Thursday, September 20, 2018
Business

Veteran Tampa Bay chef returns from retirement with sushi, jazz bar in downtown Clearwater

CLEARWATER — Behind his sushi bar on Cleveland Street, Charlie Lam slices fresh fish and vegetables exactly how his parents showed him as a child in Vietnam.

The recipes are the same ones he’s been repeating since he first started making them in his family’s restaurant at age 10.

Lam, 59, landed in Detroit in 1979 as a refugee of the aftermath of the Vietnam War and found his way to Tampa Bay in 1981 in search of warm weather and place to share his cooking. Since his first Chinese restaurant, Kimbo in St. Petersburg in 1985, to the 10-table Kaiko that operated in east Clearwater for two decades, not much has changed about Lam’s approach to his craft.

But after spending two years in a retirement that didn’t quite suit him, the chef returned Nov. 20 with a venture outside of downtown Clearwater that has a new edge to his classic techniques. It will double as a jazz cafe once a month under a name his regulars always called his other restaurants anyway: Charlie’s Sushi.

"He had a concept years ago and it worked for him," said bar manager Erik Vargas, 30. "You stick to what you know, what you’re really good at. All of our customers are family because of that."

Lam bought the former Los Mayas Mexican Restaurant at the corner of Cleveland Street and Missouri Avenue in May, gutted the inside and recruited his family to help launch it. The operation runs on Lam, sons Dan, 28, and Alan, 24, and Vargas, who has worked for the family since 2010.

No one has precise titles because "In the future, if they want to open their own restaurant, they have to know how to do everything," Lam said.

Just like he grew up, Lam’s children started early in the kitchen, with Dan and Alan committed now to the restaurant industry while their brother, Bryant, went into electrical engineering.

"Everything we learned is from the family, just like my father learned," Alan said.

There are no days off for Lam, he said. It’s not unusual for him to leave past midnight and return early the next morning to prep and clean.

David Abelson, a financial adviser with Morgan Stanley, has been a regular since Kaiko’s early days in the 1990s, bringing clients in for lunch every week, sometimes returning in the same day for dinner with his wife.

He said there was a void after Kaiko, which Lam rebranded as Ocean Blue in 2011 and sold in 2014. Like most regulars, Abelson kept tabs on Lam through mutual friends during his retirement and was one of the first to return to the new venue in November.

"One of the best things is Charlie is always there," Abelson said. "His entire life is based around this."

During his retirement, Lam and his wife, June, traveled for seven months to Taiwan, Hong Kong, Vietnam, studying the cuisine along the way — but nowhere could he find sushi that tasted quite like his family’s.

Even culinary school didn’t feel right. Lam said he took courses in 1981 but left after instructors encouraged students to cut onions with a chopping machine instead of a knife.

Lam said he was open to the unconventional blend of sushi and jazz for what it could offer to the downtown still working on a revival. Yoshi’s sushi restaurant in Oakland has become world- renowned for the concept.

Jimmy Richman, who met Lam as a customer at Kaiko 20 years ago, said the dream is to make Charlie’s Sushi the same caliber of a destination.

When Lam told him he was bored in retirement and wanted to open a new restaurant, Richman said, he put $25,000 into the building renovation to include a stage and sound equipment and took the lead on organizing the musical lineups. He hopes to expand the monthly jazz acts to be a more regular staple.

Because if there’s anything Lam has mastered in his career, it’s consistency.

"This is going to be a landmark in three to five years," Richman said. "We are going to make it happen."

Contact Tracey McManus at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.

if you go

Charlie’s Sushi

Where: 1200 Cleveland St.

Hours: Noon to 11 p.m. Monday through Friday, 4 p.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

Jazz: The restaurant will host a national contemporary jazz band once a month. Door charge is $30 and reservations must be made by calling Jimmy Richman at (727) 515-4454. The next show is Dec. 13, featuring Vincent Ingala. Seating starts at 6:30 p.m. and show time is 8. Profits will be donated to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.

