South Korean native’s sushi spot opening downtown Tyler
BY CASEY MURPHY
Johnny Chang moved to the United States when he was 6 but still recalls the smell of Korean barbecue wafting from street vendors in his native South Korea.
In 1985, Chang and his father moved to Houston and Chang was disappointed. He saw the movie "Back to the Future" and thought he would see flying cars in America. Instead, he saw flat land and cows -- a much different atmosphere from the bustling city life of Seoul, he said.
Chang, 34, said his father raised him on his own, working two jobs until he saved enough to open a small hamburger joint in Katy. During high school, Chang was forced to work in the restaurant -- flipping burgers, busing tables and washing dishes. He hated it and decided he never wanted to be in the restaurant industry, he said.
He didn't know then he would one day become a chef and open his own restaurant in downtown Tyler. Chang is preparing to open Bistrolls in April in the space that housed the Downtown Coffee Lounge from March 2010 through July, 2012.
The new eatery will serve "create your own" sushi rolls and healthy versions of traditional Asian dishes, as well as coffee and breakfast.
Chang attended The University of Texas at Austin for three years before taking a leave of absence. He said he felt lost and didn't know what he wanted to do with his life, so he moved back home to work and take community college classes. He got a job at a Japanese restaurant, starting out as server and bartender before being promoted to assistant manager and manager. In 2002, the executive chef began training Chang to be a sushi chef. He said he hadn't before realized the art of sushi and he was intrigued. The man who taught him didn't use a set of standards and was always thriving for more, he said, adding that he is still inspired by him.
"I don't like to stick to the traditions -- it's this way or no way at all," Chang said. "There should be no standards set."
After managing the restaurant for three years, Chang got a call from a friend who was working at Shogun in Tyler, and was looking for a sushi chef. In January 2006, he became the sushi chef at Shogun No. 2. Since then, he has trained just about all of the chefs at both Shogun restaurants to make sushi, he said.
Chang said he tried several times to start businesses in Houston and Tyler but failed because investors didn't come through. "I always wanted to open my own business just for the money so I could get rich," he said. He knows now it was good that he failed before because he didn't have a main goal or a passion as he does now, he said, adding that he no longer wants to open a business just for the money.
About three years ago, when he became general manager at Shogun, he decided he wanted to open a restaurant. He continued working at Shogun while working on his business model, experimenting with dishes and developing a true passion for food. Chang also married his wife Nicole three years ago and they have a 16-month-old daughter, Olivia.
When Chang told Tae Park, owner of Shogun, that he wanted to open a fast-paced modern-style sushi restaurant named Bistrolls, he laughed at him. "Everyone thought the name Bistrolls was ridiculous," he said, but he thought it was catchy and that it might work for his concept.
Now Park is partnering with Chang to bring Bistrolls to Tyler. Chang said he will still help Park with decisions at Shogun, but he will run Bistrolls.
Chang wants to provide a lot of options using healthy ingredients and spices from all over the world. "I want to try something new and fresh," he said.
Customers will be able to customize their sushi rolls by picking their own ingredients. He will offer tofu and soy bean products, as well as marinated ribeye and ham for people who don't like fish. He also will offer traditional fish, such as tuna, salmon, yellow tail and eel.
Chang enjoys putting his twist on traditional dishes, such as his avocado miso soup, and in his dumplings made with fresh tuna, he said. Nearly everything at Bistrolls will be infused with healthy ingredients.
Customers will watch their sushi rolls being made and take them to their table, while dishes that require cooking will be delivered to them. He said they also will offer catering to businesses.
For breakfast, Bistrolls will serve simple, healthy dishes, such as "create your own breakfast bowls." The coffee side of the business will offer everything the Downtown Coffee Lounge did, such as lattes, mochas, cappuccinos and espressos.
Chang also plans to offer bubble tea and drinks -- fruity drinks with tapioca or fruit syrup flavored balls that pop in the mouth, which are really popular in larger cities, he said. There also will be Bistrolls' signature ice green tea. For dessert, he will have Taiwanese-style shaved ice with condensed milk and fresh fruit toppings.
Chang hopes to open the restaurant in early April and plans to have six or seven employees, including a man who worked at the coffee shop. They bought all the furniture and equipment from the previous business and are now working to get the kitchen properly set up for the restaurant, he said. He also is maximizing the space by adding bench seating and turning the conference room into a lounge area.
"I think we might start off slow," he said of the business. "This is more of my gaining experience. Basically, I have to train myself ... But this will be a stepping stone for our goal."
He believes Bistrolls will end up doing well because downtown has a lunch crowd and the coffee lounge was going well in the mornings, he said, adding that he believes the new concept will provide another option for downtown dining.
Chang plans to open more Bistrolls restaurants in the future, starting with one on South Broadway Avenue and followed by branching out to Dallas and other areas.
Bistrolls, at 200 W. Erwin St., will be open 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday.