In the heart of Chinatown in Boston, lies a hidden gem Tora, a Japanese restaurant specializes in kaisen-don or seafood rice bowl. Without knowing the place, pedestrians can easily miss the restaurant as it locates in the basement level right below the Chinese restaurant Jade Garden. Yet, since its debut in 2017, the restaurant is always filled with international students as well as local Bostonians as it gained its popularity over the years.
Coming from a family that had long been in the restaurant industry, Kenix Wan, the owner of Tora, was imbued with the influences of Japanese cuisine from her early days in Hong Kong. Upon noticing the popularity of kaisen-don in Tsukiji Market during a trip to Japan, Wan and her husband are determined to bring that influence back to Boston, where there wasn’t a distinct difference in the Japanese restaurant scene.
“It’s like a gamble when we first opened,” said Wan when speaking of what they’ve been through before opening the restaurant.
Wan said that they had a lot of challenges when opening Tora. Not only did it take a lot of effort to apply and renovate their current location in Chinatown, but they also opened under the watchful eyes of friends and families as many of them have had doubts about Tora.
“A lot of friends and families weren’t optimistic about the restaurant,” said Wan, “they didn’t think we’ll make it because of the price and ingredients we offer.” Wan explained, compared to other Japanese restaurants that serve regular sushi, the profit they earn is comparably lower because they use a lot of fish in a bowl. Adding on to that, aiming to serve fresh and high-quality food at a reasonable price as they experienced in Japan, they use high-grade fish and carefully selected rice for all of their kaisen-don; This is the condition the owners are not willing to compromise, and they believe that it’s what drives the customers according to Wan.
Despite all doubts, Tora successfully opened after almost three years of research and challenges. And just as the couple hoped, tora, which directly translates to “tiger” in Japanese, really served as their lucky charm and had brought them luck. Over the past few years, Tora has reached an audience beyond international students and was even named as one of the 50 must-try restaurants in Boston.
Having been trained under a Japanese sensei back in Hong Kong, Wan came up with a series of distinct recipes for kaisen-don and other donburi rice bowls by incorporating what she had learned with the ingredients available in Boston. “We came up with everything ourselves and made everything from scratch,” said Wan. Tora’s gyudon, for example, features freshly shaved ribeye with their special sauce. Though it charged higher, it’s said to be one of the most popular dishes because customers trust its quality and taste.
Three years since its opening, Tora has expanded its menu from purely donburi rice bowls to a wide variety of Japanese dishes such as sushi, noodle soups, and poke bowls. Wan said even though they have expanded their menu, kaisen-don is still their main focus. They’ve decided to include sushi into their menu because many of its customers don’t know what kaisen-don is. “A lot of customers, usually one or two in a group, have never had kaisendon and would ask if there’s sushi,” said Wan, “ultimately we have to serve sushi as an entry-level to kaisen-don.” Yet, with “a little push” from friends, many of those customers came to love kaisen-don and have since choosing kaisen-don over sushi.
After a couple of years of buildup and the success, it achieved with its first restaurant, the owners of Tora have announced that they’re opening a ramen restaurant this year. “We’ve always wanted to open a ramen shop,” Wan said, “it’s sort of our dreams.” Wan said that they wanted to open one before Tora, but they haven’t been able to find a decent location that fits their vision. After opening Tora, the owners went back to school to learn about ramen making while waiting for the right time to come. Last year, they found the place that locates only two streets over Tora and has since been preparing for its opening.
To uphold the goals they’ve had when opening Tora, bringing authentic Japanese food to Boston, Wan said her husband even went to Tokyo last year to learn to make authentic tonkotsu ramen. Tora’s ramen restaurant, scheduled to open sometime this year, will be featuring authentic tonkotsu ramen that’s cooked up to 18 hours.
The owners of Tora have once stated that they wanted to open three restaurants in Boston in a previous interview. “Every restaurant that we open, we’ll add different elements to it or use a different theme,” said Wan, “it won’t be a copy and paste restaurant.” And with a second one is set to open soon, fans of Tora can expect for a third restaurant that serves a different kind of Japanese dish to come someday in the future.
*Japanese version published in Kigyo Gaikyo April 2020