Hidden behind a bundle of trees in a small shopping plaza in Alamo, California, Ha-La Sushi buzzes with frenetic energy. As the regulars pile in, they are greeted with a beaming smile by an amiable, middle age man with a fun, spiky haircut. Hugging regular patrons, Ken Ma- the owner of the restaurant, always seems to remember everyone’s name, as well as what was going on in their lives. Customers seem genuinely happy to see him and the other employees of Ha-La Sushi.
Ken Ma makes sure to treat everyone who comes to Ha-La Sushi, along with his employees, as a family. It’s no wonder that most of his employees never want to leave and still work with him after many years. He accepts and values people as they are, and sympathizes with challenges - his life after immigrating to the US has taught him not to take anything or anyone for granted.
In 1996, Ken moved to the United States from Hong Kong, right before the sovereignty over Hong Kong transferred from the United Kingdom to China. This handover marked the end of the British Empire rule, along with significant trepidation in the hearts of citizens of Hong Kong regarding their future. The major fear was that Chinese culture of control and corruption would undermine Hong Kong’s economic development and free political expression.
Ken’s life flipped upside down as he left his country a prosperous businessman and came into the United States as a nobody. Instead of managing a business, Ken found himself behind a kitchen sink in a restaurant, washing dishes. While not ideal, this 2-year stint gave him the opportunity to learn the fundamentals of running a business in the United States. From dishwasher to the waiter, to sushi helper, and finally to becoming a sushi master chef - Ken paved the way to his success by working 2 jobs with no days off for several years until he had enough money saved for a down payment on opening his own restaurant.
As Ken began to look for his own place to develop a restaurant, a major setback came crashing down on him - the loss of all the family savings. He found himself back at square one, the shining ‘end of the tunnel’ to his dream even further away. The consequences that followed had Ken battling with depression and despair - he had worked 60 hours per week for 7 years with no breaks saving every penny he was given - only to have it all vanish right in front of him.
Yet, Ken rose from the ashes once again and started his long, laboring trek by asking his family and friends to help him in finance the down payment. Because of his trustworthiness and work ethic, everyone reached out to help and Ken was soon able to open his first ever sushi restaurant in Benicia, CA in 2003. Word about Ken’s wonderful food got around quickly wonderful food and his business grew despite being in what many would consider a “sketchy” or “unsafe” locations. Even non-local customers would come from across the bridge just to eat at Ken’s sushi restaurant.
Things started looking up as his business grew. Shortly after his restaurant opened, Ken bought his first house, got remarried and had a son. But even with his success, he never relaxed and kept working around the clock- a new idea of owning a restaurant across the bridge in the East Bay hovered in his mind.
A developer who visited and immediately fell in love with Ken’s sushi place searched him out and offered a new location in Alamo. Ken opened Ha-La Sushi in 2005. Currently, Ken owns 2 restaurants: one in San Leandro and the other in Alamo, managing his time between the two places. He is diligent, hard-working, and never takes anything or anyone for granted. He always appreciates the people in his life, his employees, and most importantly, his family. When you come to Ha-La Sushi, you are treated not just as a customer, but as a friend too.
Ha-La is an Asian fusion, a sushi restaurant that combines Japanese and Chinese cuisine. Ask the owner for a recommendation, and you will be in for a special treat. Ken might ask you when you come in: “What do you feel like?”, and somehow makes any desire happen. Anything from oysters, and extra special Toro, to rolls and udon, and of course, Ken's famous lamb chops - will make you happily satisfied.
Since we were at the restaurant in Alamo, we had to order the Alamo Roll. This roll has deep fried shrimp & crab on the inside, tuna & salmon on the outside, and it is completed with tobiko & spicy sauce on top.
Pork Katsu- breaded pork cutlets, is a comfort-food in Japan. Ha-La sushi is able to make these cutlets especially delicious by ensuring that the pork was filled with juicy flavor and the coated bread crumbs had just the right crunch.
Tempura Vegetables. Tempura is a Japanese dish filled with battered and deep-fried vegetables. At Ha-La, tempura tastes clean, fresh, and delicate. The coating was extra crisp, lacy and feather light.
Salmon Sashimi - The secret in Ken’s exceptional quality of food lies in his long-established relationships with produce supplies. While also being treated as one of Ken’s good friends, they are expected to deliver only the best and freshest fish. Although basic, the Salmon sashimi we ordered melted in our mouths and still lingered long after devouring it. If you are adventurous and open to trying new food, ask Ken for the Special Fish of the day and follow the question up by asking him if he has Toro. If he does, you are in luck. Toro is a term for the fatty part of the tuna, found in the belly portion of the fish. It is more expensive due to their relative scarcity, but worth the experience.
The Super Lion King Roll was a creamy, mouthwatering treat for my brother, who is a California roll fanatic. The Lion King rolls is essentially a California roll with the exception of being wrapped in salmon and also baked and topped with Ha-La’s special sauce. The crunchy decorations were a wonderful touch in tying the roll together.
The Caterpillar Roll at Ha-La Sushi was very carefully crafted. With unagi and crab meat on the inside, wrapped in fresh avocado, the roll looked like a beautiful caterpillar creation. We learned that Caterpillar rolls were completely an “American” invention, so it is unlikely to be found in Hong Kong or Japan. The Unagi inside the roll was grilled to perfection - crisp and coated with a sweet sauce on the outside while being tender on the inside. Ken told us that unagi is very good for one’s health: high in omega-3 helps to improve blood pressure, lower cholesterol and reduce the risks of diabetes and arthritis.
In my opinion, HaLa sushi embraces what I consider to be a truly international restaurant. A chef serving cuisine they did not grow up with in pursuit of the American Dream.
Ha La Sushi
115-C Alamo Plaza
Alamo, CA 94507
Yara Elian is a 10th grader at Northgate High in the San Francisco Bay Area, who loves languages, cultures, food, and writing.