Niki Lalley, theTokyo-born septuagenarian who opened San Antonio’s first sushi restaurant, Niki’s Tokyo Inn at Hildebrand and Blanco, in 1970, is full of surprises. First of all, the reason they don’t advertise is because they actually don’t want any more customers. Their hands are full as it is. Secondly, Niki doesn’t actually like sushi. Third, well ... she’s a vivid character. Sukoshi Nihongo ga hanaseru, so I sat down with her at the bar one afternoon.
I don’t like English.
Well, we can try a little bit of both, OK?
Daijoobu. Well do you have questions for me?
No, I don’t know why you gonna come over here and talk to me about.
We’re just interested in anything you can tell us about sushi.
So many sushi bars everywhere. You should go to talk over there.
When I first came here, I thought this is the closest thing to an izakaya I’ve been to in America ... Here, this is very, very authentic.
And reasonable. We don’t charge so much, you know, like other people.
Has it always looked like this?
No, used to ... I don’t know when we started sushi ... nobody opened a sushi, we were the first one open a sushi. Then ... other places started to open. I don’t think San Antonio ready for the sushi. Then we started, television they come over, you know, octopus and everything, they think so interesting. Everybody, I’m on television. The newspaper, everywhere, because no sushi bar here. Then we got so many customers we can’t even take care of them.
When you first opened, what did Texans, what did people from San Antonio think?
Some first time they come they don’t like raw, like that. You know, I said, if you can eat the pussy you can eat the fish, no problem.
So, I think a lot of people, maybe they learned how to eat sushi from coming here.
Yeah, yeah, we teach them. You know. But they order something real funny sushi. They want tempura in the sushi, and mayonnaise. I’m sorry, you go someplace else.
When I come here I notice that the nigiri is totemo okii `very big`.
Yeah! We prepare for American people, you know? Little gohan `rice` like that, we are cut so big, tuna and everything. They, American people, they don’t get full with small sushi like in Japan. So, we made it big for American, for San Antonio. Maybe people in New York they eat like Tokyo-style, but you know how big things are in San Antonio.
Something that’s also very interesting is that I notice all of your chefs are female. And that’s not something you see in Tokyo.
We can’t get people in San Antonio. Who’s stupid come to San Antonio to make a living? What kind of job you get, you Japanese? There’s two guys speak English, same education, one in America one in Japan. Who you gonna take? Who you gonna hire? American, right? No Japanese, so Japanese men don’t come around. You know, you’ve been to Japan. They don’t want to come over and get jobs. They might get educated in America, but not a job.
Do a lot of Japanese people come to here?
Yeah, Toyota. See, I don’t advertise, so tourists and everybody they pass. They don’t never come over. But they gonna stay one week maybe five days they go down someplace, they don’t like the way they make. So they find us. We here. They go, this is good, just like Japan. Some of them think we are better than Japanese restaurant. Central Market, like that, they’re all Americanized. Everywhere you go, everything American. They not cook like home. We are everything homemade, even tamago yaki.
What is your favorite kind of sushi, ichiban suki?
You know, I used to, before the war. I don’t even eat the fish, I don’t eat the meat. I’m kinda like a vegetarian. I don’t care for too much sushi. The chef, she like hamachi. She think hamachi the best. We order the tuna from California. You can buy local, but they no good. We used one store and we don’t like it. •
Niki’s shoyu and wasabi instructions
“People like the fish, they don’t use much soy sauce. Just a little bit. American people use so much soy sauce. You don’t taste the sushi, you’re eating soy sauce.”
“Don’t put too much, but American they use a lot of wasabi. We get the wasabi in the sushi so you don’t even need it in the soy sauce. But people, they are paying, so we give it to them. But we tell them you shouldn’t eat like that.”