Nine years ago, the Liu family got into the business of serving up Japanese and Chinese cuisine at their Altoona restaurant Yamato. During that nearly decade-long stretch, they slowly built up their business and developed friendships with their loyal customers at the Logan Boulevard restaurant.
Manager Jin Liu - who also is a sushi chef - said that before his family took over, the restaurant (then called Peking II, House of Chang) had the same owner for about 30 years. It was eventually sold to a mutual friend of the Liu family, who after a few months, sold it to them.
Eight family members co-own and work at the restaurant - parents Xin Liu and Mei Ling, and their children and their spouses: Jin, and his wife, Qiu You; Ada Liu and husband, Yida; and Tony Liu, and wife, Shi Qing.
Mirror photos by Gary M. Baranec
The exterior of Yamato in Altoona.
Manager and sushi chef Jin Liu prepares a roll at the sushi counter.
(From left) Mitzi Bailinger of Duncansville, Audrey Rosenthall of Altoona, Barbara Weiss of Altoona and Betty Covino of Altoona (not pictured) play mahjong while waitress Qui You takes their order.
The family is originally from the Fujian Province of China.
Jin Liu said the family built up the business slowly over the years. They did not advertise and it is not well-known like chain restaurants. The business relied on word-of-mouth, he said.
Liu said the restaurant has loyal customers, and 90 percent of their clientele are regulars.
Behind the Plates
Address: 601 Logan Blvd., Altoona
Phone number: 942-3322
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday,
11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday,
noon to 9:30 p.m. Sunday.
Price range: $1.50 to $23.95
Specialties: Seafood dishes, fresh sushi
Reservations: Not necessary for dine-in or carry-out; A private party room is available.
Atmosphere: Casual dining
Because of the competition with several Chinese buffets in the area, the Liu family decided to make Yamato a Japanese and Chinese restaurant. The restaurant has a sushi bar and offers Chinese dishes such as Moo Goo Gai Pan, Sesame Chicken and Shrimp Hunan Style.
The restaurant does not have a head chef, he said.
"Everyone knows what they should be doing," he said of the experience and organization the family has developed.
Seafood dishes are popular at the restaurant, Liu said, noting they use high-quality, fresh ingredients.
When they first opened, sushi was not as popular as it is today. It has gained popularity over the years with friends educating one another, he said.
Liu suggests trying everything at least once, because everyone's tastes are different.
That includes Liu. The sushi chef loves American steak, he said. He believes it is a trait of sushi chefs to love steak, he said. He eats it rare for more flavor.
Liu said he tells customers to try out other restaurants to keep them from getting bored. He wants them to enjoy new flavors and develop a sense of who is good.
Liu said they don't brag about their own restaurant.
"We do our best," he said.
Liu said he learned to speak English through the restaurant. He and his sister, Ada, became United States citizens within the last two years.
Ada said she did so because she likes the United States, and it is where her daughter was born and her friends and family live.
The Altoona area is quiet and a good place for raising a family, Liu said.
The family lived in New York for 10 years. The city was filled with crime and no respect, he said.
Here, Liu explained, people say hello when walking down the street, but in New York, everyone was in a rush, bumping into one another.
One can end up with no life, just work and stress in the city, he said. Here it is relaxed and a better environment for family.
But working in the restaurant business is not a picnic.
The lifestyle is hard with long hours, working from morning until midnight, he said. Working with family offers its own stresses, too, but at the end of the day, they make up and they all know they must work together. Liu equates it to how kids fight sometimes.
The Liu family is thankful to the Altoona community, he said. They've received a lot of help over the years and they appreciate the community support, he said.
Liu said their customers are extremely friendly.
Indeed, those dining at the restaurant one day last week had nothing but praise for the eatery.
Customer Nancy Frantz of Bellwood said they offer Bento box lunches, which are just the right portion. The box lunches come with three pieces of California roll, fruit, rice, soup or a house salad and the customer's choice of teriyaki chicken or beef, or shrimp tempura for $6.95.
Frantz also praised the restaurant's menu, its sushi and their prices.
Longtime customer Jim Stratton of Sinking Valley has become a friend of the family over the years.
He said he enjoys trying Chinese restaurants and kept returning to Yamato because the food was so good. He has respect for the hard-working family, he said.
Stratton said he and his wife ate at the restaurant on Christmas day and it was packed.
The holiday season is the best time for the restaurant's business, Jin Liu said.
Stratton also said they are accommodating. For example, because he is not a fan of spicy food they would make him the traditional spicy dishes without the added kick.
Many of the regulars become friends with the owners, he said.
"So, it's a nice place to come," he said.
There is more talk of family than food, he said.
Last week, Audrey Rosenthall, Barbara Weiss and Betty Covino, all of Altoona, and Mitzi Bailinger of Duncansville were playing a game of Mahjong at a table in the party room.
"The people are very pleasant and the food is very good," Bailinger said. "We enjoy coming to dinner besides coming to play."
Weiss said she loves the owners, and she and her family love the sushi. Her husband, Joel, likes the Chinese food, she said. Covino agreed with her friends.
"We like the service," said Rosenthall. "We like the food. We like the people who own it."
Mirror Staff Writer Amanda Gabeletto is at 949-7030.