In North Carolina, chef Katsuji Tanabe draws from his Mexican and Japanese lineage to craft dishes at a’Verde
“Chef Katsuji Tanabe took a long, winding road to land in Cary, North Carolina. From Mexico City to Los Angeles to Japan—and several stops during three seasons of Top Chef—Tanabe has run and owned restaurants in all corners of the country. But his current restaurant, a’Verde, is bringing a very specific take on Mexican flavors to a community that’s hungry for it.
Born and raised in the Mexico City suburb Satélite, Tanabe grew up eating sashimi and other Japanese delicacies at a time and place where those items were hard to come by. His Japanese father (whose own father was an engineer and an architect who had moved to Mexico during World War II) made a point to cook the foods of his home country for his young family, especially on weekends.
“He was no chef, but he enjoyed cooking. Tempura was his specialty. And he was always bringing home new ingredients,” Tanabe says. He remembers dinner parties shrouded in clouds of cigarette smoke where his father’s favorite meal was on the table—baby eels, or angulas. “He would serve them in a big clay pot with lots of olive oil and chiles over a burner, like a Korean hot pot, at the center of the table. Everyone would be dipping crusty bread into the oil,” he recalls.
Tanabe’s own interest in cooking started with paella. It was during a celebratory feast when he was about seven years old, and he remembers a chef coming to the house to prepare it from scratch. Instead of playing Nintendo per usual, he spent five hours watching and helping her cook the paella. “That was it. My grandmother said, ‘I knew you were going to be a chef then,’” he says. Soon he was cooking for his Boy Scout troop during campouts and later set his sights on cooking as a career.
When he was 19, Tanabe’s parents divorced, and he and his mother and sister moved to Los Angeles, where he hustled to pick up jobs as a dishwasher and later a fry cook, all without speaking English. He worked his way up in the kitchen, but in order to learn more, he knew he needed to travel.
Tanabe spent a year in Japan to better understand the traditions and culture he was born from and landed a position at a restaurant an hour outside of Hiroshima. Expecting sushi and sashimi, he was surprised to see so many potatoes and pickled vegetables on the menu. Though he was “only allowed to chop and wash dishes,” he managed to pull off a cultural exchange during staff meal, when he shared dishes made with dried chiles he’d brought from home. “With the language barrier, food became our perfect language. We didn’t need to speak,” he says.
Back in LA, he was determined to start crafting his own style of cuisine, which he came closer to while working in a French kosher restaurant in Beverly Hills. He learned the strict rules and tenets of kosher cooking and decided to apply them to Mexican food. Soon, he opened the first Mexican kosher restaurant in the US—a fast-casual taco shop that made its own nixtamal to craft tortillas that soon had multiple locations on both coasts. Along the way, he made it onto Top Chef (it took him 11 auditions) and competed on two more spin-offs.
Tanabe opened his first Raleigh-area restaurant, High Horse, in 2019, but it closed in 2020 due to the pandemic. His latest restaurant, a’Verde Cocina + Tequila Library, opened in Cary in 2022—and is the closest Tanabe has come to cooking the comfort food of his home country—with a tiny bit of Japanese influence threaded in.
While the dishes at a’Verde span Mexican comfort food ranging from queso fundido to adobo fried rice, tortas, and fajitas, many speak to his journey and familial roots. Chicken tonkatsu, made with a Japanese style of frying, graces one of the tortas while “mom’s beans” are scattered across the menu. But more than anything, Tanabe hopes to share the spirit of enjoying time at the table, and the tradition of “sobremesa,” or lingering around the table, to the American South.
“It’s not a ‘traditional’ Mexican place of the South—no Mexican decorations or music. But we get a lot of Mexicans who appreciate the culture that we provide,” Tanabe says. Part of that involves not dropping the check unless the guests as for it, a trait of dining at many restaurants in Mexico. “We want people to stay longer, to be together. And they are. They sit, they enjoy. And they keep coming back.”
Get the Recipe: Tanabe’s Lobster Aguachile
- by Erin Byers Murray
- by TLP Editors
- by Erin Byers Murray
- by TLP Editors