A love letter to Ladner’s Mt. Fuji restaurant

When Norm Peterson walked into his favourite Boston bar, he'd be greeted with a collective “Norm!” from patrons, and in a flash a foamy-topped mug of just-tapped beer would be slid down the countertop to his usual seat.

But of course, that was the long-running TV sitcom "Cheers," and not many of us are so lucky to have a watering hole or a restaurant where everybody knows your name.

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In my suburban non-work life in Ladner, I've had a place that comes pretty close. It's a sushi restaurant called Mt. Fuji that's been open since 2000. Mt. Fuji is run by a lovely local couple, Michael and Tiffany Hwu, who split the duties of sushi chef (Michael) and front of house (Tiffany) along with a small staff of cooks and servers, the latter mostly culled from the local high school. 

There's a bit of a running joke in South Delta when we learn a new restaurant is coming is that the last thing we need is another sushi restaurant. We're pretty choked with them, in the many little strip malls of our bedroom community. Just within a couple of minutes from my home - walking distance, even - there are five sushi places, and, yes, I've tried them all.

I first visited Mt. Fuji in June 2014. I know this because it's documented on my Instagram as a milestone day in my single-parent life; it was the second time my then-one-year-old son, Nolan, was spending some of his first few hours at a new place called "daycare" because I was about to start my new full-time job.

Going for sushi by myself was something I was no stranger to - in fact, it might even be my preferred way. For several years prior, in my "old life" in Los Angeles, I would often take a break from my work-at-home gig running a local media site by walking a couple of blocks to my neighbourhood sushi spot, grabbing a seat, and having a solo lunch. Not surprisingly, when I found myself alone for lunch for what was maybe the first time in the 13 months since my son had been born, I went in search of sushi.

Mt. Fuji is a small restaurant, with four seats at the sushi bar and another couple dozen at tables. The walls boast beautiful photos of Japan I'd learn down the line were taken by the Hwu's talented son. Little novelty toys were displayed everywhere, like mini Darth Vaders and Spider-Man, and sumo wrestler bobble heads, which, also down the line, would come to enchant my son. 

Each of the sushi spots in my neighbourhood have something distinct about them that has engendered its own loyal following. I'll admit it took me, and my budding sushi lover son, a while to settle on Mt Fuji as our spot. But it took me walking out after ordering one night to make me a Mt Fuji loyalist, and to learn what the distinct thing was at Mt Fuji that kept people coming back.

The night I walked out was one of those instances where being "hangry" leads to things unraveling. It's always busy at Mt Fuji at dinner time, and that's when we showed up, fresh from daycare pick-up after my workday in Vancouver and commute to the 'burbs, and we were both hungry and tired. We placed our order, but it soon became apparent the restaurant was short-staffed, and things were getting backed up. The minutes ticked by, and nothing was coming out of the kitchen or sushi bar for us, and it must have been around the 40 minute zone when I could have sworn something was served to a table that had been seated several minutes after us. I took one glance at my tired, hungry kid and decided we were done. I know I saw panic in Michael's eyes from his spot at the sushi counter, but I needed to get some dinner in my kid before bedtime was upon us. He must have apologized, and I know I tersely explained that I just couldn't wait any longer.

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My son at Mt Fuji enjoying his "usual" in Dec. 2018. - Photo by Lindsay William-Ross/Vancouver Is Awesome

I'm not sure how long it was before we came back, if it was a matter of weeks or months, but we did, and Michael remembered us.

He apologized profusely. I think he really felt responsible for letting us down.

That night, and every time we dined there after, he always made sure to tell me when he was working on our order. He served my son first, always, from that day on, in what naturally evolved into Nolan's "usual": One salmon roll, one avocado roll, and two pieces of salmon nigiri.

I'll never forget the day Nolan asked for wasabi on his plate for the first time. Michael's eyes lit up. "Wow!" he said, clearly impressed with his five-year-old customer.

We became the customers who sat at the bar. Michael got to know us, finding out what I did for a living, and hearing about our travels. A world traveller himself, Michael would tell us a bit about his trips with Tiffany. Their kids, as she told us recently, are all grown up and the youngest is in university. When it was less busy we could really chat; Michael would often ask us about our close friends with whom we'd come in a couple of times. He asked Nolan about school, and would sometimes surprise him with a little Pokemon toy, or offer us a little extra something like a sushi piece or hand roll. 

Nolan, as he grew from preschooler to school kid - he's almost seven now - was enchanted by Michael. A curious Japanophile from an early age, Nolan loved the photos, the ephemera in the room, and the food. And he loved seeing Michael, his "Sushi Guy." I always imagined that as a teen, Nolan would be one of the kids who worked for Michael and Tiffany as a server as his after school job. It seemed perfect. After all, this was our spot. 

"You don't want to cook tonight, do you Mum?" he often says at pick-up. "Can we go out to dinner?" His first choice, always: Sushi. And where? "Let's go to Sushi Guy!" 

