Osaka meets Oaxaca: How a Japanese chef discovered Mexico in Kentucky.
The cuisine at Dragon King’s Daughter flashes more passports than a Jason Bourne movie. Chef Toki Masabuchi’s dishes, based on Japanese classics, are prone to wanderlust, moving across Asia, around Europe and softly landing somewhere south of the US border. At the original Highlands location, tacos and quesadillas receive an Eastern spin. At the recently-opened DKD in New Albany, Masabuchi gives her menu there the tapas treatment.
Masabuchi says she wants to show Kentuckiana that her native cuisine is more than tempura and teriyaki. She is, understandably, not shy in extolling the virtues of the food she grew up eating in Osaka, but is equally generous toward those influences that have entered her repertoire since arriving in the States.
“Whatever the food, if it tastes good, it tastes good,” says Masabuchi.
At her previous post, Maido Essential Japanese, the chef’s palette was influenced by the Mexican kitchen staff who’d display their chops during staff meals, introducing unfamiliar ingredients from Louisville’s ethnic markets.
After exposing her to authentic Mexican stands around town, the once-reluctant Masabuchi became a taco convert.
The Dragon King concept was born with a Yakiniku taco experiment, which can be had at the Highlands DKD in the form of Asian BBQ Beef Tacos ($10) — grilled rib eye, smoky-sweet Kogi-style barbecue sauce and a wasabi mayo drizzle. Masabuchi’s riff on Mexican street food follows this basic model and price point, interchanging proteins, particularly seafood, with a variety of Japanese dressings and technique.
DKD doesn’t always confine its itinerary to Japan and Mexico. North of the Ohio, a light dusting of south-of-the-border spice is available (a Chile Relleno ($6) spiked with pineapple teriyaki, for instance) primarily, though, DKD-New Albany is about affordable, Asian small-plates.
Both DKD settings offer artfully prepared sushi made with what Masabuchi calls “not weird” fish. Salmon, tuna and yellow tail make up the maki and assigned chuckle-worthy monikers like Sushi and the Banshees ($10,) and Hoosier Mama ($14.) Unagi (fresh water eel) is about as kooky as it gets. The grilled, savory filets appear in the namesake Dragon King’s Daughter roll ($13,) with shrimp tempura and avocado.
Masabuchi left Osaka with hopes of becoming a foreign correspondent in New York. The pursuit landed her in Columbia, Kentucky of all places. The town’s three-square miles held about 3,800 people, less than one-percent of them Asian. The culture shock the student experienced in this land of Baptist churches, gun shops and fast food restaurants is understandable. Masabuchi had trouble finding a bowl of rice in Adair County, let alone Japanese delicacies. She soon longed for the “Kuidaore” food culture that her hometown is famous for.
So, it was with a hungry belly that Masabuchi returned to Japan following her Lindsey Wilson College days. Although not yet considering a career in restaurants, she advanced deeper into her culinary education. Her father was a regional manager for a large, restaurant chain, well-versed in Japan’s seafood and vegetable markets. Masabuchi recalls his crack-of-dawn excursions, collecting the finest fish and vegetables the country had to offer. Little in mom’s kitchen was frozen, processed or microwaved.
Masabuchi would later study at the University of Louisville. The city’s food scene offered an upgrade from Columbia’s Taco Bells, but there remained a culinary void Masabuchi became determined to fill on her own. She finished school and in 2002, hit up her father for a loan.
Dad was not enthusiastic, but not unencouraging. Start small. Cut your teeth. Prove that you can do it, he told her. Much like the character in the legend of the Dragon King’s Daughter, Masabuchi would have to first show her doubters that she was capable of enlightenment. With that paternal advice and a little cash, she opened a take-out sushi stand in a former Bardstown Road fish market.
Raw fish in a landlocked state was a hard sell, but the chef rolled on. After about a year and half, Maido-To-Go had earned its share of fans, along with the capital to upgrade to a full service restaurant on Frankfort Avenue.
“I really wanted to eat the food I used to eat, at the places I used to go, the markets and home cooking,” says Masabuchi. “That’s what I tried to do at the Maido.”
Maido was a hit and Masabuchi has been building on her success since. Asked if it’s stressful now running two restaurants, she smiles widely and says, “No, I just have twice as many friends.”
Has her father tried her food yet? Masabuchi’s smile widens.
“Pop is a tough critic. And he’s an Asian dad, so he doesn’t compliment very much.”
Is he the Dragon King, then?
“Yes, I think so,” laughs Masabuchi. “But, he’s very proud.”
Dragon King’s Daughter
202E. Elm St.
New Albany, IN
1126 Bardstown Rd.