(This Dispatch is the first in a series of Dispatches that will feature people, businesses and stories of the Hondo Plaza Center in Northeast El Paso.)
There is a sign at every table warning the customers that all food may contain small bones.
I’m not here for the fish, though. I’m here for the story.
Joseph Yang is the owner of the Catfish Basket on Hondo Pass in Northeast El Paso.
Yang is busy today, as always. This sit-down interview was a week in the making, being that, among other things, he was trying to find someone else to fill his spot, being that he would hardly have any time to just sit down and talk at length.
His hurried, choppy – not broken – English became even more staggered as he constantly looked over his shoulder to see if there were customers coming in during our talk.
“When I was in Korea, I had a lot of trouble,” Yang said of his life there before moving to the United States. Yang was born and raised in Korea. He is half black and half Korean. His father was from Baltimore, Maryland and was in the Army, stationed in Korea.
“In Korea, they can’t accept the half people,” he continued.” You can’t join the military. It is law in Korea that you have to join the military for two years, get out and then you can find a government job: police, post office, wherever you can find one. But Korean people, they cut us. We’re half. We can’t join the military. We have no life.”
With no life came no permanent government file. Yang, then, turned to an alternative lifestyle.
“I was a gang member,” he revealed. “We owned businesses: bars, night clubs, restaurants, hotels, all the nighttime things are gang-controlled. They paid us a tax every month. Up front, we were businessmen, but behind, we’re gang members.”
Yang’s gang affiliation led to his mother telling him to move to the US in fear of being caught by the authorities.
He arrived in 1989, went to school for a while, then entered the restaurant business. Taking a friend’s advice, he started out as a sushi chef on his friend’s encouragement. “I worked as a sushi chef for 15 years. I worked all around El Paso: Japanese Kitchen, Samurai [Restaurant], Shogun [Steak House], Sakura, Riyoma.”
Doing a cultural 180 – well, within his own cultures, that is – he then started at the Catfish Basket, then, under different ownership. Yang is the third owner of the restaurant.
“I thought that there were too many sushi places in El Paso, but only one place is selling catfish,” he said.
Midway through the interview, busy Mr. Yang interrupts the interview seeing that two groups of customers had entered. He retreated to the back to start cooking their orders.
In that time, a portly gentleman enters the restaurant and approaches the counter, already talking to customers on his way in, with the comfort of an employee. He’s a white man dressed in all black: black sleeveless t-shirt, black workout shorts, black Jordans, even his semi-thick rectangular bifocal frames were black.
He enters hustling bootleg DVDs to the customers: “I usually let ’em go for $5 apiece, but I can give you 5 for $20,” he bargains. He goes on about the quality of the movies.
I notice that among his scattering of tattoos, he has a stylized cross on his right arm and a Star of David on the back of his left hand. This tells me that even though this man is his own boss, he still answers to a higher power.
A middle-aged black woman awaits her take-out order and asks about the other movies he has to sell as he puts in a copy of Fast Five (a movie that is still in theaters) in the restaurant’s DVD player.
I wait a little longer and Mr. Yang finally re-joins me at the table.
We talk about his bi-racialness in the US. “In the United States, there’s a lot of people from different countries. I feel comfortable here. The US is good for me. A lot of Korean people like me, a lot of black people like me.”
A man of few, and rushed words, he doesn’t go too much more into the idea.
The positioning of the Catfish Basket in the Hondo Pass Plaza is somewhat more of a downfall for him than anything. “This is a very dangerous place. This is a part of the ‘Devil’s Triangle’ [a low-income, relatively high-crime section of El Paso outlined by Gateway North, Dyer and Hondo Pass]. It’s very dangerous after sundown. That’s why I close around 07:30PM-08:00PM.”
The discriminations of his own government brought Yang to our shores. Now he finds that “being half” has brought him to feeding the people of El Paso, no matter what the racial fraction is and how it is divided. Being black and Korean gives him a dual cultural perspective that both value the importance of family and community. In this way, he fits right in in El Paso.
It’s reflected in the feeling you get when you eat at the Catfish Basket. You could’ve sworn the restaurant was a barbershop the way the people are all involved in the conversation of the moment. Gathered around to take part in fried, stick-to-your-ribs catfish, this place may as well be one big dinner table.
Just watch out for the small bones.