Nineteen years ago, the Lee family opened Teriyaki Plus in Bothell. The small fast-casual restaurant sat next to a 7-Eleven and built a loyal following over the years for its excellent take on the classic teriyaki dishes. But in February 2020, Teriyaki Plus suddenly closed, catching longtime customers by surprise. The closure also blindsided the two elder Lees and their three daughters, leaving them without the jobs, space, and community around which their lives centered.
In January 2021, the Lees opened their new restaurant, Tá Jóia, just across the street, bringing back old favorites in a modern new cafe space and an expanded menu of foods from the family’s own culture — their Korean heritage and Yoo-Mi’s time spent in Brazil. Inspired by what the Lees eat at home, Tá Jóia allows the cook and matriarch to show off her culinary talent with everything from pico de gallo to kimchi fried rice. “It’s my mom on a plate,” says her oldest daughter, Vivian.
The name Tá Jóia comes from a Brazilian phrase meaning “Everything is good.” It takes on a double meaning in Korean, where a similar phrase, “da joah” means almost the exact same thing. And at the end of 2019, it truly seemed like everything was good: Teriyaki Plus was more successful than ever. The Lees took their first family vacation in two decades, despite Yoo-Mi’s concern that customers would find a new teriyaki shop during the two-week closure. They didn’t. But a few months later the family found itself with a much bigger problem: They lost their lease on the space.
Over two decades, the family built a community. The Lees previously owned a dry cleaner in New York, but when they moved to Seattle 19 years ago, like so many other Korean families, they ended up buying a teriyaki shop. Initially, they knew nothing about teriyaki, yet Yoo-Mi’s cooking drove diners to line up out the door and a cast of regulars constantly camped out at the same tables where Vivian and her sisters grew up doing their homework.
In January 2020, they got the news: The gas station next door planned to expand and they had 40 days to get out. Vivian tried to fight the order — first with the landlord, then with the city. “It caught us off guard,” she says. Customers came in crying and told stories. The children they had been pregnant with when they first ate there were now in college. She saw the owners of the 7-Eleven next door, also kicked out, as they cleared out their store. “They were broken,” she says. “They just had boxes of Cheetos and Slim Jims, and were like, ‘I don’t know what to do with this.’”
Without the restaurant as the pandemic shut everything down, Vivian admits it was a slight relief to be at home. “It was the first time my parents had taken a break.” But it didn’t last long: Yoo-Mi spotted an empty retail space in the plaza across the street from Teriyaki Plus. Despite being more than twice the size they needed and far too expensive, it seemed like their only hope to stay in Bothell. They negotiated to rent half the space, so they had to install a new bathroom, and even then, the rent would be three times what they paid for their previous spot.
“I’m not going to live forever,” Yoo-Mi says. “If for the next five years I can continue to serve the community and we make a little less money, I’m fine with that.” She had put food on people’s plates, she said, but they also put food on her plate. “We were able to survive because this community supported us for 19 years.”
The new space came with one other problem, though: the plaza already had one teriyaki shop and, rather than open another, the people running the retail decisions hoped to aim slightly higher end. Vivian saw it as an opportunity.
When Yoo-Mi’s family moved from South Korea to find a better life in 1975, they ended up in Brazil. In the eight years she lived there, she found common ground with the local cuisine through rice. She incorporated the Brazilian style of dry-spice grilling into her repertoire of Korean dishes she made at home. “I always wished more people could try this,” Vivian says. But it didn’t quite fit in on the teriyaki menu.
Now, at Tá Jóia, says Vivian, “We have the freedom to do all the food my mom cooks for us at home.” The old teriyaki recipes, reformatted into fast-casual bowls like their house chicken, welcome back longtime customers. But alongside sit Korean favorites like hwae-dup-bap — Korean-style sashimi over rice — and hints of Yoo-Mi’s time in Brazil, like the Spanish rice and pico de gallo with the brisket, slow-cooked pork, and sausage special.
Vivian worries people will come in looking for Brazilian food or criticize the restaurant for its Brazilian name, even though they are Korean. “It’s just my mom and what she grew up tasting,” she says. Because the menu doesn’t fit neatly into the box people expect, Vivian — who took the lead on designing the restaurant — struggled to translate the jumbled identity into a welcoming space, eventually tapping the designers of another restaurant she liked, Hood Famous, to help her define its visual branding. La Union Studio stepped in and transformed the black ceilings and red pipes, which had made Vivian cry when she first saw them, into peachy ceilings and saffron-orange accents. “I wanted people to come in and feel warm and cozy. To like eating there,” she says.
Vivian put a favorite Anthony Bourdain quote on one of the walls to remind people that “when someone cooks for you, they are saying something. They are telling you about themselves: where they come from, who they are, what makes them happy.” And what gives Yoo-Mi joy, says her daughter, is cooking what she wants — be it seafood soup, bibimbap, or classic Seattle-style teriyaki. “I believe in my mom’s food,” says Vivian, and she nervously hopes the community will, too. Given the Lee family’s story and the origins of Tá Jóia, the name seems to take on a mantra-like role: No matter what this year brings, tá jóia. Everything is good.
- Tá Jóia [Official]