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

Published December 6 2017
Updated December 6 2017

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 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.