For a coastal city, it can be tricky to find local seafood in Los Angeles. Sure, we have fish tacos and sushi restaurants galore, but a menu specifically focused on fish from nearby waters? Those don’t come around every day.
Fortunately, Yess Aquatic is here to change all that. The truck, which sets up shop near 7th Street and Mateo in Downtown L.A.’s Arts District, started selling extremely sustainable seafood in December while chef-owner Junya Yamasaki awaits the buildout of his forthcoming full-service restaurant next door.
Yamasaki, a Japanese chef who made waves in London with his noodle bar Koya, moved to Los Angeles in 2018. He wanted to learn more about local seafood and work it into his menu development but found it frustrating and flummoxing that information was so hard to come by. He went down a YouTube rabbit hole, watching videos of Californians free-diving to catch spiny lobsters and sea urchins, and eventually began diving himself. “I wanted to get closer to the sea, to become more conscientious of my environment,” he says. “And the best way to learn is just to do it.”
Yamasaki’s dives — which he documents on his Instagram — lead to a newfound understanding and appreciation of the local bounty. “California is so rich in marine resources, and people often neglect that,” he says. And though he can’t serve what he catches due to commercial restrictions, Yamasaki has carefully built relationships with a handful of local anglers, many of whom he’s taught the Japanese technique of ikejime, a method of painlessly killing the fish to maintain the quality of its meat.
The resulting menu at Yess Aquatic reflects Yamasaki’s deep respect for his new environment. There’s a ridgeback prawn sandwich done up like a bahn mi, with juicy Santa Barbara prawns, prawn pate, and housemade sambal sauce on a squishy potato-based bun. There’s a smoked black cod sandwich with grilled onions and romesco — the fish is cured in sea salt and miso, then hot-smoked over hinoki wood leftover from the nearby restaurant construction. There’s a bouillabaisse-like fish curry that takes three days to make and allows Yamasaki to conveniently use up all of the leftover fish heads and bones, yet tastes ultra light and clean.
There’s a little bit of the ocean in nearly everything on the menu, beyond the fish itself — those sandwich buns are made with mashed potato levain, butter, honey, and a few tablespoons of seawater, which is rich with fermentation-friendly organic minerals and microbes. The pickles accompanying the fried fish sandwich are cured in kombu, then pickled in green tea and horseradish. And the fruity drinks, too, are infused with kombu, tasting like lemonade with a hint of sea.
Although the forthcoming restaurant will have a broader menu, Yamasaki wanted the challenge of working almost exclusively with local seafood for his self-described experimental food truck. “It’s important as a chef to commit to what you serve. What you choose and what you refuse matters a lot— you can choose anything you want, so it’s almost more important to refuse what’s offered. When you’re committed to your land, you become much more serious about protecting it,” he says.
In the future, Yamasaki is hoping to expand both his menu and his hours. In the meantime, he’s continuing to deepen his knowledge of and relationships in California’s local waterways. “I’m proud to say that we’re dealing with the best possible local fish, and I just want to embrace that,” he says. “Why buy from elsewhere? I didn’t move to California to buy fish from Japan.”