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Restaurateur Phu Tran has navigated tricky business waters before.
But never quite like this.
Tran, who owns RiceWorks restaurants in Meridian and Kuna, purchased Kyoto Japanese Restaurant in Boise after it closed in early 2021. He remodeled the venerable teppanyaki and sushi destination. Nearly a year after Kyoto had shuttered, he unveiled the reborn space at 6002 W. Fairview Ave. in mid-February.
To a whole new world.
Of worker shortages. Of higher food costs. Of evolving restaurant models.
To many of the same longtime customers.
“It’s very wild,” Tran, 34, admits. “The biggest challenge for me through this whole thing is I’ve never reopened an existing restaurant. It comes with its own list of challenges. Like, the expectations are you get pulled several different ways: ‘Don’t change anything. Do it exactly the same.’
“Which is virtually impossible, because I’m a different individual.”
Tran has maintained the heart and soul of Kyoto: entertaining table-side grilling. Want to catch a shrimp in your mouth tossed by a skillful hibachi chef? You can do that. “This is basically steak and seafood with a show,” Tran says.
Response has been “really positive,” he adds.
But even the smallest changes at Kyoto had potential to loom large. Since reopening, he estimates that customers have been about 80 percent ex-regulars.
“Surprisingly, I haven’t gotten much flak for the remodel,” Tran says. “Some people are like, ‘It’s a little dark.’ But really what we did was create a more intimate setting. Part of that restaurant is the fire and the volcano and the chefs cooking. When you tone down the restaurant all around, those things stick out more when it happens.”
Tran understands when customers reminisce about the old days. He was maybe 12 years old when he first set foot inside Kyoto. His father was a teppanyaki chef there for several years, Tran says, working for the original owner.
So Tran made sure Kyoto’s new menu is much like the old one. Still, there were minor modifications.
For one thing? The sushi menu has been tightened.
But if you don’t see your favorite roll on the menu anymore? The Lisa Roll — seared tuna — for example?
Ask for it. There’s a secret menu at Kyoto now.
“Getting rid of stuff was really my intention,” Tran admits. “But as I thought about it … ‘We’ll throw this on a secret menu.’
“I know a lot of people enjoy the secret menu. It’s like In-N-Out, right? They have some secret items on their menu. If you know, you know.”
Kyoto’s prior owners dedicated many sushi rolls to regulars. That Lisa Roll, for example.
“… I haven’t met her,” Tran says. “But it’s really cool to meet the people the sushi rolls are named after.”
As customers make more suggestions, the secret menu probably will evolve, Tran says.
A ‘legendary’ place
Customers have been invaluable to Kyoto’s return — and not just because their patronage pays the bills. During these initial weeks, they’ve helped Kyoto iron out menu details. “We didn’t get everything right off the bat,” Tran says candidly.
Either way, the enthusiasm about Kyoto’s return is evident.
“Same old awesome Kyotos. Loved it last Friday!!” one man posted on the restaurant’s Facebook page. “My one suggestion? Light that front sign up so everyone driving down Fairview knows where to stop for dinner at night.”
Looking up at that sign, Tran can be proud. He’s worked hard to keep an Asian dining institution in Boise alive. Kyoto first opened in 1991.
“I picked it up on the 30th year,” Tran says. “Three decades of business. That’s why I call it legendary.”
▪ Kyoto currently offers seated dining and takeout from 4 to 9 p.m. Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays, and from 4 to 10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Walk-ins are welcome, but reservations are recommended Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. Phone: (208) 378-8808.
This story was originally published April 12, 2022 4:00 AM.