Inside Dallas’ Uptown Urban Market, tucked away in one of the back corners, lies a Japanese establishment no larger than the size of Harry Potter’s closet. Coming out of this tiny kitchen, though, are some serious flavors backed by some seriously big analytics.
Totto Yama has been open for a few weeks, and while it’s certainly not drawing in crowds by the thousands, that was never really its point. Chef and operator Ricky Wong runs the sushi bar, and the name of the game was to avoid the quality crunch that comes with being too big. Wong has worked in two fields. One is the culinary world, in which he chops and cooks at locations such as Sushi Bayashi and The Bluefish. His other work was as an operations director for a large-scale dental company. Quite a career shift, but one that ultimately paid off.
Wong picked up on something throughout the years: the food supply chain. Much like the food chain that you learned about in high school biology, it’s the process of following food from its creation to its consumption. For most restaurants, that chain starts and ends on the premises; food is delivered, washed, chopped, cooked and served in house. For Wong, and ultimately for the survival of Totto Yama, that wasn’t possible.
Totto Yama’s storefront is tiny, about the size of a studio apartment. Wong worked around this by taking the food supply chain essentials from the big boys and scaling them down to work for him. Large companies like Frito Lay don’t produce all their products in one spot; they have multiple links in the final chain that gets a bag of fried potatoes to the storefront. Wong copied this, taking his prep, sorting it, diluting it and calculating what could be done off site and what needed to be done right before the customer ordered it.
“We utilize a central kitchen,” he says. “This food doesn’t take very long to make. It's good food, fast.”
Wong's process of making key elements of his dishes off site and only retaining what truly needs to be made at the counter means Totto Yama is sleek and streamlined down to the last detail. Customers order through a tablet, and by the time they’ve made the walk around to the main counter, their meals are usually halfway done, and Wong doesn't sacrifice any quality lost by producing meals in bulk.
The menu at Totto Yama is equally polished. Most menu items are Japanese comfort foods, with a flair for the traditional and the simplistic. It’s what Wong says he wants to eat and what draws fond memories for him.
“Most items only have four or less ingredients,” he says while slicing a hunk of salmon. "If this food isn’t made, it's lost.”
Most items are fairly light and reasonably inexpensive, making Totto Yama a perfect place to relax and have a lunch that won’t make you feel bloated and sleepy by 3 p.m.
Totto Yama embodies what fast food should really be. A little bit of foresight and a sprinkling of some math makes all the difference in the world. Any restaurant with a grill and a minimum-wage employee can crank out hundreds of burgers or sandwiches a day, but it comes at a grave cost of dignity towards the final product.
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Wong's move from the corporate to the culinary world brings a unique flair for speedy, inexpensive food that not only tastes good but also makes you feel good.
“In corporate, you have to make that money, and you have to make that money fast," he says. "You’re making it for someone else.”
“In a restaurant," Wong says, "yeah, you still make money, but at the end of the day, you’re making food for people.”
Totto Yama, 2600 Cedar Springs Road (inside Uptown Urban Market). Open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday through Saturday.