chef from Oishii in Sandpoint, says that his restaurant gets its fish from Honolulu and Seattle. It’s delivered twice a week, door-to-door, he says, in 24 hours.
Everyone says the fish is shipped fresh. Ah, Charlie wonders, but how fresh is fresh? Is it the freshest fish the vendor has? Or is it the stuff he didn’t sell yesterday? How red are its eyes? What about the pallor of its belly? Was it pulled squirming from Mother Ocean just this morning?
Sushi, from the product to the preparation to the ritual of consumption, is about exerting strenuous control over timing and quality. Yang spends five minutes showing me how to hold different kinds of fish in your hand as you prepare the sushi. To hold them incorrectly is to risk spoiling the flavor. In his simple, clipped English, he says, “Good timing?
Having your bluefin airlifted, then, cedes tremendous control to someone else. And the only person Charlie trusts that much is Lucy.
Every week for the last six years, Yang has driven himself to Seattle and Tacoma and back for one simple, exhausting reason: “This the freshest way to get fish.”
And so we’re passing through Moses Lake at around 6 am, eating Daifuku, a glutinous, sweet rice and bean cake, rubbing our eyes. We’re in Ellensburg at 7:30, gassing up. Yang admired America before he ever lived here, he says. In Korea, he was born into poverty. The whole country was, at that time. “In the 1950 war, we didn’t have any food, any shirts, nothing,” He said, “United States helped. Even now.”
At 9 am, we’re turning off I-90, hurtling down into Factoria, onto the Coal Creek Parkway and into Newcastle, one of the many ‘burbs that dot the hills and valleys east of Seattle.
Yang is dissecting fish in his mind. “The belly part is the best, except for halibut.” With halibut, you want to eat the meat around the dorsal and anal fins — the side meat. “It has the best taste,” Yang says.
And, just like that, we’re at our first stop.
Gina Yang was 3 when her father left Korea for America in 1976. She was 8 when he brought the family over. They lived first in Las Vegas, but Lucy didn’t like it. “She doesn’t gamble,” Charlie says, so he took an offer to manage the Shogun restaurant in Federal Way. In 1986, Charlie opened his first restaurant in Seattle’s Pioneer Square, a 300-seat mammoth called China Carpet on the corner of Occidental and Yesler. It’s been all sushi since.
As Charlie bobs hyperactively around her living room with McKenna, his granddaughter, Gina — now Gina Hall — says she worries about her father making these weekly trips. “He’s 60,” she says. Charlie’s first stop is always here, though, to Gina’s home in Newcastle, so at least she knows he’s made the first leg safely.
Charlie never stands still. He jumps and shouts and squeals with McKenna, who on this particular morning isn’t really having it.
And then, just as suddenly as we arrived, we’re off again. Gina calls out, “Good luck keeping up with him.”
We stop briefly at Uwajimaya, a big, famous grocery in Seattle’s International District, in a failed search for geoduck (generally pronounced “gooey duck”), a massive burrowing clam native to the Northwest. On the way to Little Saigon and a place called Lam’s, we pass the corner of Maynard and King, the site of Yang’s third restaurant — the one he sold in 2002 in preparation for his move to Spokane.
The spaces at Lam’s Seafood are incredibly narrow, but Charlie is wily, snaking through aisles packed with shoppers to the ice beds and live tanks at the back.
He looks over the sea bream, flipping the fish from side to side, running his finger along the belly. He’s happy with four, which he tosses to Toan Huynh, behind the counter, to clean and package. He does the same with the branzino fish —the sides should still feel tender, the gills can’t be too dark — striped bass and tai (Japanese) snapper. Lastly, he sees a fish labeled “Hasa Hasa.”
“Spanish mackerel,” he says, “very sweet.” He lays two fish side by side and points to the eyes. Around the pupils, one has a kind of metallic light gray color. The other eye has a hint of pinkish-red. “Red,” he says, “almost spoiled.”
These are not huge differences in color that Charlie is looking for.
A couple of the fish he rejects have just a hint of reddishness. I stop for a moment to have a closer look at the eyes. This turns out to be a tactical error.
