Why Did Curry House's Closure Break LA's Heart?
In a big city, restaurants come and go, often before you've had a chance to walk through their doors. Los Angeles is no exception. So why did Monday's closure of Curry House, a chain of casual restaurants specializing in hearty but homely Japanese curry, strike such a sad note with Southern Californians? It's not a simple answer.
In part, it seemed to come out of nowhere. Curry House employees, both on social media and those who spoke to me, recall working their usual weekend shifts without a hint anything was wrong. Patty Suksamran was preparing for her Monday shift when she received a call from a coworker who told her the restaurant had shut down.
"I saw the 'closed' sign and then I went through the back and I saw people were starting to take out the tables and the refrigerators. It was a shock," says Suksamran who'd been a waitress at the Torrance location for 13 years.
Her feelings were echoed by other Curry House employees.
"I couldn't believe it," says Rachel Delgado, another waitress at Curry House in Torrance. "Everything was fine Sunday night and then all of the sudden, damn, everybody's laid off."
On social media, where many diners learned the news, people were referring to the closure as the "Curry House Massacre" and the "Brown Wedding."
"I think there would have been an outpouring of support if people had known this was going to happen," says Kelsey Iino. Now a counselor at El Camino College, she has been eating at Curry House since the 1980s and worked there for a few years during college.
Then there's this: Why now? And why like this?
For more than three decades, Curry House was owned by House Foods, a global conglomerate that produces tofu, spice blends, soyrizo and noodles, among other foodstuffs. In 1983, House Foods opened the first Curry House, in Little Tokyo, as a way to extend the popularity of its "Vermont Curry" cubes, which the company has been making since at least 1963. In the following years, the chain expanded to nine locations, eight in the Southern California and one in Cupertino.
UPDATE, Feb. 28, 2020: LAist had reached out to both House Foods and CH Acquisitions before this story was published, on Thursday morning. On Friday afternoon, Hous Foods replied with the following statement: "House Foods America (HFA) sold the Curry House restaurants to the new owner in 2019. HFA is disappointed to learn that the restaurants have closed. HFA has no further comment."
Then, Texas-based CH Acquisitions LLC bought Curry House. The sale occurred during the summer of 2019, according to employees of the restaurant chain.
Vivian Silva, who was a server at the Torrance location, says the new owners cracked down on employees' residency status. (Many restaurants in the United States depend on the labor of cooks, dishwashers and servers who reside in this country illegally.) "A lot of employees were not eligible to keep working there because they didn't have their papers," Silva says.
Her statement is echoed by a news release from CH Acquisitions that reads, in part:
"Due to misrepresentation of the legal status of many employees during the purchase process, we were forced to close all locations shortly after purchasing of the business for a prolonged period of time. This extended closure caused Curry House to lose several weeks of sales, retrain a largely new staff, and created confusion amongst guests as to the operating status of the restaurants. All of these factors negatively impacted sales even after reopening."
Silva says she remembers hearing that other Curry House locations had temporarily shut down after the chain's sale to CH Acquisitions but she, Suksamran and Delgado all say the Torrance outpost was not closed. Still, the lack of quality cooks led to problems.
"We were short staffed in the kitchen," Silva says. "We had trouble hiring new people and finding people who were able to actually keep up with the work. So when we got busy, we got busy. Our regular customers were angry at how long food was taking. Business slowed down."
But then she said things seemed to settle down. New cooks were hired and trained, and the kitchen seemed to return to normal. "We got the groove and now it was going good in Torrance," Silva says. She can't speak to the situation at other Curry Houses.
The statement from CH Acquisitions paints a dire picture and points to a messy corporate spat.
"While we did everything possible to increase sales, we are unable to continue operating these restaurants at the severe loss caused by the misrepresentation from the seller, House Foods America. We were in contact with the seller in the weeks prior to closing these units in an attempt to get them to take the restaurants back, but they refused," says Drake Yoshida, director of CH Acquisitions.
Whatever the reasons, employees were out of jobs. They received their final paychecks along with paperwork about filing for unemployment. They received no severance. There's no question Curry House's demise was nasty, brutish and swift but even that doesn't fully explain the outpouring of sadness it has generated.
"I am surprised how much it impacted our customers. We're heartbroken because we've been there so long but we didn't expect this kind of response," Suksamran says.
