10 Best Eats in Little Tokyo: Neighborhood Grub Crawl
L.A.'s Little Tokyo is home to at least 100 eateries -- Japanese and non-Japanese, old and new, traditional and innovative. And it is just about 0.13 square miles in size -- dense, compact, and easily explored on foot. (Roughly bounded between 4th, Alameda, Temple, and Los Angeles streets.) That means just one thing: It is the ideal setting for our ultimate grub crawl fantasy. Imagine the chance to explore a colorful, historic neighborhood bite by bite, from early morning to late at night. We've devised a potential walking tour featuring ten of our favorite foodie spots. (Plus a few extra. The trick is to graze!) What about the other 90-something restaurants? Well, now you have at least that many reasons to come back.
LA Weekly Flickr photo pool / R. E. ~ neon sushi sign in Little Tokyo
10. Aloha Café:
D. Solomon french toast at Aloha Cafe
Start your day with French toast, Hawaiian style. Aloha Café opens at 8 a.m. daily, ready to serve giant blocks of warm, soft Hawaiian bread lightly coated in powdered sugar. The menu offers much more than breakfast; return another day for loco moco, a Hawaiian classic consisting of hamburger patties slathered in brown gravy over a mound of white rice. A couple of doors down, ogle the cakes at the French-Japanese Frances Bakery, where the swirls of cream in the pastry case mirror the baroque decor. Then stroll down the block to visit the Museum of Contemporary Art or the Japanese American National Museum, along with its terrific gift shop offering food-inspired books, clothes, and accessories. From there cross the street to Japanese Village Plaza. 410 E. 2nd St. L.A.; 213-346-9930.
9. Mitsuru Cafe:
D. Solomon takoyaki from Mitsuru Café
After passing the crimson Japanese fire lookout tower, stop at Mitsuru Café. (Not to be confused with Mitsuru Grill on 1st St.) The roughly 45-year-old eatery turns out snacks from a counter right by the front door -- the better to serve the masses who line up for takoyaki (bite-sized balls of grilled batter filled with octopus) and dorayaki (palm-sized pancakes stuffed with red bean curd). Order them to go, then continue to Café Dulce a few steps away for Vietnamese-style iced coffee. Sit outside and enjoy the oldies sung by Arthur Nakane, a "one-man-band" who rocks out on guitar, keyboard, cymbals, tambourine, and harmonica. Browse the shops for Totoro accessories, and try to resist buying a rainbow selection of the excellent macaron cookies at Lette. Exit Village Plaza on 1st St., then walk toward City Hall. Half-way down the block, peek into the alley -- you'll see one of Little Tokyo's historic Buddhist temples, built in 1940 for a congregation founded in 1912. Then continue straight, and cross San Pedro St. 117 Japanese Village Plaza Mall, L.A.; 213-613-1028.
8. LA Chicken:
Ebony Bailey burrito at LA Chicken
You arrive next at LA Chicken. The tiny eatery was blending Japanese and Mexican styles long before Kogi made the fusion taco "cool." Its chicken (promoted as "tastes like Lexus!!!") is cooked in a sauce with rice vinegar, red miso, and chiles. For the ultimate fusion experience, order the burrito -- packed with potato salad, avocado, black beans, lettuce, chicken, and Japanese white rice. Share one among friends, or try the more manageable taco. From LA Chicken, turn the corner onto Ellison S. Onizuka St., named for the first Japanese American astronaut. Check out the funky trinkets at Q Pop (a far cry from Sanrio). In Weller Court, stop by bookstore Kinokuniya. Besides offering a massive manga selection, Kinokuniya sells books on art, design, crafts, and of course, food. Before leaving, drop into Marukai Market to check out the Japanese snacks and produce like shiso leaves and yuzu lemons. 228 E. 1st St., L.A.; 213-808-1013.
LA Weekly Flickr Pool / djjewelz ramen at Daikokuya
Your Little Tokyo trip wouldn't be complete without ramen. This neighborhood boasts several ramen-centric shops, but Daikokuya is a classic. As a local Asian Studies professor once told his students: "If you haven't been to Daikokuya, you haven't tasted L.A." Perhaps that's because it draws people of all stripes at all hours, unified by the desire to slurp up thin, curly noodles from a rich, almost creamy, pork broth. While you wait for a table, visit Fugetsu-Do a couple of doors down to admire the pastel-colored mochi, a Japanese sweet made of pounded rice. After slurping your fill at Daikokuya, mosey down San Pedro St. towards 2nd St. When you reach Café Demitasse, step inside for siphon coffee, made in a fancy machine that glows like a firefly as it radiates heat. Then continue to the plaza at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center (JACCC) on San Pedro between 2nd and 3rd streets. Designed by Isamu Noguchi, it features his majestic rock sculpture entitled "To the Issei," honoring the first generation of Japanese who immigrated to America. Linger awhile, then cut across the plaza to 2nd St. 327 E. First St., L.A.; 213-626-1680.
6. Kula Sushi:
D. Solomon sushi at Kula
Little Tokyo's first sushi bar -- actually the first in all of L.A. -- opened in the mid 1960s with a traditionally-trained Japanese chef doling out the ngiri. Times have changed. The latest sushi addition is Kula, serving kaiten zushi, or "conveyor-belt sushi." Items range from simple tuna ngiri to the multi-ingredient "Spider Roll," most for $2 per plate. Can they compare to the much esteemed Sushi Gen a few blocks away? Maybe not, but what Kula lacks in precision and elegance, it makes up for with novelty. Who can deny the thrill of snatching fish off a revolving belt? When you leave Kula, cross the street to Hold Up Art, a gallery known for its edgy exhibitions of urban-inspired art. Also check out what's on the docket at 2nd St. Jazz. 333 E. 2nd St., L.A.; 213-290-9631.
410 E. 2nd St., Los Angeles, CA