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Pagoda restaurant changes hands, but the tradition and menu stay the same

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 20 2010 12:00 a.m. MST

Mother Dora Iwasaki, center, 85; son Mark Iwasaki; and daughter-in-law Jodi Iwasaki stand in front of their family restaurant, Pagoda.

Michael Brandy, Deseret News

The story of the Pagoda restaurant is more than tempura and teriyaki, or foo yong and fried rice.

It's about a 64-year-old culinary landmark at 26 E St., made from scratch by Fujio and Dora Iwasaki.

It's about loyalty to one's family, to one's customers and to a country despite prejudice.

It's about lasting friendships from all walks of life.

Pagoda's founder, Fujio "Fudge" Iwasaki, who passed away Dec. 31 at age 89, counted some of Utah's elite as longtime patrons and friends, including former Utah Jazz player and restaurateur Mark Eaton, former U.S. Sen. Jake Garn and Utah Jazz owner Gail Miller. But these folks also shared the Pagoda's dining room with countless lesser-known folks, some who could only afford to go out to eat once a year.

"We got to be a part of all these people, and they were all important to us," said Jodi Iwasaki, daughter-in-law of Fudge and Dora Iwasaki.

"We had one family that came just once a year, for a special occasion, for 55 years."

In fact, Jodi's family was one of those who came to the Pagoda on special occasions. That's how she met the owners' son Mark, who became her husband. The couple have worked at the restaurant for the past 29 years.

Last September, with the blessing of Mark's parents, they began leasing the Pagoda to Marlene Noda and Danny Temkin. Noda was a sushi chef at Ginza, and her parents owned The Hibachi, an early Japanese restaurant in Salt Lake City. She has expanded the sushi menu but kept all the old Pagoda favorites. In addition to dinner Tuesday through Sunday, the restaurant is now open for lunch on Tuesday through Friday.

"It was important to us that my dad was happy for us," said Mark Iwasaki about the decision to lease out the restaurant. "My mom was happy for us, because she knows how hard the business is. The restaurant was their life."

The move enabled Mark and Jodi to spend more time with their dad in his last months, which would have been impossible if they were still working the long hours at the restaurant. (Mark's older brother, Paul, and sister, Sandy, are not involved in running the Pagoda.)

In an interview with family members at the Pagoda last week, the phrase that kept coming up was "hard work."

"I can't come close to working as long or as hard as my parents," Mark said. "But I think my wife has worked as hard as they did. For years, she has taught school all day and then worked at the restaurant at night."

Fujio Iwasaki's father, Bunjiro, immigrated to the United States about 1890. Fujio was born in 1920 while the family was living in Burley, Idaho. The family moved to Salt Lake City and operated Manhattan Cafe and Colonial Hotel, located where the Salt Palace Convention Center is now. This area of Salt Lake City was known as Japan Town.

Fujio's wife, Dora Kuwabara, grew up in Davis County, where her father was a sharecropper. The family moved to California just as World War II broke out. The bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese stunned America. In the fearful climate that followed, the U.S. government interred Japanese Americans living on the West Coast into "war relocation camps." Dora's family was interred at Gila Bend, Ariz., for three years.

"We lost everything," she said. Even so, her brother enlisted in the U.S. military and served as an interpreter in the Pacific during the war.

"I always say the second generation (of Japanese Americans), the Nisei, are a special generation," Mark said. "They were interred in camps and had everything taken away from them, and then when they were asked to fight for their country, they did. Their work ethic is incredible. They made everything possible for my generation."

When the war ended, Dora's family moved to Salt Lake City, "Because we had nothing, and we knew a family there who would help us. I came out of camp with no money, no friends and no skills."

She and Fujio married in 1947. He had opened The Pagoda in 1946. It was a challenge just to get a business loan for the new venture.

"He went from bank to bank," Dora recalled. "He had a lot of friends, but everyone was afraid to take the risk."

