After almost 24 years serving homey Japanese dishes in a much-loved restaurant that resembles a doll’s house, Noriko and Takumi Taniguchi will be hanging up their aprons and closing the door for the last time on Nov. 19.
Their devoted customers will miss Noriko’s changing roster of little side dishes that accompany the grilled fish, vegetables, pork curry and soups. With no sushi, tempura or sukiyaki on Norikonoko’s menu, the couple has never focused on pleasing the general public. “The point is to cook like mothers did for their families in the old days,“ says Noriko.
In 2012, Noriko shared with Nosh the story of how she came to the second career she always wanted. And her philosophy of cooking: “Every meal should be balanced, with vegetables, soup, pickles, rice, a main course and two to three side dishes.”
Rumors have swirled for some time about plans to close The Village, the quaint mini-mall, whose tenants include Norikonoko, Fondue Fred, Finfiné, Koryo Restaurant and Arriba Peru. It seems that current plans call for the 1946 hippie-esque food court to be demolished in 2020 to make room for an eight-story mixed-use building.
“The landlord told us that we would have to leave after 5 p.m. on Dec. 31, 2019,” says Noriko, “but we decided to stop before that. My grandson is graduating from USC and our helper Chris is graduating from Cal, so we are graduating from the restaurant.”
Although they decline to reveal their ages, the Taniguchis admit that the years are finally catching up with them, and that running their restaurant and cooking all the dishes themselves imposes a demanding schedule.
Noriko Taniguchi: Even though our lunch and dinner hours are short, we make everything from scratch. We are ready to retire now. We haven’t taken a real vacation for years, because it would have been more work to clean out the refrigerator and freezer.
NOSH: What are your plans after you close Norikonoko?
NT: First, I will clean my house for a couple of months, clear out a nice space and catch up on reading all the books I’ve collected. We will walk around Berkeley and Kensington with our 18-year old poodle. We’ve heard our customers’ stories about their cruises. Who knows, maybe we will take a cruise through AARP.
NOSH: Haven’t your customers been asking you to teach some cooking classes?
NT: Yes, they have been asking me for years. I’m going to look into it — perhaps through Berkeley or Albany Adult schools. I would like to teach them how to make some of the side dishes I make, for example gomae or ohitashi. It seems simple, but you have to know how to pick the spinach, how to cook it, how to squeeze it and how to make the seasoning.
NOSH: What will you miss?
NT: Everything. It was all fun: planning menus, shopping, preparing, chopping, cooking and serving people. Some loyal customers have been regular customers for many years. One gentleman even came for dinner every night for 23 years.
Noriko makes several small side dishes daily, such as fish cake with vegetables, spinach with sesame sauce and mountain vegetables. She judges each customer to figure out which one they would like. Takumi is master of the grill.
If customers insist ordering food for pick up, the Taniguchis are willing, but Noriko doesn’t like to-go orders. “If people eat here, when I give them the food it is done perfectly,” she says. “If they take it home, who knows how long the food sits before they eat it?”
Noriko’s customers feel like family. In some cases, she has seen them and their children grow up. Certain loyal patrons repaid the care shown them by dropping off cards and healthy food for Noriko during two trying times. In 2011, the restaurant closed for six months while she underwent treatment for esophageal cancer. Then in 2013, an electrical fire caused a shut down for another six months. Some people would have taken the cue and called it quits. With their determined spirits, the Taniguchis were not ready to give up, yet.
During a recent lunch service, two students breathlessly arrive at 12:50 p.m., 10 minutes before they close their lunch service. “Please can we order some ramen?” the girls ask. “Sorry we are closing in 10 minutes,” says Takumi. But a breath later, he relents, “Oh, okay I’ll make your ramen.”
The Taniguchis had mixed feelings about giving their loyal customers any advance warning of the impending closure. They were afraid that it would lead to an overwhelming rush of diners coming to say goodbye and enjoy a last meal. But they are trusting that it will all work out. This week, Noriko posted a little note on the window:
“It is with great sadness to announce the closing of Norikonoko Japanese Restaurant. Our last day will be November 19, 2017. Thank you very much for your warm support over the last 23 and ½ years. It certainly was a great experience and we enjoyed being part of this wonderful community. We love you and we hope to see you around the community.”
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