Modesto CA’s Torii restaurant-bar reopens in Century Center

One of the Central Valley’s most theatrical dining experiences is back, and its new owners hope its future is better and brighter than ever.

Torii Japanese Restaurant, a mainstay of east Modesto’s Century Center shopping center since 1983, has reopened after more than a year and a half of renovations and work. In May 2019, Danny Zeng along with business partners Brandon Dodge and Kern Lew took over the decades-old establishment and vowed to bring it back. Then the pandemic hit right as they were ready to reopen in March.

Now some eight months later Torii, a beloved karaoke spot for late-night revelers and a special dinner-and-a-show stop thanks to its teppanyaki menu, has officially returned with a new, more open look and a refreshed slate of offerings.

“We want to refresh people’s memories of Torii,” Zeng said. “Everyone has memories of their parents coming here bringing them, going here when they were younger. We want to bring them back for new memories.”

The challenging renovation and reopening process was helped by the fact that the men behind the scenes have extensive experience in the local restaurant business, as owners and managers of Fumi Sushi on Standiford Avenue and Kimoto Sake & Sushi on McHenry Avenue. They also brought in a team of equally experienced chefs, including longtime Modesto restaurateur George Chen (affectionately known as Chef George by loyal customers), to help make Torii a destination spot again for diners and fun-seekers alike.

The first thing you’ll notice when you reenter Torii is how airy the once dark, almost cave-like space feels. Walls have been taken down so there are sightlines through the entire restaurant to the centerpiece teppanyaki tabletops and the refurbished sushi bar. Zeng said they looked at customer complaints before starting work, and made sure to address them in their renovations.

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Torii Japanese Restaurant at Century Center in Modesto, Calif., on Thursday, Nov. 12, 2020. Andy Alfaro [email protected]

Pandemic slowed down work, complicates opening

Originally, Zeng and his partners had set an optimistic opening schedule for summer 2019. But when the scope of the interior work became clear, including all-new electrical and plumbing, the timeline was extended. In mid-March, when the statewide stay-at-home order was issued, the remaining work slowed down considerably because of supply and inspection delays. Now few areas remain untouched, from the seating area to the sprinkler system to the mural in the karaoke corner.

You’ll also see an overhaul of the menu, but it will still feature a revamped style of its popular teppanyaki option. Torii is the only restaurant in the city, and in fact region, to offer the showy style of dining that involves a trained chef cooking the food in front of customers at built-in teppanyaki grills surrounded by tables and seating.

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George Chen works the teppanyaki at Torii Japanese Restaurant at Century Center in Modesto, Calif., on Thursday, Nov. 12, 2020. Andy Alfaro [email protected]

Chef George, who mans and trains the teppanyaki side of the menu, actually worked at Torii in 1985 before starting his own restaurant, Kirin Japanese Steak House in McHenry Village, the next year. It stayed open until 2012, and now he’s bringing that knowledge back to Torii. Two of the other teppanyaki chefs also worked for a time at Torii, and have now returned.

The restaurant’s kitchen has also been redone and brought up to code. There are a variety of items to choose from for those not dining at the teppanyaki tables including a large number of appetizers, ramen and udon soups, and traditional Japanese bento boxes. The bar has also updated its specialty cocktails, and offers a large variety of kinds and brands of sake.

New menu, sushi items and upgraded ingredients await

Zeng said they’ve upgraded their ingredients as well, using higher quality beef and seafood flown in nearly daily from Japan and other freshly sourced options.

Having two other sushi restaurants helps, so they are able to get the freshest fish and more to offer. In fact, aside from completing the construction one of the hardest things for them has been to come up with new names for their sushi creations. Rolls with names like Billie Jean and Love Shack range in price from $5 to $18. Zeng said they wanted to keep each restaurant’s sushi menu distinct, so you’ll find different specialty rolls at each location.

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Super Bowl of sushi at Torii Japanese Restaurant at Century Center in Modesto, Calif., on Thursday, Nov. 12, 2020. The Super Bowl is seared tuna roll, spicy crab, tempura shrimp, calamari, avocado, jalepeno with greens. Andy Alfaro [email protected]

Despite having two other sushi restaurants, Zeng said Torri still sets itself apart by being one of the only Japanese restaurants on the east side of the city. They’ve brought in chef Thomas Ly, who previously worked at Mikuni Japanese restaurant in Berkeley, to head the sushi operation.

In fact, Zeng said without the other two establishments they might not have survived the closure. He said Fumi and Kimoto received federal Paycheck Protection Program funds, which allowed them to keep some staff who would otherwise be working at Torii. Employees were trained twice for reopening, as the management waited for the all-clear to reopen in-restaurant dining.

And then, there’s the karaoke. The restaurant reopened this week for inside dining while the county remains in the red tier of coronavirus restrictions. But its bustling karaoke bar remains closed and will stay closed until given the all-clear by health officials to resume such indoor activities.

Karaoke on pause for now, and takeout could commence soon

Still, rest assured, when it’s allowed Zeng said he’s anxious to “flip the switch” and welcome the karaoke crowd back.

If the county is forced to go back into the most restrictive purple tier, as many expect this coming week, the restaurant will pivot to takeout and delivery business only. Zeng said with winter approaching they don’t want to try outdoor seating, plus it’s logistically impossible to bring out the teppanyaki grills.

In the short time they’ve been open this week the teppanyaki tables have been a big draw already and they’ve sold out of their available seatings. Reservations are required to dine at them, and they’ve already had to turn people away because they’ve reached the indoor limits.

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A selection of sake at Torii Japanese Restaurant at Century Center in Modesto, Calif., on Thursday, Nov. 12, 2020. Andy Alfaro [email protected]

Capacity inside is 156, but with the current COVID-19 safety guidelines they can seat about 40 indoors. They’ve reopened with about 20 employees, including a small handful of staff from the previous ownership. They’re still hiring, and once they’re able to open fully they expect to have a full staff of about 35.

Still, despite the current challenges, Zeng is optimistic about Torii’s future.

“It’s like for everyone else, this year has been very difficult. It’s been shut down and reopen, shut down and reopen. But we still see the potential and that keeps us going,” he said. “We will adapt and we will survive.”

Torii Japanese Restaurant, 2401 E Orangeburg Ave. Suite #35 in Modesto, is open from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 4 to 9:30 p.m. daily. For more information call 209-488-4921 and www.toriimodesto.com.

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Marijke Rowland writes about new business, restaurant and retail developments. She has been with The Modesto Bee since 1997 covering a variety of topics including arts and entertainment. Her Business Beat column runs multiple times a week. And it’s pronounced Mar-eye-ke.
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