I'll admit, we cheated on Mt Fuji and our Sushi Guy a few times. Sometimes it was just because we wanted sushi and it was a Tuesday - the one day a week they are closed. Then about a year or so ago, a somewhat flashier new sushi spot opened locally, and we've been there fairly often. The food is, admittedly, quite good, but there's absolutely zero personal connection with the staff; service is scattered, and no one is asking you how your trip to Paris was, or what life is like in Grade One. 

The sushi at Mt Fuji has always been quite good. It's always fresh, but the precision of the cuts and rolls would vary depending on how busy they were, and they were often quite busy. They only use wild salmon. Their prices are reasonable, and we always leave stuffed and smiling. Michael makes every sushi order himself, his hands moving furiously fast from his spot behind the small sushi bar, looking up to greet customers by name and to crack a joke or ask how a relative is doing. Tiffany, less gregarious but no less warm, works the room taking orders and checking in, tidying up and chatting, too. They work so very, very hard, and care so very, very much. How they know hundreds of customers, their jobs, their kids, their schedules and their orders by heart astonishes me. 

It's funny, because as a food writer, we don't get to eat at the same places over and over again, because we have to always try new things. And add to my column of challenges of being a "foodie about town" is the fact that I'm a single parent on a budget who lives in Ladner. My six-year-old is my plus-one everywhere, but most weeknights we're home, and I'm cooking. So spending time and money dining out means having to be really choosy, especially in my community, where we have a lot of average or not-so-great restaurants. 

Mt Fuji isn't average, though. It's a rare kind of place, and one we cherish.

Last weekend, Mt Fuji announced that the Hwus had sold the business and were retiring. Here's what they shared:

"For almost 20 years, our family has had the pleasure of serving our wonderful community of Ladner. We are truly grateful for the support and friendships that have blossomed out of our small restaurant, and we hope you have always felt welcome here. We would like to take this chance to tell you that we made the bittersweet decision to transfer Mt. Fuji Sushi to new ownership in February. Our last day will be Jan. 31. Whether it was for a meal or a chat, we thank you for coming through our doors all these years."

Sushi 2
Michael Hwu passing my son Nolan his last "usual" order, Jan. 29, 2020. - Photo by Lindsay William-Ross/Vancouver Is Awesome

Suddenly I made room in our weekly meal plan for a sushi night out. It was unfathomable not to. 

"We're going to have to go for sushi this week," I told my son, bracing myself to break the next bit of news. "Sushi Guy is closing down."

At 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, Mt Fuji was packed to the gills, with people in every seat and a few clearly waiting for one, along with the expected and steady trickle of take-out customers. It took about a half an hour, but by some miracle two seats at the bar opened up, and so it would be that our last supper at Mt Fuji would be in our usual spot. Sure, it took longer than usual for our food to come out, but we weren't going to bail. Eventually, Michael signalled that he was working on a plate for us. "His usual," he said, with a nod to my son. 

Michael passed the plate over the bar into Nolan's eager hands.

One salmon roll, one avocado roll, two pieces of salmon nigiri. With ginger and wasabi.

The room was humming, and customers kept coming in with hugs, and flowers, and warm words for Michael and Tiffany. Those who couldn't wait long for a table put their names down to come back Thursday or Friday. A notebook perched on the corner of the sushi bar was there for us to fill in our messages of appreciation and farewell. 

When our meal came to an end, I knew we shouldn't keep our seats much longer. This wasn't going to be one of those chatty, quieter nights where we got a lot of one on one time. It was time to say goodbye. 

As we pushed back our chairs, my son said in his soft, sweet, little kid voice: "Can I hug you?"

It was too loud for Michael to hear, but the woman to Nolan's left sure did. "Michael," she said loudly enough. "He wants to give you a hug."

Michael smiled, and said of course. And of course, I started to cry.

Nolan made his way past the bar and Michael put down his knife and came around to meet him, taking him in a huge embrace. 

"Thank you," I managed to squeak out. "We're going to miss you so much." 

I don't think I've cried much in restaurants in my life, since they are usually such happy places for me. And I write all the time about restaurants closing, and restaurants taking their place. Sure, I get sad at times about it, but mostly it's business as usual. But it was too busy on our last night there to find out about who had bought the business. Will it still be Mt Fuji? Will it even still be a sushi spot? 

I wasn't wearing my "food writer" hat during our last meal. Like the many, many times I'd sat at the bar there before, I was there just as a Ladnerite, a mom out with her kid, and a Mt Fuji regular. And like so many of us, each with our own stories about how we came to be regulars and what the Hwu family means to us, we were just there to eat and enjoy and wish them well on their next chapter. Michael and Tiffany took care of their customers for 20 years - for us, just over five years - and boy do they deserve to relax and move on. We're just going to miss them terribly, and, selfishly, I'm just sad we didn't get many more years into my son's childhood for him to keep "growing up" there. A place to feel connected and at home is so rare in our busy lives. 

We signed the guestbook last night, of course, adding our thoughts and well-wishes to the chorus of many who have chimed in there (and on social media, too).

After our names, I had to write one more thing down: One salmon roll, one avocado roll, two pieces of salmon nigiri.

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