Like many sons, Steve Io is a fan of his mother’s cooking.
He will rave about her homemade sauces, dressings and specialty dishes, such as her beef short ribs and Tatsuta Age chicken (“It’s a marinated chicken, like Japanese popcorn chicken,” Steve says).
But unlike most sons, Steve also shares his mom’s cooking with the whole town—and residents are beginning to rave about her dishes, too.
Inaka Japanese Restaurant and Sushi Bar opened on March 13 in the heart of San Juan Bautista, 313 Third St. The family-owned business is also family-run: Steve’s parents, Janet and Yasuo “Chief” Sakaguchi; Steve and his wife, Rhonda; and brothers and sisters-in-law, Rodney and Barbara Io and David and Zooey Io all have a hand in some aspect of the establishment.
“There’s a family member in every part of it,” Steve says.
For example, Steve, who is retiring from the fire service, has taken over the administrative role at the restaurant.
And Yasuo and David are “running the sushi and doing the ordering,” while Janet and Rodney are in the kitchen and training the kitchen staff.
Steve’s sister-in-law, LeeAnna Brothers, also has a role as the restaurant’s hostess and public relations contact.
For the Sakaguchi and Io families, however, this isn’t their first venture in the restaurant business.
“My mom opened her first restaurant in 1968 in Monterey called Fuki Sushi,” Steve says. “She was 19 years old. She had that restaurant and my uncle also had a restaurant in Palo Alto with the same name.”
After Yasuo came to the U.S. from Japan, he was handpicked as a chef to open the Kabuki Theater in San Francisco in 1970. Soon after he met Janet, the couple settled in Watsonville, where they raised their children and opened Miyuki Restaurant in the early 1980s. The Sakaguchis sold Miyuki’s in 2016 to Janet’s nephew.
“[My parents] moved to San Juan Bautista hoping to retire,” Steve says. “And they pretty much said [to the family], ‘We should do something!’ And so we did end up doing something.”
When it came time to finding a moniker for the establishment, Steve says Inaka was settled upon due to its meaning to his mom.
“It means town or village,” Steve explains. “My mom uses it as her ‘hometown’—that’s her inaka.”
Steve says his maternal grandmother was born in California, but before the internment of Japanese Americans occurred during World War II, she moved back to Japan.
“So that’s why my mom was born in Japan, and when she came back here, this is where they ended up: Hollister, San Benito County,” he says.
“And that’s why we named it what we named it.”
In only two short months, Inaka has quickly become a staple in San Juan Bautista.
On a Wednesday lunch hour, for instance, locals quickly fill the seats to eat such delicacies such as the beef asparagus topped with yakitori sauce, homemade gyoza, or the San Juan Bautista roll, a spicy favorite among locals.
But it’s not just the novelty of Japanese cuisine coming to the small town that has locals buzzing.
“One thing we’ve been told over and over is the freshness from all the food just doesn’t compare to what else is out there,” Brothers says. “What sets us apart [from other restaurants] is that many of the sauces and things are homemade; they’re not from a bag.”
San Juan Bautista native Juan Candelaria can attest to that. In fact, Candelaria enjoys the food’s quality so much that he’s become a tri-weekly customer.
“To have this restaurant here, it’s a game changer,” he says. “We would have to leave San Juan to get good food, and now we come here—and it’s home, you know. David and Chief are awesome cooks.”
First-time customers like Tricia Harvey from Hollister are quick to agree.
“It’s nice having a new restaurant in town, but even nicer when it has great atmosphere and wonderful food,” she says.
Though the close-knit family has called San Juan Bautista home for 16 years (“Everyone except for Rodney—who lives in Watsonville—all live on the same street,” Brothers says), they are only now just meeting many of their neighbors.
“When [people] heard a Japanese restaurant was coming, we got to know so many more people,” Brothers explains. “We’ve received an incredible welcome from them. It takes all of us to make everyone successful, and that’s exactly what’s going on in San Juan right now.”
Steve says he is thankful for the support of Hollister and San Juan Bautista.
“We couldn’t do what we do without their support,” he says.
The family couldn’t do it without one another, either. This is exemplified in the symbol located right next to the restaurant’s title.
The “painted ‘swoosh’ is a symbol of togetherness,” Steve says. “It’s called an enso, and we thought it was fitting because the family came together and created this restaurant.”
Inaka Japanese Restaurant and Sushi Bar is open for lunch Wednesday-Sunday, 11:30am-2pm; and for dinner Wednesday-Saturday, 5-9pm and Sundays, 5-8pm. For information, call 593.5100, email [email protected], or visit the upcoming website at www.inakasjb.com.