Nagato Sukiyaki’s recipe for success is simple.
The restaurant has over 100 years cumulative cooking experience and has been around for 42 years. Because of these two simple ingredients, Nagato’s regulars continue to return.
Nagato Sukiyaki is owned by Fumie and Yoshio Kawano, and is now managed by their son, Don Kawano, 38. The Japanese restaurant, on the corner of Fulton and El Camino Avenues, has a menu with both traditional Japanese kitchen-prepared items and sushi.
Nagato didn’t start with an exclusively Japanese menu. When they opened in 1970, they started with two menus – one with American food and the other with Japanese. The American menu included items such as hash browns, hamburgers and French fries, while the Japanese menu included traditional chicken sukiyaki and udon noodles. But soon after opening, the Kawano’s abandoned the American menu.
"Everyone was going for the Japanese menu," Don Kawano says, smiling with pride at the success of his father’s recipes and his mother’s cooking.
Nagato was the first Japanese restaurant in Sacramento to sell raw fish, or Nigiri. At first, they only had tuna (maguro), yellow tail (hamachi) and salmon marinated in sake because it was Pacific salmon, which can’t be served raw. Now, Nagato’s sushi bar serves fresh Atlantic salmon, eel (unagi), butterfish and more. The sushi menu has changed, but the kitchen menu has stayed the same since 1970.
Nagato Sukiyaki, which survived a fire in 1986 and two economic recessions, is still open each lunch and dinner a day except Mondays. Regular customers don’t seem to take this for granted.
“It’s the fact that they treat you like family,” says Kathy Flynn, who has been a regular since 1992. “They came to my wedding and they treat my 7-year-old daughter like a granddaughter.”
Flynn comes all the way from Lincoln, Calif. with her family to eat at Nagato. She chalks Nagato’s appeal up to the freshness of the food and Don Kawano and “Mama san’s” friendly service. “Mama san” is Fumie Kawano, as known by those close to her.
“My mom used to say that she remembers the president Jimmy Carter because during that time, business was doing well,” says Don Kawano. His mom, Fumie Kawano, is responsible for the restaurant name. Nagato, Yamaguchi, is her hometown in Japan. Kawano, 71, has been cooking for 41 years and still works at Nagato every week. She’s a big part of why the restaurant still sticks to its traditional, Japanese menu, and so is her son.
“I just want to keep preparing Traditional Japanese cuisine, but I’m also coming up with contemporary ideas,” says Don Kawano. “Japanese food is just like Italian food or any other cuisine, it never goes away. I don’t want to Americanize it.” The restaurant, the cuisine and the customers are dear to Kawano’s heart.
“It’s very special because I didn’t fall into it until I was in pretty much after high school,” says Kawano of his start at Nagato. “Going to school, college and a couple other careers made me realize that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side.”
“You don’t want to work hard like your parents and then all of a sudden you find yourself working 6 days a week – but then you love it,” says Kawano. “It’s not just a career, it’s a way of life.”