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December 1, 2022

11/1/2012 6:01:00 PM
Tsunami experience leads couple to open Mineral Point Japanese restaurant
Jean Berns Jones

Due to the tragic circumstances that forced Hiroko Messer to leave her homeland, Mineral Point area residents now have the opportunity to experience authentic Japanese food prepared by a professional chef.
The homemade, expertly prepared Japanese cuisine she serves is a rare find in the Midwest. Even the ramen noodles are hand kneaded, rolled out and cut by Hiroko's husband, Chris messer. This time honored process is now used by only a handful of restaurants in the U.S., and ramen prepared this way is considered a delicacy, even in Japan.
It can be found at Kusaka, the new restaurant owned by Chris and Hiroko at 148 High Street in Mineral Point. Local people are trying the unique, tasteful items on Kusaka's menu and liking them.
"Once people come and try it, they are repeat customers," said Chris, a southwest Wisconsin native who was raised in Cuba City.
Chris was teaching English at a school in Japan when the March 11th, 2011 earthquake and 30-foot tsunami hit the coastline nearby. He witnessed the massive wave crashing into the shore and spent that night without heat or light on the third floor of the school, along with about 600 other refugees, while water rose to six feet around the building.
When the earthquake hit, Hiroko was at the small restaurant the couple owned. She was able to turn off the gas and power, and the restaurant was only slightly damaged. Later she and her husband were reunited and found that neither of them was injured.
Chris' mother, Diane Messer who is administrator of the Dodgeville School District, was able to learn of their safety through Australian friends of his via Facebook.
But when the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant 40 miles from Chris and Hiroko's home exploded four days later, it raised serious danger. Their restaurant, house, and his job all lay within the 50-mile evacuation zone from the plant. Due to the radiation concerns, the couple decided to move to the U.S. as soon as possible.
"Fortunately, I have family members here who have been more than generous," Chris said. "And people in Wisconsin are open to experimenting with different foods."
Hiroko dreamed of continuing to own a restaurant. She is a licensed, experienced chef. She is also licensed as a professional kitchen manager, and as a breads teacher.
Three months ago on July 19th, they opened the Mineral Point restaurant, calling it Kusaka in honor of Hiroko's grandmother's family. In Japanese, Kusaka means "the child of spring under the sun."
Leaving her grandmother, parents, and brother and sister was heartbreaking for Hiroko. She and Chris asked her family to come with them, but the family members felt it was not possible for them to move to the U.S.
"We have had to accept their choice to stay, the same way they accepted ours to leave," Chris said. "We plan to start a family, and this is a much safer place."
Kusaka's decor is clean and simple. Light pours through large windows beneath the high ceiling of the historic, storefront building. Seven tables are set about the room. Japanese calligraphy scrolls decorate the walls.
Chris is an outgoing, cheerful waiter and assistant to Chef Hiroko, who is working on her conversational English. Six part-time employees are hired to help. Currently, the restaurant is open every day from 11 a.m. - 2 p.m., and 5 - 9 p.m.
The menu, which is listed on two chalkboards, offers a good assortment of authentic Japanese dishes and daily specials. The fried rice is popular and comes with a choice of pork, chicken or vegetables. Curry rice, Gyoza (filled dumplings), and Don-buri (slowly cooked meat or vegetables served on rice) are also popular dishes.
Other unique, fascinating entrees are offered on the chalkboards, as well, along with several salad-type items. They include Tsukemono (pickled vegetables), Gomae (sweet spinach and sesame), and Kinpira gobo (burdock root slaw with carrots.)
For the more timid eater, Kusaka offers a personal size pizza called Maji Coffee Pizza. It is a hold-over from the couple's Maji Coffee Restaurant in Japan and made of handmade dough, tomato sauce, onion, peppers, mozzarella and summer sausage.
"What we make is homemade with fresh ingredients, and we try to get as much locally as possible," Chris said. They plan to obtain a license for selling beer and sake in the restaurant.
Japanese food is different from Chinese food, according to Chris, because it is absent the oils and abundantly used sauces.
"It is a more delicately flavored food - a wonderfully simple food," he explained. "Our curry is not like Indian curry. And all Japanese food is not sushi. In fact, Hiroko does not even like sushi."
"Our menu shows people that there are a lot of different foods they can try," Chris said.
"We're so happy to be here and doing this," he added.

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