They finally secured a loan with the Continental Bank, now the U.S. Bank. Out of loyalty they have stayed with that bank ever since, Mark said.

They opened at 142½ W. 100 South, in the basement of the Colonial Hotel.

"When we first opened, people were afraid to go down to the basement," recalled Dora.

The restrooms were tiny, and in the men's room, patrons had to duck to avoid a pipe that hung down from the wall.

Ameo Akiyama, a chef from Portland affectionately called "Junior," was the main cook, "and everybody learned from him," said Dora.

Some Chinese dishes, such as egg foo yong and chow mein, were on the menu, "because it wasn't popular to open a Japanese restaurant after World War II. So they presented it to the public as an Asian restaurant," said Judi Komatsu. Her mother, a sister to Fujio, worked at the Pagoda from the early years.

"A lot of Japanese teenagers got their first jobs there, because there was a lot of prejudice and nobody would hire them," said Komatsu.

Fujio's sister, Tsuru, known as "Mary," worked as a hostess for 55 years. The restaurant also had seven employees who worked there 42 years. "So when Mark and I say we've worked here 29 years, it almost doesn't count," said Jodi Iwasaki.

When it became apparent that the area of Japan Town was the site chosen for the Salt Palace, the Iwasakis relocated the Pagoda to its present spot on E Street, just north of South Temple.

"What helped the most from the beginning were our old friends, who came and brought others in by word of mouth," Dora said.

One of those loyal patrons was Janet Redenbaugh. When her husband, Russell, was the president of the Kiwanis Club, the group met at the Pagoda once a month.

"It became a family place for us," she said. "When my son was blinded as a teenager and was in the hospital, Fudge said to bring a date to come to the hospital, and he sent over some dinner to them. He was always doing kind things like that. We were in the candy business, and whenever we brought him some candy, he was so appreciative."

Redenbaugh introduced her brother, former U.S. Sen. Jake Garn, to restaurant, as they met there for family dinners. Garn, who took part in a space flight, later brought some of the NASA's astronauts there for dinner.

"We never looked at the menu, we just asked for 'the usual,' because we always had a complete dinner," Redenbaugh recalled. "And when Fudge would introduce something new, he would send it out to the table for us to try."

The Pagoda became a post-game hangout for Utah Jazz players. They were even known to help out a little.

Mark recalled that on a busy night, Jazz owner Larry Miller answered the restaurant's ringing phone and attempted to take down a takeout order. On another busy night, John Stockton seated waiting customers at a table. "He pulled out the chair for the woman and gave them a couple of menus, and I don't think they had any idea who he was."

In the early days, the restaurant bought rice by the semitrailer-truckload from California and stored it for the whole year. "When the truck came, everyone had to come and help unload all theses 100-pound bags," said Mark Iwasaki.

For years, Dora was responsible for prepping the tempura shrimp, which had to be "butterflied," sliced in half lengthwise down the back of the shrimp.

"We stopped butterflying it last year, because it takes so much time, and the labor that goes into it," said Mark. "My mother taught me how to cook the shrimp. The temperature has to be exactly right for frying."

"Mark is a perfectionist on that," said Marlene Noda. "When I came, he taught me everything, and he has this down to a science."

He also learned a lot from working with his father in the kitchen, too. "It wasn't formal teaching. My dad was more like, 'Watch and learn.' "

Over the years, a few things have changed. "We haven't changed any of the sauces, but we switched our sweet & sour ribs to babyback ribs, because they're a lot more tender, and you get more meat," Mark said.

Sushi was added to the menu last year — something that few Americans had heard of when the restaurant first opened.

"People love the Pagoda food, and you don't want to mess with a good thing," Noda said. "We have the same cooks in the back, and I go out and greet every single table like Jodi did."

And, as always, the Pagoda's roof is still a major attraction for pigeons, just as it's been for years.

"For some reason, it's a favorite sunning spot for them," said Jodi Iwasaki. "I always felt that the pigeons brought us good luck."

e-mail: vphillips@desnews.com

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