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Tokyo House is one of Youngstown’s best-kept secrets

Published: Fri, March 25, 2011 @ 12:01 a.m.


Can Dao, owner of the Tokyo House restaurant on South Avenue, Youngstown, prepares a meal for patrons. Customers said the food is so good that they’ll wait several hours to eat the Asian cuisine. For 20 years, Dao and his wife, Hin, have owned and operated the restaurant.

Place:Tokyo House Restaurant

1907 South Ave., Youngstown




It’s a cold Wednesday in a worn parking lot on Youngstown’s South Side, and several groups of people sit patiently in their cars.

Some people sit for up to two hours.

The groups occasionally eye one another from behind the windows of their vehicles, waiting for someone to make the first move.

Someone does.

A car door swings open, and it means everyone else will do the same.

They line up at the door of a dilapidated building that once was a gas station. The line on this day eventually will snake along the side of the 1907 South Ave. building that sits just a stone’s throw south of Interstate 680.

Inside is one of Youngstown’s most successful, yet best-kept, dining secrets — the Tokyo House restaurant.

People endure cold weather and two-hour waits for plum wine and teriyaki chicken prepared on a searing hibachi by Can Dao, who has owned Tokyo House for about 20 years with his wife, Hin.

Five days a week, the Vietnamese proprietors serve Japanese food on plates made in Korea. Among their ultra-loyal customers is Bryan Fullerton, who has been going to Tokyo House for about 12 years. He goes there as often as he can, but tries to get there at least once a month.

“It’s always an awesome experience when you go,” he said.

He and his friend Zach Hertel created a Facebook fan page, Can’s Tokyo House, more than a year ago, and watched it grow immediately. It has about 1,500 members and is about the only way to stay abreast of the restaurant.

It has no website of its own. Its listed telephone number is disconnected. The only way to connect to the Tokya House is through Facebook and its fan base — as evidenced by its recent closure.

For several months, the restaurant was closed as it tended to code issues with the city. When it reopened Jan. 10, it was posted on Facebook and lines that first Monday were instant.

No phone and no web page is consistent with many aspects of the place.

It starts with the pot-holed parking lot and extremely dated exterior. It continues inside with well-worn bench seats cut into the floor and covered by plain berber carpet. Just a few simple pictures hang on the mostly bare walls.

Even the cash register is low-key, and they don’t accept credit cards. The only two employees are Can and Hin.

And that is where part of the appeal starts. Customers will say that the food is one key thing about the place. But they quickly will point to Can as the other.

Officially, he’s quiet and discreet, which includes declining in-depth interviews.

“I don’t want to be famous. I just want to live,” he said.

But from 4 to 8 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, he’s on stage behind his grills. He combines jokes and theatrics for a night of entertainment — flirting with pretty girls and creating fireballs on the grill that reach to the edge of the overhead fan. And people keep coming back.

“I have a good time with everyone here,” Can said.

“He makes it,” said customer Tim Morrow. He’s been frequenting Tokyo House about once a month for five years.

“It’s kind of like a tradition,” he said. “It’s just a great place to be and you meet a bunch of people that are crazy enough to stand outside with you.”

Often people will wait two to three hours before taking a seat, and then they wait longer while Can, the only cook, and Hin, the only server, make their way around to the six tables that each seat eight people.

Because Can doesn’t take reservations, many patrons choose to brave the cold and wait sooner rather than later, arriving shortly before the doors open.

“If you don’t, you’re going to be waiting for three hours or so. So it’s best to get here early,” Morrow said. “It’s just that good.”

Debbie Dibacco agrees.

“The food is incredible. The portions are great. It’s one of my favorite places,” she said. She added that another appeal is $6.95 for a meal she can eat for two days.

Dibacco said Can is an integral part of the experience, praising his ability to remember the names and occupations of his customers.

“He makes everybody feel welcome,” she said. She has eaten at Tokyo House regularly for almost 20 years, and plans to do so as long as the doors are open. And she’ll wait outside as long as she has to, she said.

“If I was coming here, I wouldn’t leave until I ate,” she said.

The NewsOutlet is a joint media venture by student and professional journalists and is a collaboration of Youngstown State University, WYSU radio and The Vindicator.


1Freeatlast(1991 comments)posted 3 years, 11 months ago

Great Food . But could be a lot cleaner

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2ValleyNative(174 comments)posted 3 years, 11 months ago

I have never been there, but I only hear marvelous reviews. This guy could probably move to a big city and have a successful restaurant.

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3Stan(9923 comments)posted 3 years, 11 months ago

Being a glutton for good food I'll have to stop in sometime . EXCELLENT ARTICLE VINDY !

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4mother05(1 comment)posted 3 years, 11 months ago

Tokyo House is the best. We have been going to dinner with Can for about 20 years. I watched his children grow up as he did ours. Heck at one time I would have dinner at Tokyo House three or four times a week. We used to go to dinner when my children were small and have to take them dinner ( they were picky) so we could eat. Now my grown children would give anything to go to dinner at Tokyo House as often as possible. Glad to have Tokyo House open again. We are sorry that Can is no longer open on Saturdays. We were there on opening night, the FOOD WAS GREAT!! And yes it was packed!!!!!

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5walter_sobchak(2029 comments)posted 3 years, 11 months ago

The customers appear to be smiling and having a great time. I have only heard good things about the food but a two hour wait? It better be a great show!

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6ValleyNative(174 comments)posted 3 years, 11 months ago

@ justice

Draught House

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7lovedrama(138 comments)posted 3 years, 11 months ago

Draught house is cool. I like the place, but this place is exceptional. I probably wouldnt wait 2-3 hours though.

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8Rachael0629(1 comment)posted 3 years, 11 months ago

I have been going for more than 10 yrs. It is THE best kept secret in Youngstown. I have waited for hours, on more occasions than I can remember. It is always worth the wait!! I get an excellent dinner for the night and great lunch for the next day, as long as no one finds out whats in the container before lunch time :)

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9yfdgricker(5 comments)posted 3 years, 11 months ago

I have waited hours to eat at Tokyo House on numerous occasions and I will continue to do so. I enjoy the food very much and I have yet to find anyone who can make fried rice quite like Can.

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10sherryb(1 comment)posted 3 years, 11 months ago

omg ! Can, ur back !!!!!! Absolutley best resteraunt in Mahoning Valley. Great food, great atmosphere. Don't ever leave us again !!! We missed you !!!

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11fitnessbuff(57 comments)posted 3 years, 11 months ago

sawa is dirty...from what I hear from employees

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