Hiring, theft charges close prominent city restaurant

A three-star Japanese restaurant near downtown Baltimore stopped rolling sushi yesterday after its owners were arrested on federal charges of employing illegal immigrants and stealing their tips.

Kawasaki Restaurant, which has served elaborate raw fish dinners for more than two decades from a North Charles Street rowhouse in Mount Vernon, remained closed last night. Its sister restaurant - a waterfront cafe in Fells Point - was also shuttered.

Reviewers have described Kawasaki's food as among the region's most delectable for Japanese cuisine. The Baltimore City Paper has frequently rated Kawasaki's as the city's best sushi, from its tame California roll to its more bold entrees of uncooked octopus and sea urchin.

For loyal patrons at its Charles Street restaurant, popular with downtown workers and pre-theater diners, perks included personal lockers for customers' prized chopsticks.

But the late-morning arrests dealt a blow to a restaurant group whose prominence long predated the latest resurgence in the downtown eating scene.

At its smaller establishment on South Ann Street in Fells Point, a sign taped to the door read, "temporary closed."

Amelia Reitz and Josh Wilson, both 24, stopped by for an evening meal and left disappointed.

"I called my friend and asked her where I could get sushi in Fells Point, and she said, 'Sushi in Fells Point - Kawasaki's,'" Reitz said.

Dozens of federal agents had descended hours earlier - just before lunch - on all three Kawasaki restaurants in the city as well as the owners' high-priced homes in Howard County.

They shooed away customers, apprehended the restaurant owners and detained 15 employees. Agents described the workers as illegal immigrants from countries as diverse as Nepal and El Salvador.

"It was basically forced labor," said Mark Bastan, acting special agent in charge of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in Baltimore. Bastan added that agents did not force the owners to keep the restaurants closed after the raid.

Reached at his home last night, co-owner Tzu Ming Yang declined to comment. "I'm not in a position to talk or anything," he said before hanging up a telephone.

Yang, 48 and his wife, Jui Fan Lee Yang, 49, of Clarksville opened the Kawasaki Restaurant in the 400 block of N. Charles St. in 1984. Court papers say the Yangs are naturalized American citizens from China.

With the same name as one of Baltimore's sister cities in Japan, their walk-up restaurant on Charles Street was recently given permission to display an elaborate painting on silk from the mayor of the Japanese city. The restaurant's bright yellow, red and green awning set off elaborate window decorations of origami fans and birds, Christmas lights and ribbons.

"Kawasaki is one of those restaurants that sets the standard," Sun restaurant critic Elizabeth Large wrote in her three-out-of-four-star review in 1999, describing the "dark red curls of fresh tuna poetically arranged against a deep green leaf."

Another lunch-only branch later opened at Johns Hopkins Hospital in East Baltimore. It could not be determined last night whether that branch had also been closed.

With Jack Chang, 41, the Yangs opened the Fells Point cafe about six years ago. Chang is an American citizen originally from Taiwan. A phone message at his Clarksville home last night was not returned.

Never avant garde, the original Kawasaki, with its traditional low-table seating on display in a large window overlooking Charles Street, nonetheless paved the way for the arrival of other Asian restaurants.

"They've been successful but low key," said Diane Feffer Neas, a Baltimore-based restaurant consultant.

But the reputation hid a darker side, according to federal authorities.

Their immigration problems started in 1997, according to court papers.

In June 1997, an immigration enforcement agent issued a warning notice to Tzu Yang telling him he had employed two illegal workers.

The investigation appears to have reopened in September 2002 when federal agents received an anonymous letter accusing both Kawasaki restaurants of employing illegal aliens, court papers show.

Agents investigated, discovering that the owners bought real estate to house their illegal workers, according to court papers.

Federal authorities said that some workers were housed above the Charles Street restaurant. One agent described the conditions as poor. "There were very small rooms, mattresses on the floor and little or no plumbing," Bastan said.

But the owners led a much more upscale life, court papers show. Among them, they owned eight vehicles, including four late-model Lexuses and a 2005 Mercedes C240. Agents also noted 13 bank accounts that they alleged were used in a money laundering operation that involved hiding money earned by the suspected illegal immigrants at the restaurant.

The indictment said the owners were "paying illegal aliens low wages, no overtime and took their tips," according to court papers.

If convicted, they each face a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison on the money laundering charge, ten years in prison for harboring aliens and six months in prison for employing illegal aliens.

All three defendants appeared in federal court in downtown Baltimore yesterday. U.S. Magistrate Judge Beth P. Gesner released them until their next court appearance - scheduled for Wednesday - but ordered them to surrender their passports and stay in Maryland, prosecutors said.

The 15 employees detained from the restaurants - seven from Indonesia, four from El Salvador, three from Nepal and one from China - were all adult males, authorities said.

They were being processed at the federal building on Hopkins Plaza last night on charges of residing in the country illegally. According to Bastan, the men could be held or released pending a deportation hearing.

Luis Ponce, 30, a cook at the restaurant from 1995 to 2002, said he heard of the raid of the restaurant from a friend.

He said another friend, an illegal immigrant from El Salvador, worked there as a dishwasher and was arrested this morning while at the restaurant and is being detained.

"My friend's illegal, but I don't know if [Yang] knew," said Ponce, who immigrated to Baltimore from El Salvador in 1992 and said he is a permanent resident. "Somebody called me and said your friend's got by immigration."

At the Charles Street restaurant, a white piece of paper with the word "closed" was taped to the glass door yesterday.

matthew.dolan@baltsun.com nicole.fuller@baltsun.com