Isla Vista’s Sushiya Connects a Student to Her Korean Roots

Longtime Sushi Restaurant Is Owned by Korean Family

Sushiya owner James Lee and his daughter Leanne Lee work together to make such Korean classics as bibimbap.

Hannah Park Photos

Sushiya owner James Lee and his daughter Leanne Lee work together to make such Korean classics as bibimbap.

Growing up Korean-American, I’ve always been surrounded by traditional Korean food, which remains my favorite to this day. One of my earliest childhood memories is of my grandfather and I sitting outside of my mother’s Korean restaurant eating yukgaejang, my grandfather’s favorite type of soup, as we waited for her shift to end. I can still visualize the rich red color of the spicy beef-and-vegetable soup and taste the savory cabbage, glass noodle, and shredded beef on my tongue.

For me, each Korean dish holds meaning and represents a memory that I can trace back to my earlier years, and I often reminisce about my mother’s homemade meals. That’s why one of the hardest things about moving to college for me was the food — or rather, the lack of it.

Though Sushiya has been in Isla Vista for many years, it wasn’t always a favorite among college students and residents. But when James and Cindy Lee took ownership of the restaurant a few years ago, the business started to take off. Now the Lees run the restaurant together with their daughters, Kate and Leanne.

The Lee family moved from Seoul in 2004 when Kate and Leanne were 15 and 14 years old. The hardest part about the move was learning English and, of course, the American food scene. “My sister and I were two out of five Koreans in the entire high school, and some kids made fun of us because we couldn’t speak English,” said Kate. “When we went to school, Leanne and I would be together from the start of school to the end of last period. We were together so often that when we were separated, people would ask where my other half was.”

The transition and the language barrier were also hard on their parents, who often asked Kate for assistance when reading important documents and communicating with others. This sense of helplessness that plagued her parents put a burden on Kate and ultimately created a feeling of inferiority that the Lee family experienced as a whole.

Nevertheless, both Kate and Leanne overcame the obstacles of assimilation and were able to earn their bachelor’s degrees from UCSB. A few years after the sisters graduated, their parents bought Sushiya, which was then a strictly sushi restaurant. It was a surprising move to the sisters, but the ownership has served as a healing and bonding force for the Lee family.

Kate was reluctant to learn how to cook at first, but she now cooks alongside her mother, who has taught her many Korean recipes. “It’s nice being with my family and cooking food that is familiar to me,” said Kate. “It reminds me of the times back in Korea.” They offer many traditional Korean dishes such as galbi (sweet, grilled short rib) and bibimbap (a rice dish topped with carefully sliced vegetables and fried egg), as well as Korean street food. They still serve a full sushi menu and many other Japanese dishes, such as udon and ramen noodles, tonkatsu, and various teriyaki plates.

Though the sisters saw Isla Vista as a temporary living situation when they attended UCSB, the college town is now very much their home, and they’ve grown to appreciate the students and neighbors. “My mom says she loves cooking for the people here because she thinks of them as her own sons and daughters,” Kate said as she laughed.

The Lee family hopes to stay in Isla Vista for many more years to come. Although it seems like any other restaurant in a small college town, it has become much more than that over the years, providing comfort for those who crave a taste of home.

955 Embarcadero del Mar; (805) 961-8272; order online at GrubHub.com.