Ramen bowls are a filling and tasty treat—but in 2021 they’re no longer a curious novelty from the Far East.
Two decades ago, restauranteur Isamu “Sam” Morikizono was on the front wave of mainstreaming the Japanese delicacy.
In October, he’s celebrating 20 years in business in San Diego. And he’s got a raft of cool Tajima Ramen prizes to give out to customers all month (see below).
At 19, Morikizono moved to the United States from Amagasaki (near Osaka), Japan, to be a dishwasher at a JMK Nippon restaurant in Rockford, Illinois.
Seeking more temperate weather, he took a job at a Shogun in Los Angeles. When an opening at a San Diego Shogun presented itself in 2001, Morikizono made the move.
That same year, he bought Tajima in Convoy and converted it to a ramen house.
Six years later he opened his Kearny Mesa (Mercury Street) location, and focused on sushi. Subsequent Tajima Ramens opened in Hillcrest (2014), East Village (2016), North Park (2017) and the College Area (2020).
Morikizono also has four Tajimas just across the border in Mexico.
I met with Morikizono to talk about great ramen bowls, surviving a pandemic and what it takes to build a brand that’s going strong after 20 years. (This Q&A was lightly edited for clarity.)
Isamu “Sam” Morikizono at a booth in Tajima East Village.
Talk about opening your first restaurant in San Diego in 2001.
“It was always my dream to own my own restaurant. It was exciting but tough. I was an experienced cook but I didn’t have business or managerial background. I taught myself those things.”
We’re doing this interview in the East Village restaurant. What’s special about this location?
“Each location has its own vibe. East Village is trendy and cool. Wherever we are, we try to be a neighborhood place.”
How do you make great ramen, and what’s your favorite bowl?
“It starts with the pork broth. That’s the base. We cook that for 10 hours. That’s the part that you feel deep in your stomach. I like the Tajima Ramen bowl with pork-based soup and egg noodle. Pork chashu [barbecued pork]. Half an egg. Bok choy, Bean sprouts. Sesame seeds.”
The exterior of Tajima East Village.
What are your feelings about parklets? Should restaurants be allowed to keep those outdoor dining areas post-pandemic?
It looks like we have temporary approval to keep them for a year. I hear there’s talk about making them permanent. I hope we get to keep them permanently. They’re nice, especially in San Diego’s nice weather. People enjoy them. For now, there are no fees. If we have to pay some kind of fees to keep them, I’d do it.
You opened a Corner Chicken at the downtown site of the former Café Chloe. Why go in that direction?
“That was a good location and a good opportunity to do business. I wanted to try something different. Nashville-style, deep-fried chicken. It’s trendy and popular.”
You opened that Corner Chicken and another Tajima in 2020. How did COVID affect business at all your restaurants?
“We’d planned to open Corner Chicken two years before that. There was no chance to back out. The pandemic was very tough. We had to close and do to-go only. Our business was off by 80 percent. We had no choice but to lay off a lot of people.”
How is doing business in East Village—are you affected by homelessness?
“Yes. Some people are nice. Some people come by and bother my customers. I’ve had some people steal some stuff and break some stuff.”
Does the city do enough to combat homelessness?
“No. Not enough. I know they do some things. Some times we have incidents and call the police and they don’t come. I don’t know what else to do.”
Inside Tajima East Village.
Your chain’s official 20th anniversary is October 18. But you’re celebrating the entire month?
“For the first week of October, we’re going to give away Tajima apparel—t-shirts and hats. And we’re going to give customers the employee discount. We’ll do raffle tickets all months. We have some nice prizes to give away at the end of the month: an iPad Pro, a drone, Disneyland tickets, a staycation at Paradise Point Resort & Spa and some other things.”
“We are going to open more Tajimas in San Diego. Probably Chula Vista. Maybe beachside.”
How do you feel about being in business for 20 years?
“I’m happy about it. Twenty years ago, I wished that I’d have a chain, but I wasn’t sure. But this is what I’ve been doing all my life.” SD Sun
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