Words and Photo by Nevin Martell
Tragicomic insider stories about the trials, tribulations, and just plain weird stuff that happens when you run a restaurant.
Before Toki Underground’s chef-owner Erik Bruner-Yang knew that he was going to open a ramen shop, he took a trip back to his homeland of Taiwan. While he was visiting, he stopped in at the flagship store of vinyl toy company C.I. Boys. “They’re Taiwan’s equivalent of Kidrobot,” he explains.
The shop was having a massive sale on their colorful collectible figurines, so Bruner-Yang promptly bought nearly 2,000 of them. It ended up costing him more than $3,000, not including the giant suitcase he had to purchase to carry them all.
To return to the States, Bruner-Yang and his mother had to fly through Japan. As they were going through security, officials pulled him aside. They wanted to see inside his big bag. When they unzipped it, they were confronted with hundreds of small, unopened boxes.
Politely, but “super seriously,” they asked Bruner-Yang to take a seat, because they were going to have to open every single box. “If I was a toy collector, that would have been my freak out moment,” he says.
It took over an hour and a half to go through the hundreds and hundreds of boxes. “My mom was more pissed than me,” he says, “because I was holding her up.” Finally, officials determined that none of the toys were stuffed with drugs, explosives, or whatever they thought they might find. They helped Bruner-Yang repack his suitcase and sent him on his way.
Now you can see a number of the fantastical figurines displayed along the wall at Toki Underground. Some people just stare at them, some take Hipstamatic pics, and others feel the need to play with them. There’s one problem: they’re inside glass cases glued to the walls.
“People like to touch and steal things,” says Bruner-Yang. “I like to touch and steal things. I’m not going to act like I never took a fork from a restaurant.” It doesn’t usually happen with drunks at midnight though. Think sober people early in the evening on a weeknight.
One woman managed to rip the case off the wall before the staff could stop her. “She told me, ‘I thought they were here to play with,’” says Bruner-Yang, who chose to not kick her out. “It’s like dealing with a kid. You can’t get mad, but you have to be stern.”