One of the owners at Oki Japanese Steakhouse – Mr. Yukio Oki – Photo Credit: Cliff Hutchins with Stonewash Magazine

Tradition is strongly dependent on location, on locality, on the people who live in a certain place and believe in a certain set of practices. Often tradition does not have a reason to move beyond those boundaries. It remains local – familiar to residents and strange to visitors. However, throughout history, pioneers and trailblazers have carried their traditions abroad and shared them with the people they have encountered – for better or worse. The world of cuisine is a fertile one for positive cross-pollinations. In most cases, it is a fascinating thing to discover the myriad ways in which people and cultures all over the globe address the basic need for food – one which all human beings share.

Yukio Oki left Japan for the United States in 1967. Thought the US and Japan had been bitter enemies less than 25 years before, relations were improving and Oki saw an opportunity to seek his fortune in a new land. He was armed not just with ambition, but also with the traditions of his upbringing – unique perspectives on food and dining that were simply not familiar to the vast majority of people living in the States.

Oki settled in Rhode Island in 1968 and began at Magic Chef in North Providence. He observed closely every aspect of the restaurant business, and kept a keen eye and ear on the subtleties of American culture. After earning his stripes at Magic Chef – rising from dishwasher to partner in a mere five years – Oki decided that he wanted to open a restaurant that reflected his Japanese heritage, introducing his adopted region to the food he grew to love while working at his family’s restaurant in Osaka. In 1970s Rhode Island, both the Japanese population and visible signs of Japanese culture were few, and Oki saw an untouched canvas on which to paint a picture of Japanese cuisine for his new audience.

 

 

Photo Credit: Cliff Hutchins with Stonewash Magazine

 

 

Oki opened, Oki Japanese Steakhouse in July 1976, at 1270 Mineral Spring Avenue in North Providence – the same location the restaurant occupies now. It was the first restaurant of its kind in Rhode Island.

Japanese teppanyaki cooking (commonly known as hibachi in North America) is unique for its emphasis on cooking-as-spectacle. Hibachi chefs prepare meals directly in front of the diners who have ordered them, at a flat steel grill built into the dining table. Chefs are expected to prepare the meals with flair, wielding spatulas, knives, barbeque forks and squeeze-bottles like warriors performing an ancient dance. Ingredients for hibachi include Japanese staple vegetables as well as rice, but much of the emphasis is placed on meat and seafood.

 

 

 

 

 

Photo Credit: Cliff Hutchins with Stonewash Magazine

 

Oki moved a team of skilled chefs from Japan to Rhode Island in order to ensure the authenticity of the experience. The move paid off. “Right after we opened we were so busy,” Oki recalls. Uniqueness within the area was a significant factor in the early success. “This was original. Nobody knew what hibachi was all about… We did the first one, so we were busy.”

 

The restaurant was ahead of its time in another big way – sushi. While maki, nigiri, sashimi and other hallmarks of the style are ubiquitous now, there was hardly a craze for raw fish sweeping the Atlantic Northeast in the mid-1970s. Oki offered not one, but two unique glimpses into Japanese culinary life.

 

Oki Japanese Steakhouse became a mainstay in the area, earning many regular customers with its emphasis on quality and consistency, as well as its unique menu and hibachi-style preparations. After more than three-decades at the helm however, Oki decided that he wanted to retire. He sold the business and stepped away in 2012. Unfortunately, the restaurant fell into decline, and ultimately closed in July 2013, some 37 years after its opening.

 

Oki stayed in contact with the owner of the restaurant property, Sal Esposito. Both Oki and Esposito were very disappointed to see the legacy of Oki Japanese Steakhouse tarnished with a shabby ending. They decided to revive the restaurant under a new business partnership, with Oki managing the day-to-day operations once again. Once the plan was settled a massive renovation took place, with the entire interior undergoing a drastic transformation.

 

Hibachi can be tough on the inside of a restaurant. With the vast majority of the cooking happening out in the dining area, grease and other byproducts can build up on surfaces and in various corners and crevices. The old restaurant was weathered beyond repair. The overhaul was an opportunity to update, and the results were exceedingly sleek and modern. The restaurant’s room-length window onto Mineral Spring – previously blacked out – was uncovered to allow natural light into the dining area. Worn carpeting was replaced with distinguished hardwood. The 12 original hibachi grills (steel slabs weighing about 600 lbs. each) were retained, but their surrounding tables were replaced with dark, sturdy granite. Four more hibachi tables were added, bringing the total to 16. The full-service bar was updated as well, with a stainless steel surface and track lighting. The sushi bar was updated, and large-screen TVs were added to both bars. Colorful LED lights can be seen on the undersides of many of the furnishings, giving the space a global, cosmopolitan feel, especially after dark. A decorative waterfall is situated at the juncture of the hibachi dining area and the bar-lounge area, with a friendly hostess-Lisa Fontirossi. Oki says that it is a great place for families, or anyone else, to stop for a quick photo. A regular cleaning crew was hired to ensure that the new interior retains its function and appeal as it ages.

