The Zen Master of Beef

Totoraku has no Web site. The name on the sign belongs to a place that closed years ago. Reservations? More power to you because, unless you know Kaz, the chef-owner, or someone who does, you’re not getting in.

  1. In the winter of 1999, Kaz Oyama was driving along Pico Boulevard in Cheviot Hills when he noticed a man—“Old, Jewish guy,” he says—putting up a FOR LEASE sign in the window of a taco and burger joint. Something made Oyama do a U-turn and park, though he admits he was in no position to be shopping for real estate at the time. “I didn’t have any money, but it was my last chance,” he says. “There was no other way out for me.”

    A few years earlier Oyama, a Japanese-born chef, had lost roughly his entire shirt on a restaurant venture gone bad. He was working at Hide Sushi on Sawtelle Boulevard when a customer persuaded him to open a place of his own.

    “I was stupid,” he says, shaking his head. “I believed him. I believed that lawyer. He ran away with all my assets.”

    The restaurant on Pico was not much to look at. It was narrow and dark, smelled of ancient grease, and had zero atmosphere, but Oyama wanted in. He had a wife and son to feed and “my big ego, too,” he says with a laugh. ...

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