Bethany Clough

When Korean and Japanese food hook up, a new Fresno restaurant is born

KoJa Kitchen fuses Korean and Japanese fare

KoJa Kitchen co-owner Tom Lai and project manager Tommy Nguyen describe the vision of their Korean and Japanese fusion restaurant. The franchise is rapidly expanding and getting lots of attention in Fresno.
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KoJa Kitchen co-owner Tom Lai and project manager Tommy Nguyen describe the vision of their Korean and Japanese fusion restaurant. The franchise is rapidly expanding and getting lots of attention in Fresno.

Sometimes new restaurants open their doors and are greeted by nothing but that metaphorical sound of crickets chirping. Other times, they open their doors and are flooded with customers.

KoJa Kitchen appears to be in the second category. The new restaurant opened in the last few days of December near Eureka! restaurant in the Park Place shopping center at Palm and Nees avenues.

It’s a combination of Korean and Japanese food (hence the name, KoJa. No judgment if you didn’t catch that at first, neither did I.).

KoJa has been bustling since the beginning.

“We’re more than surprised about how the turnout has been,” says franchise owner Tom Lai.

Several things could drive that: The increasing popularity of Korean food, masses of customers from the big GB3 gym next door and perhaps familiarity with the five other KoJa Kitchens in the Bay Area.

People want to eat food fast, but they don’t want to eat fast food.

Tom Lai, KoJa Kitchen

But let’s talk about the important stuff: The food.

The menu has several different types of koja, which the menu describes as “like a burger, but better.” Instead of a regular bun, the buns are are made from garlic rice that is pressed into a bun shape and fried so it’s crispy on the outside.

In between those buns, you can get short rib meat (the most popular), Korean barbecued beef, chicken, or a soy and portabello mushroom patty. Each comes with a mix of herbs, spices and sauces.

Those proteins can also be put in rice bowls (there’s an ahi tuna bowl, too) tacos and salads.

“People want to eat food fast, but they don’t want to eat fast food,” says owner Lai.

There are fries on the menu, however – waffle fries drenched in all kinds of ingredients. The kamikaze fries, for example, are smothered with Korean barbecued beef, kimchi (that fermented Korean food usually made from cabbage), a red sauce with a little kick and a Japanese mayo that balances out that kick.

Food here can get messy. There’s no shame in grabbing a fork or extra napkins. You can even take one of a dozen or so bottles of spicy Sriracha sauce to your table to sauce things up a bit.

Sidenote: People with special diets can look for the crossed out wheat symbol on the menu for gluten-free food and vegetarians should look for the little sprout (and apparently any dish with the word zen in it is meatless).

This is a fast-casual restaurant, which means in this case that you order at the counter. A cashier will hand you a restaurant-style pager that lights up and vibrates when your food is ready to be picked up.

Some Fresnans reading this will already be familiar with KoJa. The first one is on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley and a handful more have opened around the Bay Area. New ones are opening in Rocklin and the Los Angeles-Irvine area too.

Franchisee Lai moved here from the Bay Area to open KoJa Kitchen. The Fresno area has a few Korean restaurants, but the trend is still catching on.

“I think now Fresno is ready for something new,” Lai says. “That’s why I wanted to open here.”

KoJa Kitchen is open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays, and from 11 a.m. until 10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.

Bethany Clough: 559-441-6431, @BethanyClough

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