 

Head Chef- Aloun Pathammavong – Photo Credit: Cliff Hutchins with Stonewash Magazine

 

Aloun Pathammavong – or Chef Al, as he is more commonly known – is the head chef at Oki Japanese Steakhouse. He started at the restaurant in 1989 and worked his way to the top. Reserved in conversation, he becomes larger than life behind the hibachi, deftly slicing and turning, and showing off every now and then with a trick – like flipping an egg into his distinctive red toque. Chef Al was also disappointed with Oki’s closing, and was happy to receive the call asking him to assist with the restaurant’s revival.

“I love to cook, I love this place. That’s why I’ve been here more than 20 years,” Chef Al says. For many of his skills he gives credit to the Japanese head chefs he learned from early on. He now manages a team of several veteran chefs – each having more than five years of experience at Oki Japanese Steakhouse. On a busy night, up to six chefs can be working at once, rolling carts of fresh ingredients from table to table, setting up and engaging in their unique brand of culinary performance art.

Oki Japanese Steakhouse reopened on March 14th, 2014 – a little over a year ago. Oki, Chef Al and Esposito all agree that perhaps the hardest part of the new launch has been getting the word out about the re-opening. “We tried to do advertising but it’s not saturated yet,” Oki says. “A lot of people coming here still didn’t know we were open. They just found out recently from word-of-mouth.” Oki and Esposito used radio advertisement, a billboard and social media to announce the return of the restaurant, but were not always able to reach their target audience.

The specter of those last dim months after Oki’s retirement also haunt the new enterprise. In some corners of the internet, the reviews for that period have carried over and are mixed in with the new reviews. Oki, Esposito and the rest of the team are careful to distinguish the new from the old. They have created a new website (www.okisback.com), as well as new Facebook and Twitter pages.

However, there are some distinctions that are harder to make. There are a fair number of gift certificates, Groupons and other vouchers purchased during the old regime that are still within their expiration dates. Oki says that although the new restaurant is a new company, he will usually honor the vouchers in some way, because “The customer is right. Always right.”

There is another challenges that Oki Japanese Steakhouse must surmount in order to survive. While the restaurant offered a singular experience in Rhode Island in the early years, there are now several other hibachi-style restaurants in the area. In many cases, Oki created his own competition. “A lot of people out there at other steakhouses used to work here,” he says. “They graduated Oki School.

 

Sushi has also integrated itself into the American food landscape, sometimes appearing at grocery and even convenience stores, not to mention the many dedicated restaurants that have sprung up over the decades. While Oki Japanese Steakhouse has fresh fish and many signature rolls – carefully prepared by the restaurant’s experienced sushi chefs – it is no longer the only game in town.

 

Oki is fighting back with a number of events designed to make full use of the restaurant’s space, and its unique identity. The hibachi style of cooking blends spectacle, performance, heat, aroma and sound into a full sensory experience. The energy that is created is ideally suited for large groups out making merry. “They enjoy the food, enjoy the show, more atmosphere for the parties,” Oki says. In recent weeks the restaurant has hosted bachelor parties of up to 80 people, as well as large birthday parties with 40 or more guests.

 

Every Wednesday is ladies night at Oki Japanese Steakhouse. Ladies receive a 50% discount on both food and drinks. There is live music on the Wednesdays, as well as on selected Fridays and Saturdays. Guests are encouraged to stay after dinner and enjoy a nightcap, leaving their cars in the free, spacious parking lot behind the restaurant, and saving a drive to downtown Providence. Performances from singers like Sarah Barbosa offer guests a night-out feel as they relax in the remodeled ambience.

 

Long time customers of Oki Japanese Steakhouse – Anthony Sanmartino with Wife and Children – Photo Credit: Cliff Hutchins with Stonewash Magazine

Customers of Oki Japanese Steakhouse – Mr. and Mrs. McKaine – Photo Credit: Cliff Hutchins with Stonewash Magazine

 

But family dining is also a significant part of Oki Japanese Steakhouse and its continued success. Here Oki can see the fruits of his decades of labor, dating all the way back to those early days in the 1970s. “Customers were kids, they used to come here. Now they’re married, they have their own kids, they bring the kids in now,” Oki says. “We’re on the second generation.”

Speaking of family, Oki Japanese Steakhouse is open in the afternoon once a year, on a special day. In 2015 that day is Sunday May 10th – Mother’s Day. The restaurant will host a promotion Oki and Chef Al refer to – with some laughter – as “Bring your mom to Japan.” Details will be available on the restaurant website and social media.

It is hard to get a sense of the excitement and motion of a hibachi-style dinner simply by speaking with Oki and Chef Al. It’s also hard to imagine the taste of the house-made, sauce and salad dressing they both speak of with pride. Oki and Chef Al themselves know that it is difficult to convey in so many words the flashing spatulas and billowing flames, the flying shrimp and sizzling steak. This is why, in the words of Chef Al, people “have to come check it out themselves.”

Written by David Sano 

 

 

 

 

Oki Japanese Steakhouse

1270 Mineral Spring Ave, North Providence, RI 02904

(401) 728-7970

www.okisback.com

Oki Japanese Steakhouse – Photo Gallery

Photo Credit: Cliff Hutchins with Stonewash Magazine 

 

 

 

 

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