Park left Seoul, Korea, in 1983 — “I had two choices, join the military or come to the US” — and made his way to Philly, where he began working at Old City joint Hikaru. Walking home every day, he would gaze at the empty restaurant space he now owns, and dream of opening his own spot. He saved up, borrowed some money from friends, accepted the generosity of construction workers who wanted to go the extra mile, and launched Kisso (translation: “good news”) in October 1997. Back then, sushi was still relatively exotic, and Old City was newly hot. Park was busy.
A decision to partner with a friend and branch out with the tempura place in Northern Liberties put a strain on Park’s finances and attention in the early ‘00s, and then aftermath from the financial crash of 2008 decimated Kisso’s clientele. But slowly, especially over the past five years, Kisso has begun to hum again. There are tons more options for sushi in Philly now , but Park doesn’t see that as a bad thing. Sushi is much more widely accepted — you can even buy it at the Acme.
But you can't get fresh-grated wasabi root atop a lobe of Hokkaido uni nestled next to a quail egg. Or experience the surprising umami that yamakake (a sauce of grated yam) adds to toro tuna. Or discover how strips of slippery-sweet aloe vera leaf contrast with briny pops of salmon roe when served in a tumbled martini glass.
Park finds it more difficult to get good ingredients than when he first opened. “Especially salmon,” he said. “It’s all farm-raised. I like to know exactly where it’s from and how they treat it.” He’s had run-ins with the Health Department, like when they told him he and his chefs would have to wear plastic gloves: “Touching the fish with your hands is the most important thing!” Sometimes he arrives for work at 4 a.m. to fulfill big catering orders (Kisso provides the sushi for various other catering companies, such as Brulee).
But generally, Park, at age 53, is in for the long haul.