For nearly a dozen years, Sakae Yuizumi has stood behind the red diner counter at Yu-Raku in San Mateo to dish out saucy mabo dofu and steaming-hot bowls of champon—an impressive repertoire of Chinese comfort foods, all cooked to suit Japanese tastes. In a city known for being the region’s epicenter of Japanese food culture, there might not be any single restaurant that is more beloved among the Japanese expats and immigrants who make up the bulk of its customer base.
Now, all that is coming to an end: Yu-Raku will close next month so that Yuizumi and his wife Yoko, who runs the restaurant with him, can retire. The last day of service will be on Sunday, May 15.
“We have the most Japanese customers here of any place in the Bay Area,” Yuizumi says in Mandarin when reached by phone at the end of a busy lunch shift. (He’s Japanese but was born and raised in Shanghai before his family moved back to Japan’s Shizuoka prefecture when he was 13.)
It’s for good reason that Yu-Raku is so popular among Japanese expats even as it’s less well known to the broader public. The cozy little restaurant in downtown San Mateo is one of the very few restaurants in Northern California that specializes in chuka ryori, or Japanese-style Chinese food. It’s the type of Chinese food that you can find in Yokohama’s historic Chinatown, for instance. For many Japanese people, the cuisine is one of their most nostalgic comfort foods—all the more so here in the Bay Area because there are so few restaurants that offer it.
So, Yuizumi says, Yu-Raku routinely gets customers who will drive up from Sunnyvale or Santa Clara for dinner. On any given night, you’re likely to hear more Japanese being spoken in the dining room than English.