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Serving ramen, serving the community

Yuu Japanese Tapas, located in Richmond’s Continental Shopping Centre, is a cozy family restaurant with a big online presence that got started around ten years ago. Their vast menu combines classic ramen, udon, hot pots, rice dishes, and bentos with ever-changing seasonal offerings. You’ll find fusion appetizers with sweet, creamy drinks and desserts alongside creative dishes like their Internet-famous beer ramen. 

The eclectic and experimental menu speaks to the owner, Julia Kubotani, and her family’s love of food and their multicultural relationship with eating and innovation. In February 2021, Julia sat down with Richmond Food Stories to share the history of this local restaurant and how they’ve adapted and given back through the worst of the pandemic.

Julia Kubotani with food delivery volunteers (Courtesy of Yuu Japanese Tapas)

In the early stages of COVID-19, Yuu could only do home deliveries to stay open. While business used to be consistently 95% dine-in and 5% delivery, these proportions fluctuated wildly as infection numbers and recommendations changed in the province. Some days were evenly split between dine-in and delivery, while other days were 80% delivery. Until May 2020, 100% of their business took place online. Luckily, Yuu already had systems for web ordering and home delivery well before 2020, which allowed them to stay afloat during the pandemic. 

The ongoing support of her loyal staff and customers also helped Yuu ride and survive this wave of uncertainty. Throughout 2020, many restaurants had trouble rehiring staff back into the storefront, and had no choice but to close. Yuu’s staff, however, remained committed and ready to return, knowing that Julia would do whatever she could to bring them back. On top of that, Julia worked around ingredient shortages and introduced items that would work great as takeout, such as bento boxes, assorted family trays, and shake shake ramen, which serves brothless (hence never soggy!) noodles in a mixable cup. 

Yuu’s Shake Shake Ramen (Courtesy of Yuu Japanese Tapas)

Yuu is actually Julia’s second attempt at a ramen restaurant. The first place was named Kyushu Ramen and located in Park Village, now one of many strip malls near CF Richmond Centre under redevelopment. It opened nearly 20 years ago when ramen was not the Vancouver favourite it is today, and closed after 5 years. “People used to think we were selling instant noodles,” Julia explains with a laugh. “We made Yuu to educate people on what ramen actually is.” You can see this in Yuu’s decor, where cute cartoon vegetables adorn the walls and explain the history and labour behind ramen. The wooden plaques were inspired by the ramen vending machines in Japan, which provide paper tickets that thoughtfully explain all the different types of broth and its ingredients.

Much of this expertise comes from within the family, many of whom are chefs with a personal passion for food. Julia’s uncle, the head chef at Yuu, worked for over 30 years in Japan and has a professional background in Chinese cuisine. Despite this, it wasn’t easy to try again with another ramen restaurant. Julia had been working as a dental assistant and had just given birth to her first child, and running a family business had been an incredibly involved and difficult process. But when the opportunity presented itself as a vacancy in Continental Plaza in 2010, it felt like the right time. The family had gained more experience, and still felt passionate about their “gift of food,” which has led to a stream of creative new dishes that helped bolster this restaurant’s local and online fame.

Take, for instance, their viral beer ramen. The dish was inspired by zarusoba, a traditional Japanese dish made of chilled buckwheat noodles and a savoury dipping sauce. Julia has always loved zarusoba, but felt that the texture was too plain. She switched it to the chewier ramen noodle, and loved the new flavour and texture combination. Zarusoba is also often eaten in the hot summer months, which reminded her of refreshing cold beers on the patio, so she decided to combine the noodles and sauce in a large beer stein. Julia had no idea the dish would go viral the way it did, with features on Food Beast, BuzzFeed, Daily Hive, Insider, Daily Hive, Narcity, Vancouver Is Awesome, Next Shark, and more. The online renown has attracted visitors as far as New York, where one family accidentally came right as the restaurant was closing and returned first thing next morning just to try it out.

“If it’s good, why not serve it? Some say it’s not authentic, but anything you put on a table, especially in Vancouver, is multicultural.”

Although internet fame has opened the door to a massive international community, at its heart, Yuu is a local business with strong ties to its home city of Richmond, BC. At the height of the pandemic, even as most restaurant businesses were struggling to stay open, Julia felt the desire to give back to her community, no matter how little. The team tried to think about what they could do as a restaurant, since the most they have is food. This spurred the idea for “Community Heroes Meals,” which offered massive discounts to those in essential services, including health care workers, first responders, truck deliverers, and grocers. The program was a huge hit with local hospitals, which inspired Julia to do even more. They sent 50 meals to Rosewood Manor, in response to the constant outbreaks happening in senior care homes. Last Christmas, they distributed over 20 family trays based on requests from the Richmond Food Bank and Facebook groups for community support. Volunteers came and helped distribute food to families that needed it most.

When the pandemic is over, Julia is most excited about gathering with friends and family again. Rather than fretting over maintaining the appropriate distance and researching the ever-changing rules, she can’t wait to comfortably chat with loved ones and share food and laughter. The pandemic changed so many different levels of society in ways she never thought possible, but it also cemented her and Yuu’s core values—community connections, constant innovation, and a lasting love of good food.

“Alone we can only do so much, but together we can do so much more.”