Remembering Glendale’s Fish King, Hank 'Toto' Kagawa

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Hank "Toto" Kagawa holds up a crab at Fish King, the Glendale store he owned and ran. Photo courtesy of Fish King

If you love seafood and you live anywhere near northeast Los Angeles — or even if you reside all the way across town — Fish King in Glendale has been the place to buy fresh fish and chow down on in-house dishes for more than half a century. From its robust seafood market, which offers seasonal selects like northern wild halibut and Pai Pai oysters alongside year-round fare, to its galley kitchen serving up lobster bisque, Hawaiian poke, and “Totorrito” sushi burritos, to its pantry market stocked with spices, wine, and fresh bread, it's the sort of spot that makes a cross-city drive in snarled freeway traffic worth the battle. 

The man synonymous with the business, and who built it into a thriving local gem, was Hank "Toto" Kagawa. In a recent Instagram post, Fish King announced that Kagawa had passed away on March 16. He was 92.

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Fish King opened in 1948. According to a 1995 Los Angeles Times story by Linda Burum, Kagawa started working at Fish King in 1952, while studying commercial art at Los Angeles Community College. Back then, the business had only two other employees. "When Fish King’s owner decided to concentrate on his frozen shrimp business, Kagawa and an uncle bought him out," Burum writes.

A young Hank Kagawa oversees building plans. Photo courtesy of Fish King

Kagawa and his uncle, Harry Kuruma, bought the business in 1956. When Kuruma died in 1968, Kagawa took over. Since then, Fish King has expanded into several adjacent storefronts, including a former laundromat. Which makes perfect sense — if you know Southern California, you know that many of our best restaurants are hidden in humdrum strip malls.

"You drive up there and you think, 'Really? There's going to be this amazing fish store in this strip mall?,'" says KCRW Good Food host Evan Kleiman. "It doesn't show itself as a storefront super well. It's very low-key. But then you go in, and the cases of fish are amazing. And there's also a cafe with a pretty large menu."

The exterior of Fish King in Glendale, date unknown. Photo courtesy of Fish King

For two decades, Kleiman bought fish for her restaurant, the former Angeli Caffe, from Fish King.

"The thing that makes Fish King really unique for an individual, standalone, independently-owned fish store is its huge inventory,” Kleiman says. “People always wonder, how is it possible for them to offer 75 different kinds of fish, shellfish, and seafood and lots of different kinds of oysters? The reason is because, in addition to having the retail store, they have a robust wholesale business, where they distribute fish and seafood to many, many restaurants in Los Angeles. Mine was one of them." 

Kagawa's grandfather was born in Japan and immigrated to Hawaii at the turn of the 20th century. As a young man, Kagawa's father moved to Southern California, where he built a produce trucking business and a grocery store. He lost both when he and his family were interned during World War II, according to the LA Times. After the war, he was able to open a small market in Little Tokyo.

"I think that one of the reasons that Fish King is so beloved is that the family has its roots in Hawaii. The combination of that food culture with seafood is just perfect," Kleiman says.

Kagawa told the LA Times that he credits his father with teaching him about customer service. Is Fish King more famous for the quality of its seafood or for the way it treats its customers? It's hard to know. 

"The reason they're so beloved is that they have such a close relationship with their customers," Kleiman says. "And that comes from being there for them and helping them get the best out of whatever they buy. They're so happy to share tips and tricks about how to cook whatever you end up buying."

Hank "Toto" Kagawa (right) and his son, Jon Kagawa, work at Fish King. Photo by Roger Wilson/courtesy of Fish King

Over the years, Kagawa brought several other family members, including his son, Jon, into the business.

Jon Kagawa, who began working with his dad when he was 9 or 10 years old, told the Los Angeles Business Journal in 1997, "We noticed that many customers were not sure how to properly cook fish, so if they had questions or hesitated at attempting it, we did it for them. Our service doesn’t stop at wrapping the purchase. The staff will cook, shell, filet, char-broil, fry, or crack it as well."

"Go on Fish King's Instagram account and read the comments,” Kleiman says. “You read over and over again, 'What a kind helpful man. He always went above and beyond for his customers. Super hospitable.' You just know what kind of guy he was and the kind of business it is, and how much it's supported by the community. People really appreciated [Toto]." 

Jon, who has now been working at Fish King for more than 50 years, tells KCRW that nothing will change in the wake of his father's passing, and that he plans to continue with his father's dedication to service and quality. 

Employees at Fish King, date unknown. Photo courtesy of Fish King

In addition to its fresh fare, Fish King is also well-known for its seafood stock, its cioppino base, and its line of bottled sauces that span everything from teriyaki to tartar. These blossomed from the success of the galley kitchen cafe, which is as esteemed as the market. At the counter, you can order prepared food from a menu that includes grilled fish, sandwiches, bowls, burritos, tacos, and teriyaki plates, served with the sort of sides you'd expect at a fish joint — french fries, coleslaw, etc.

"What I do is I walk around the fish case and check out what I might want to buy to take home," Kleiman says. "But then I never can go there without eating something. It's all so good. They have this Crunch Fish Sandwich. I've been known to occasionally eat a McDonald's Filet-O-Fish, and every time I do, I lament that I'm not in Glendale, getting a Crunch Fish at Fish King. The deep-fried fresh fish in that sandwich is heavenly. But my favorite thing is their poke. They make several different kinds, including ones with tuna, salmon, hamachi, and scallops. I always get the Hawaiian, in a bowl. Okay, my mouth is starting to water. I wish I lived closer."

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The most famous item on the Fish King roster might be the Totorrito, named after Kagawa. There are five varieties, and Kleiman, who counts it among her favorites on the Fish King menu, describes them as "a mashup of a burrito and a futomaki. They have various filling combinations and it's wrapped in soy paper. It's delicious."

Whether you come to Fish King looking for fresh seafood and advice on how to cook it, or to chow down on a bowl of lobster bisque and a swordfish steak, Hank Kagawa's vision and values live on.

"To keep a business going for 67 years is an unbelievable accomplishment, especially in this day and age, when it's harder and harder to be an independent business," Kleiman points out. "The fact that they weathered the lockdown period of COVID and are still serving people is the kind of thing that you want for all independent businesses. I think the legacy is to have had so much integrity and such a keen work ethic and a real sense of customer service."

The early days of Fish King. Photo by Roger Wilson/courtesy of Fish King