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First in an occasional series
My mental map of Philadelphia restaurants is pretty solid. It doesn’t have every establishment, but I am usually confident it doesn’t have major gaps, especially in Center City. So my ego took a big hit a couple weeks ago when I discovered Kisso Sushi Bar, hiding in plain sight at the corner of Fourth and Race.
The professionalism of the chefs flashing knives behind the long wooden counter and the hospitality of the servers in the warm, orange-toned dining room evinced the spot’s two decades in business. The 22 different nigiri a la carte options proved it was serious about fish. The tightly rolled maki cut in bite-sized pieces bespoke practice and skill. Best of all, the scattering of off-menu omakase creations I tried were as exciting as some pieces I’d eaten at acclaimed sushi temples like Morimoto and Royal Izakaya.
How in the world did a restaurant like this exist entirely off my radar?
One potential reason might have been that owner Alex Park has never done advertising, not since his first year in biz. But I really never pay attention to ads, anyway. Option two: Maybe Kisso was missing from social media, where I get most of my news? Nope, it has active accounts on both Insta and FB. A third possibility, that some out-of-the-way address had kept it hidden, was impossible, since I bike past that location on the regular.
Fourth choice, and likely the true answer, is that for some reason, no one talks or writes about Kisso anymore.
The name is missing from all the regular “best sushi” or “where to get Japanese” roundups — it’s not included by Eater, Zagat, Yelp, Foursquare or Thrillist. It apparently hasn’t been mentioned in an Inquirer article since 2003, when Craig LaBan said he liked it more than now-closed spinoff Kissen Tempura Bar. (Kisso did get an Inky rave back in 1999 — food writer Rick Nicholas called Park to warn him to “make more rice this week” because of the crowds he knew his writeup would bring.) The “Kisso” tag on Foobooz has one entry, from 2007, which points to a single-paragraph Uwishunu post on the place.
The quietude is great for the regulars on whom Park loves to lavish attention. “I like to find out how hungry you are, and then give you just enough fish to satisfy,” he said, explaining that even though he hasn’t changed his standard menu since opening, most of what he serves is highly customized.
But the lack of chatter also means he could be doing a lot more business, especially during lunch or non-weekend evenings.
Park learned the sushi trade on the job. He left Seoul, Korea, in 1983 — “I had two choices, join the military or come to the US” — and made his way to Philly, where he began working at Old City joint Hikaru. Walking home every day, he would gaze at the empty restaurant space he now owns, and dream of opening his own spot. He saved up, borrowed some money from friends, accepted the generosity of construction workers who wanted to go the extra mile, and launched Kisso (translation: “good news”) in October 1997.
Back then, sushi was still relatively exotic, and Old City was newly hot. Park was busy.
A decision to partner with a friend and branch out with the tempura place in Northern Liberties put a strain on Park’s finances and attention in the early ‘00s, and then aftermath from the financial crash of 2008 decimated Kisso’s clientele. But slowly, especially over the past five years, Kisso has begun to hum again. There are tons more options for sushi in Philly now (check all those lists that omit this one), but Park doesn’t see that as a bad thing. Sushi is much more widely accepted — you can even buy it at the Acme.
What you can’t do at the Acme is store your favorite bottle of whiskey on the shelf, like Park does for customers at his BYOB.
You also can’t get fresh-grated wasabi root atop a lobe of Hokkaido uni nestled next to a quail egg. Or experience the surprising umami that yamakake (a sauce of grated yam) adds to toro tuna. Or discover how strips of slippery-sweet aloe vera leaf contrast with briny pops of salmon roe when served in a tumbled martini glass.
Park finds it more difficult to get good ingredients than when he first opened. “Especially salmon,” he said. “It’s all farm-raised. I like to know exactly where it’s from and how they treat it.” He’s had run-ins with the Health Department, like when they told him he and his chefs would have to wear plastic gloves: “Touching the fish with your hands is the most important thing!” Sometimes he arrives for work at 4 a.m. to fulfill big catering orders (Kisso provides the sushi for various other catering companies, such as Brulee).
But generally, Park, at age 53, is in for the long haul. “Twenty more years behind the bar?” he said. “Yeah, that would be great.”