22 October, 2020, 21:50

The Journey & Evolution of Yoshimatsu Japanese Eatery

How Yoshimi Tashima's pilgrimage & passion for food made its way into the hearts of Tucsonans.

Yoshimatsu Japanese Eatery is a go-to for ramen and sushi. With sought-after lunch specials and a cute hand-drawn children’s menu, the restaurant continues to thrive after 18 years in business, but it didn’t start out that way. Yoshimatsu’s success story is really the story of owner Yoshimi Tashima’s reinvention.

The beginning

Tashima didn’t start out her career in the food and beverage industry, but rather as a fashion designer in Tokyo. When her boyfriend, Hiro, was offered a residency in New York, he took it.

Tashima found herself at a crossroads; her decision would be life-altering.

“When I worked in Tokyo in the fashion job, I really enjoyed my work,” Tashima said. “My boyfriend was in New York. I didn’t want to leave my job, but with the green card, I could come here to the United States.”

Tashima took the plunge, the Big Apple in her sights.

They first moved to New York, then to Philadelphia, onward to Oregon, and finally settled in Tucson, where her now-husband, Hiro, teaches art at the Pima Community College. Throughout her travels, Tashima found herself reconsidering her work in fashion after putting it aside to come to the United States.

“I really like fashion and I love to cook,” Tashima said. “That’s my life, the two things. If I didn’t go to art school in Japan, I wanted to go to cooking school.”

Interior at Yoshimatsu Japanese Eatery (Credit: Jackie Tran)

Interior at Yoshimatsu Japanese Eatery (Credit: Jackie Tran)

Food for healing

In 2001, Tashima was diagnosed with cancer and turned to food for healing. In order to get as healthy as possible, she focused on eating well, cooking at home and using simple, well-sourced ingredients.

With practice, she gained skills and a better understanding of how food is sourced and prepared.

The following year, Tashima decided to approach cooking on a professional level. Yoshimatsu Japanese Eatery was born. Tashima applied everything she was doing in her home kitchen—incorporating an assortment of vegetables, avoiding the use of preservatives and GMOs, and focusing on organic, whole foods—to the restaurant.

Yoshimi Tashima at Yoshimatsu Japanese Eatery (Credit: Jackie Tran)

Yoshimi Tashima at Yoshimatsu Japanese Eatery (Credit: Jackie Tran)

Contrary to popular belief, the restaurant is not named after Yoshimi Tashima, but rather her grandfather, Yoshimatsu.

“He passed away before I was born,” Tashima said, “but he didn’t have parents and he was really poor. He was a really, really hard worker, and he finally created a small furniture factory. He had a wife and three children—my mum [was one of them]. I respect his life, so that’s why I put [the restaurant] in my grandfather’s name.”

Soul food from Osaka

Yoshimatsu features an extensive Japanese menu with items inspired by the street food in Osaka. With traditional (and brothless) ramen, noodles, donburi, kushiyaki (skewers), bento boxes, lunchtime poke burritos and bowls, cutesy kid’s offerings, and a separate sushi menu, you’re spoilt for choice.

Simple Ramen display at Yoshimatsu Japanese Eatery (Credit: Jackie Tran)

Simple Ramen display at Yoshimatsu Japanese Eatery (Credit: Jackie Tran)

Tashima highlights the Okonomi Yaki, a fluffy savory pancake with ginger and green onion, drizzled with tart Okonomi sauce. It’s “soul food for Osaka people,” she said. “Every Saturday, moms cook Okonomi Yaki for their kids.”

Ramen is a staple at Yoshimatsu. Tashima explained that she uses immune-enhancing mushrooms and a lot of garlic and ginger in the soups so that they support healing within the body. She suggests the Home-Style Ramen as a remedy for customers who aren’t feeling well.

Black Garlic Shrimp Poke Bowl at Yoshimatsu (Credit: Jackie Tran)

Black Garlic Shrimp Poke Bowl at Yoshimatsu (Credit: Jackie Tran)

Lunch menu offerings

Then there’s the poke-focused lunch menu—an easy, little-bit-of-everything mix to satisfy your hunger—available from 11 a.m. – 3 p.m.

If you’re looking for something colorful and well balanced, the Original Deluxe Poke Bowl is full of buttery salmon, tuna, yellowtail, and shrimp with crispy seaweed, crunchy cucumber, avocado, and edamame on sushi rice. It’s a simple, delicious lunch option.

If you’re feeling adventurous, try the Chipotle Ponzu Salmon Bowl—a mix of salmon, cilantro kiwi, seaweed, daikon sprouts, masago, sesame, cucumber, avocado, edamame, and chipotle ponzu sauce—or the Yuzu Albacore Bowl, which has much of the same, but includes the likes of albacore tuna, crispy onion, and mango.

Section of Yoshimatsu kids menu

Section of Yoshimatsu kids menu (Credit: Yoshimatsu)

The children’s menu deserves a mention, too. It features dishes from the original menu (but in smaller portions) and is beautifully decorated with Tashima’s drawings. More of her artwork can be discovered in the restroom, where she and Hiro painted (cute) creative designs on the toilet—something to check out while you’re there.

A promising partnership

Tashima has partnered with chef Roberto Ortiz, former chef at the Lodge at Ventana Canyon, to create the menus and special dishes moving forward— this season’s Duck Ramen is his recipe. Tashima and Ortiz work side-by-side in the kitchen with respect for one another.

“I think she’s extraordinary,” Ortiz said of Tashima. “To [change career paths], get cancer, and totally reinvent yourself successfully [is a feat]. Because a lot of people change, but they’re not successful in it. 18 years at this restaurant, and she’s just getting better and better.”

Gyoza display at Yoshimatsu Japanese Eatery (Credit: Jackie Tran)

Gyoza display at Yoshimatsu Japanese Eatery (Credit: Jackie Tran)

Even though tables at Yoshimatsu fill up quickly, often with a line out the door, there were rocky days in the past. Back around 2007, the restaurant nearly went out of business, so Tashima resorted to other methods.

She walked around different apartment complexes and schools selling food in bento boxes, which she had cooked herself—all while recovering from her cancer treatments. She believed in her dream and didn’t give up.

Flourishing

In 2019, Tashima opened another restaurant: Maru Japanese Noodle Shop, a casual spot for udon noodle dishes, curry, donburi, and ready-to-eat appetizers on Speedway and Silverbell. The fast-casual restaurant has eight varieties of udon noodle dishes—all in honor of Yoshimatsu.

Ortiz asked her, “So was it worth it? Are you happy now? Look at Yoshimatsu.”

“Very happy,” Tashima replied with a smile. “People won’t forget Yoshimatsu.”

Location and hours

Yoshimatsu Japanese Eatery is located at 2741 N. Campbell Ave. The restaurant is open 11 a.m. – 9 p.m. on Sunday – Thursday and 11 a.m. – 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday.

For more information, visit yoshimatsuaz.com or call (520) 320-1574.

Meredith O'Neil is a barista and radio host who likes to ride bikes and spend time with her spaniel, George.

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