"I find my own emotional attachment to it a little absurd," says Sean Miura, an Asian American arts organizer.
He was on Twitter late Monday night and noticed Curry House trending. Then he realized why. "That stopped me in my tracks," he says.
Around midnight, Miura hopped into his car and drove to Gardena. Then to Torrance. Then to Little Tokyo. Sure enough, each location had closed. Plastic food had been removed from window displays. Tables and chairs had been carted away. Outside the Little Tokyo location, patrons paid tribute with a small memorial of flowers, candles and handmade signs, including one that read, "We will 'roux' the day."
"I'm not somebody who gets too freaked out about things closing but I do get intensely nostalgic about what they represented and what they provided the space for," Miura says.
Writer, comedian and actor Jenny Yang discovered Curry House after moving to Los Angeles in her twenties. "To me, curry is such a comfort food that you grow up with, even when you're not Japanese. Almost every East Asian culture that I know of will rely on those curry cubes. And there was no other place focused on just curry. It's almost like if you made a whole restaurant for casseroles," Yang says.
Like the other Curry House fans who reached out to LAist, she liked that the restaurant was inexpensive, good for big groups, had a large menu, served filling portions and wasn't fussy.
"It was not the fanciest place but you always knew you were going to get great comfort food. It was the low-key Asian chain you always appreciated," says Phil Yu, founder of the Angry Asian Man blog.
Katsu curry — a heap of white rice topped with a breaded and fried pork cutlet and a puddle of brown sauce — isn't hard to find in Southern California, but at most restaurants it's a bit player, not the star. Plus, there was Curry House's spaghetti, its tonkatsu, its famous corn potage and that salad with the grainy ginger-miso dressing.
"I think [the food at Curry House] is something very unique," says Lok Man Fan, a recipe developer who recently moved from Los Angeles to the Bay Area. "It is comforting and savory and hearty. It isn't spicy so you can eat a lot of it. And the pork chop in the katsu is fried perfectly. Other curry is different, it doesn't have that little sweetness."
The prevailing theory is that Japanese curry (aka karē raisu) originated in India and came to Japan in the late 1800s via British sailors. Milder and thicker than most Indian and Thai curries, the dish is wildly popular in Japan. It's easy to make in large batches, whether for school children or soldiers, and demands little culinary prowess, which is a large part of its appeal. The homeyness. The ease. It is among the most comforting of comfort foods.
"For families like mine," says Miura, a 4th generation Japanese American, "our relationship with Japanese food was very minimal. But curry was something my mom could make after she came home from work. I think for a lot of people, curry provides that same sense of culture and home."
"It's the simplicity of it," Yu adds. "It lets you explore this dimension of really casual Japanese food because curry is not super sexy. You're not going to Curry House for the 'gram."
Some locations were also community anchors. "It has always been a staple in Little Tokyo and any time there were major community events, Curry House donated," Iino says.
The Little Tokyo location, on the second floor of Weller Court, was the chain's flagship and occupied a special shelf in people's hearts.
"In the '90s, not a lot of people were coming out to Little Tokyo and there was a fear that the neighborhood wouldn't make it. But places like Curry House, along with Marukai market and Kinokuniya bookstore, were incredibly important anchors," says Kristin Fukushima, managing director of the Little Tokyo Community Council.
Where else can people go to get their Japanese curry fix now?
Suehiro, a longstanding Japanese diner in Little Tokyo, makes a solid katsu curry. One fan who spoke to LAist recommends Curryfornia in Gardena. Budding chain Coco Ichibanya, which is owned by Curry House's original corporate parent, House Foods, has four SoCal locations. When all else fails, go DIY with cubes of curry roux, which you can find at almost any supermarket these days.
These options won't ease the pain of Curry House fans who didn't have a chance to mourn, to say goodbye, to eat a final meal but perhaps they'll remind us to cherish the old timey restaurants we still have.
"We are in a moment where the food scene in Los Angeles is changing very rapidly," Miura says, "and for a lot of us who have an emotional connection to these older restaurants, it's only going to get worse. I am a strong proponent of supporting these restaurants, especially ones that rep specific cultures. I wasn't going to Curry House because it had the best food, I was going to Curry House because it made the best memories."