Chashu Hash is pork belly chashu

Chashu Hash is pork belly chashu, with two sous vide eggs and breakfast potatoes.

Walking into JiST Cafe on an early Wednesday morning, nothing necessarily betrays the deep history running through the restaurant and its chef/owner Glen Ishii. At first glance, the tightly packed but trendy space just looks full of furniture, ingredients and supplies for its current to-go-only setup. The only immediate sensory draw might be the pots bubbling in the kitchen at the back of the shotgun-space, each one poured over by Ishii and his small team. But while sitting down with Ishii — or anyone who’s spent years in Little Tokyo — the space will spill out its decades of stories.

“I just want to have fun cooking,” Ishii said. “I just feel really lucky.”

Ishii, a third-generation chef in a line of Little Tokyo locals, has run JiST Cafe for around 10 years. He started the restaurant alongside Caroline Shin, who recently left JiST to focus on her family life. His journey through Little Tokyo’s culinary landscape and the restaurant world started long before that.

Raised in the neighborhood, he followed his family as they ran a few different successful businesses, moving repeatedly over the course of his childhood to new locations around Little Tokyo. His grandmother, mother and father all worked in the restaurants at each place perfecting local favorites and twists on Japanese cuisine. And later, his uncle opened Tokyo Cafe, a restaurant that formerly occupied JiST’s current space on Judge John Aiso Street. 

“When I was younger, I wanted nothing to do with this place,” Ishii said. “(But) it felt good coming back here.”

Ishii knew he wanted to get involved in restaurants for a long time but was reluctant to join the family business. He studied restaurant management at Cal Poly Pomona to break into fine dining. He found success in that world after graduation, ultimately heading up the kitchen at Noe in the Omni Hotel. While that position gave him freedom to choose the highest-quality ingredients and experiment with complex dishes, he soon became frustrated with the corporate environment.

“I’m a very straightforward person,” Ishii said about his general attitude, which clashed with the corporate kitchen. “Ego and pride are not good business decisions. Instead of following the politics, we’ll make our own politics.”

So, Ishii set off on his own, taking a risk by establishing JiST and continuing his family’s local history.

“(It’s about) bringing back family history to a new generation — trying to incorporate different things together,” Ishii said of keeping with his culinary legacy. 

That legacy also runs through the food itself. JiST serves a chashu hash, a dish that uses the same secret marinate for its namesake pork that Ishii’s grandmother first made over 70 years ago. The same batch has been built on and given a deeper flavor over three generations of Ishii chefs. 

“Food back when I started cooking and food now are totally different things,” Ishii said of the changes he’s seen in restaurants since growing up.

Ishii’s grandmother first made the recipe famous with her chashu dumplings. For many years, Ishii didn’t cook them, instead focusing on his own creations, like the hash and a signature crème brûlée batter brioche French toast. But during the pandemic, new opportunities made Ishii look back on his history. 

Even that afternoon, those bubbling pots were actually cooking for seniors in need. Throughout the pandemic, the Little Tokyo Service Center (LTSC) has coordinated with a few local restaurants to feed seniors while also supporting local business. Ishii jumped at the opportunity, having known a few of the seniors from his childhood in the family restaurants. To add to the seniors’ variety, Ishii decided to bring back his grandmother’s classic dumplings using the original recipe.

So, Ishii is comfortable with the current state of affairs, even with the difficulty of the pandemic. He feels connected to the neighborhood and the local community, still serving regulars who have come to JiST and his family’s restaurants for years. But, saying “health is (his) biggest concern,” keeping the in-person dining closed has limited typical community engagement. Looking ahead, Ishii hopes to renovate JiST’s spacious outdoor patio, which shares a courtyard with a church turned performance venue that normally hosts the East West Players. After some improvements, he aims to reopen outdoor dining by the summer, allowing the community to once again eat together.  

“You have to be a little masochistic and sadistic to do this job,” Ishii said. “(But) I’m having the most fun in the restaurant business I’ve had in a long time.”

JiST Cafe

116 Judge John Aiso Street, Los Angeles