When I look up from the case, Charlie is gone. I look down the back aisle one way; nothing. The other; nothing. I squeeze my way back to the front. He’s not in line to check out. I walk to the entrance. He’s not at the truck. I’m looking for his wisp of hair. I’m looking for his beige on gray Hawaiian shirt. I’m seeing nothing.I walk back to the fish cases and stand on my tiptoes. There, to the left, crouching down, is Charlie, behind the counter with Huynh and the other fishmongers, shoveling ice into a large Styrofoam casket that he has brought with him.
Outside, he takes the fish out of their bags and begins to wrap them individually. He points to the blood and viscera pooled in the old bags. “You leave in there,” he says, “they spoil soon.” He transfers the fish into an Igloo cooler, the 4-foot-long tailgating kind.
At Wong Tung Seafood, a nook in a strip mall with a sign on the register that reads “Cash Only,” Charlie tells me he’s looking for a lobster for a “very special sashimi.” His regular customers come to the downtown location on Thursdays right as Sushiyama opens. Charlie says they have very discerning palates. It’s not unheard of for his regulars to spend $100 on a lunch.
Unlike many of the places we visit, Wong Tung is mostly live tanks, stacked in terraces along both walls. Charlie orders six pounds of shrimp, and Quong Ngo has to stand on a stool in order to bring them up by the wriggling scoopful.
Charlie looks for geoduck here too, but the tanks are also empty. He orders oysters before helping himself to the lobster tank, tonging them one by one. He flips them over to inspect their bellies and their claws. Charlie rejects a dozen before finding something suitable.
He lays a piece of cardboard on top of the ice in the long white Igloo cooler, and sets the lobster on top of it. He lays his hands flat, pantomiming the cardboard. “Don’t want it too cold,” he says, “the lobster will die.” It’s important that the lobster be alive until the absolute last moment. That’s what will make the sashimi very special. The feelers of the lobster move languorously in the bag as Charlie closes the lid.
Charlie finds a parking spot in front of the theatrical hullabaloo at Pike Place Fish Market, home of the fish-chuckers, but our destination is further down. Charlie grabs an empty Igloo and begins weaving through the crowds of tourists toward Pure Food Fish Market.
He sidles up to Manager Harry Calvo and speaks in low tones. Calvo returns with a broad, thick hunk of fish. “This is very special order,” Charlie says. He turns the slab over, exposing shimmering opalescent spots on its skin. “Moon fish,” he says. “Very buttery.”
Calvo shows us a side of marlin, which Charlie declares “very, very fresh.”
Charlie gets swordfish from Hawaii, mahi mahi and a massive piece of tuna that Calvo leans over with a broad knife. Charlie tells him exactly where to cut.
This has become a tradition of Charlie’s midweek trips, and the two men have a comfortable acquaintance with each other. Calvo displays a good-natured resignation about the inevitability of Charlie’s needs: “It’s gotta be fresh or he won’t buy it.”
This is the feeling throughout. Whether in Chinatown or at Pike Place, Charlie has an effect on every vendor. The men who inhabit these businesses are used to being the experts. They aren’t accustomed to having someone look over their shoulders.
Charlie treats the shops like a second home, though, going behind the counter and shoveling through the ice bins.
Charlie heads further in, toward the produce and fresh flowers. At an unmarked stall next to Martin Family Orchards, he buys a large bouquet of lilies the color of Lucy’s fresh juice — a deep, otherworldly peach.Charlie tells me we’re bound next for the endless warehouses of Kent.
As we reach the crowd around the fish-chuckers, though, Charlie disappears again.
A short minute later: “Albacore!” His head bobs above the throng of tourists, jumping to get my attention. “Luke! Albacore!” He hasn’t had albacore in weeks because they haven’t had it here.
“This is the only place to get it fresh,” he says when I reach him.
Charlie carefully examines a half-dozen albacore and picks two, handing one to an employee with a ponytail. “Be careful,” Charlie says.
“I think Charlie just told me to ‘be careful,’” the man hollers in mock disbelief. His co-workers laugh. The man looks half-annoyed, but then, rather than chucking the 22-pound fish over the counter and delighting the crowd, he carefully walks it around and back. Charlie follows him.
From here we go to Kent, to the Ranch Grocery in the Great Wall Mall, then on to Young Ocean — a company whose name, one imagines, might easily be a mistranslation of “fresh fish” — and on to SEASIA, warehouses all dedicated to the stock in trade of Asian food and the implements thereof: Calrose rice, seaweed, daikon radish and sea cucumber, along with a dozen other items.