 
Comments
Former Tampa Bay exec and Chico’s CEO Shelley Broader discusses changing retail in St. Pete visit

Former Tampa Bay exec and Chico’s CEO Shelley Broader discusses changing retail in St. Pete visit

ST. PETERSBURG — When Shelley Broader worked in Tampa Bay, she was turning around a failing grocery store.It was the early 2000s. Amazon wasn’t a powerhouse yet, people were still on Myspace and no one was ordering groceries online. On Thursday, she ...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Tampa Bay’s fastest selling used car is a Prius. Do you drive the slowest selling car?

Tampa Bay’s fastest selling used car is a Prius. Do you drive the slowest selling car?

Apparently, a lot of people in Tampa Bay are trying to get their hands on a Toyota Prius. An analysis by iSeeCars shows that the eco-friendly car is the fastest-selling used vehicle in the area, averaging 19.2 days on the market. That might not be su...
Updated: 2 hours ago
Cargill recalls more beef on E.coli worries from Colorado plant tied to previous recall

Cargill recalls more beef on E.coli worries from Colorado plant tied to previous recall

Cargill Inc. is recalling more than 132,600 pounds of ground beef possibly contaminated with harmful E. coli bacteria that food-safety investigators believe has already caused 17 illnesses and one death.The beef originated at a Cargill slaughterhouse...
Updated: 4 hours ago
Colorado-based alternative fuel company to hire 45 at new $10 million factory in Plant City

Colorado-based alternative fuel company to hire 45 at new $10 million factory in Plant City

PLANT CITY — Alternative fuel firm MLMC Florida will open a $10 million factory near the Hillsborough-Polk county line and will create 45 new jobs paying an average salary of at least $58,383 a year, officials said Thursday.Based in Parker, Colo., ML...
Updated: 6 hours ago
Publix has pumpkin spice everything on sale, and other deals this week in coupons (Sept. 20-26)

Publix has pumpkin spice everything on sale, and other deals this week in coupons (Sept. 20-26)

Sometimes, the coupon gods align. And, man, that’s beautiful because everyone loves so-cheap-it’s-almost-free stuff.Vegetarians rejoice: This week’s steal of a deal is for you. Publix has Quorn "chick’n" nuggets and patties on BOGO (buy one, get one)...
Updated: 7 hours ago
Homes sales jump in Pinellas and Hillsborough in August after months of declines

Homes sales jump in Pinellas and Hillsborough in August after months of declines

Home sales in August hit their highest levels in a year in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties as prices throughout the Tampa Bay area continued to rise. In Pinellas, sales of single-family homes jumped nearly 7 percent from the same month a year ago....
Updated: 7 hours ago
Floridan hotel misses deadline, faces hearing on repairs to keep more concrete from falling

Floridan hotel misses deadline, faces hearing on repairs to keep more concrete from falling

TAMPA — When a chunk of concrete fell off the Floridan Palace Hotel last month, injuring a woman who was struck by debris, city officials gave the historic building’s owners a deadline to submit an engineering report and make repairs.That deadline ca...
Updated: 8 hours ago
Too many homeowners forced to tap home equity to pay for day-to-day expenses

Too many homeowners forced to tap home equity to pay for day-to-day expenses

Tapping home equity to pay for day-to-day expenses like groceries and utilities is a recipe for financial peril. It can work for a while, especially if home prices are rising. Eventually the spigot runs dry, bills pile up and your home can be lost to...
Published: 09/19/18
Updated: 09/20/18
Pinellas County strikes bed tax deal with VRBO, HomeAway and other AirBnb competitors

Pinellas County strikes bed tax deal with VRBO, HomeAway and other AirBnb competitors

The Pinellas County Tax Collector’s Office will start collecting bed tax dollars from a slew of home rental apps that operate similarly to AirBnb starting Oct. 1.Prior to the new partnerships with TripAdvisor and Expedia, only AirBnb had set up to pa...
Published: 09/19/18
Study: Tampa International Airport ranks fourth best for satisfying travelers

Study: Tampa International Airport ranks fourth best for satisfying travelers

Times Staff WriterTampa International Airport was named the fourth-best large airport in the U.S. at keeping travelers satisfied, according to a study by J.D. Power released Wednesday.Meanwhile, the study ranked Orlando International as the country’s...
Published: 09/19/18