Many of us have a favorite gas station or dry cleaner. But we’d never talk about and defend those places as passionately as we do our favorite restaurants. Why? Because at the best restaurants, basic sustenance becomes a work of art, a shared source of joy, an affirmation of what it means to be human. Rarely do we get to know the alchemists who make it all possible—the chef or the supplier, the server or the sommelier. But for almost 20 years, I knew two such alchemists well. They were Yosh and Yuri Maki, and they ran a small Japanese restaurant, Atch-Kotch, in a Hollywood strip mall that itself would be forgettable if not for all of the unforgettable experiences I had there.
I started eating at Atch-Kotch in the early ’90s. I fell in love with the food and the bohemian spirit that infused the place. Its specialty was Japanese country-style cooking, aka Japanese comfort food. I drank enough of Yosh’s miso ramen to fill a pond (and soothe at least ten of my sore throats). My son knew how to order spicy garlic tofu before he could ever identify a chicken nugget. The salmon collar had just the right char; the mustard eggplant, the perfect kick.
I fell for the owners even harder. They were a generation older than I. Yuri ran the counter—when she wasn’t at her table embroidering a onesie for a customer’s new baby or trying to improve my husband’s spotty Japanese. Yosh worked the wok and kept our glasses of Sapporo chilled and filled. No matter how hard a day I had, I knew that when I opened the door of Atch-Kotch, I’d be welcomed by two of my best friends. Surrounded by the food I loved without even having to order, I’d remain there long after the plates were cleared and the open sign was extinguished and my son had drifted to sleep on the banquette. As we laughed and swapped stories and hugged good-bye, for the life of me I’d be unable to recall what had been stressing me when I’d arrived.
In February 2010, Yuri sent us an abrupt e-mail: Her persistent cold turned out to be lung cancer, and she had left L.A. to access decent health care in Japan. She died a few months later. Yosh couldn’t go it alone and sold the restaurant. Losing Yuri, then the restaurant, then Yosh when he moved to Tokyo to be near his grandchildren tore enormous holes in our hearts and lives. Before he left L.A., Yosh cooked for us and our other friends (who loved him as well) one last time, at our house. He left behind his tabletop stove and pot, asking us to carry on the tradition.
Thinking about food—the way we eat, the neighborhoods we visit when trying something new, the restaurateurs we come to know—is another way of understanding this city. In our annual Food Lovers Guide, we focus on the people who help make L.A. so delicious, from a full-time forager to a sea urchin diver to an exotic fruit advocate. As we were working on this issue, I learned that Yosh had passed away. My family had planned to visit him in Tokyo this Christmas. For a couple of decades he and Yuri helped make L.A. so delicious for me, and it went way beyond the food they set before us. Atch-Kotch was as close to a second home as I’ll probably ever know.