At SEASIA, Charlie’s order isn’t quite ready. They’re still packing it up. Charlie goes to the bathroom and comes back: still no order. Standing at the counter, with nothing to do but wait, Charlie Yang starts running in place.
The only time Charlie stops all day, in fact, is in Federal Way. He had jumped around with his granddaughter and run around frantically from vendor to vendor and warehouse to warehouse, but now he’s totally still, hands clasped.
In front of him, in a brass vase, sit the lilies the color of his wife’s juice. Just beyond him sits a grave marker that reads:
Bobby Yang August 30, 1981 – December 14, 2000
Charlie spends a moment in prayer and then cleans the marker.
With a pair of shears, he trims the grass around the marker, then waters the flowers. He puts his hand to the boy’s picture. As he stands, he says, “I love you,” and makes the Sign of the Cross.
Charlie says Bobby hit a patch of black ice and ran headfirst into a barrier on the freeway, and he wasn’t wearing his seat belt. Charlie says these things matter-of-factly, without much elaboration, because traces of sadness still persist.
Charlie comes here every week. His is a ritualized mourning. Ten years on, it is expressive more of love for his son than grief. It also expresses the dedication that runs through every facet of his life.
If it weren’t for Bobby’s death, Charlie Yang probably would never have moved to Spokane. He started looking for a buyer for his two 300-seat restaurants almost immediately afterward. “It’s too much headache,” he says. The couple of dozen seats he has at the Spokane locations are much more manageable.
On the ride down to Tacoma for the final stop of the day, Charlie doesn’t say much. He talks about how Bobby was a Junior Olympian in Tae Kwon Do, and how Gina met the first president Bush and how she’s “an important lady."
Our final stop is at Paldo World Market on South Tacoma Way, where Charlie pries live abalone off the side of a tank with deli tongs and picks up most of the produce for the week.
The truck is pointed northeastward by 4:20 pm, and for once Charlie is expressing annoyance. The last stop — which included a late lunch of Korean barbecue — took too long and now he worries we’ll get caught in traffic.
We do. We arrive in Airway Heights just after 9 pm, Charlie unloads the truck with his employees, then begins filleting the hundreds of pounds of fish he’s bought — a task he sets about with precision and three knives no one else touches. There’s a line on the horizon again, the sky a gradient of reddish to yellowish. Charlie will be here long after it’s gone, filleting until 1 am.
He’ll be up again tomorrow at 7 am, to prepare for his regular customers.
The next day, I meet some of Charlie’s regulars. “We don’t even ask him,” says Brad Nelson, “He just gives us the best stuff.” Six people are sitting at the bar at Sushiyama on Third Avenue.
Five, including Nelson, are urologists from Sacred Heart and one, a plastic surgeon named Ed Chang, has come all the way down from Holy Family in North Spokane.
The lobster that Yang got from Wong Tung has made it through alive. It now sits atop the sushi case, floundering sluggishly, a portent of things to come.
With the exception of Chang, the doctors are here every Thursday. They don’t take meetings on Thursdays, Nelson says, and “we reschedule flights.”The others nod their assent, but their mouths are full, so Nelson on, acting as the group’s spokesman. “We’ve all eaten sushi in many, many cities and many, many places and we can unequivocally say that this,” he says, gesturing with a piece of sashimi, “is the best.”
They’ve all ordered “Charlie’s Choice,” a menu item with no fixed price and no set dishes. Yang simply makes sushi and sashimi from whatever catch is freshest. He’ll continue feeding you until you capitulate.
Nelson and his crew, though, are seasoned veterans. I arrived at 11:30 am, to find them seated, two or three courses deep. When I leave around 2 pm, I’ll say goodbye and they’ll wave, still planted on their barstools.
For now, though, all eyes are on Yang and the lobster, which has been quickly cracked, de-limbed and stripped of its tail meat, and now sits on a small platter garnished with its own claws, bearing a bed of shredded daikon radish and carefully diced tail meat. Yang passes the plate to Lou Koncz, and the revelers descend upon it.
“This sashimi very fresh,” Charlie Yang says, the lobster’s feelers still moving languidly, and all the urologists agree.