Posts tagged Little Tokyo

When I went to my doctor last month, she was pleased about my weight loss, something I attribute to the walking during my commute (and also to the stress of preparing to sell the house). But my doctor also cautioned, “There’s an awful lot of places to eat around there.” Boy, was she right. My wife and I have tried to be good about cooking at home, but we’re surrounded with seemingly every type of cuisine imaginable. It’s been tough to stay strict.

Places like Chinatown or Little Tokyo were originally segregated slums that were eventually turned into working tourist attractions after many of the Jim Crow-era laws were overturned during the middle of the 20th Century. In an attempt to attract tourists, many restaurants catered to the relatively bland palates of middle-America whites, a trend that gave birth to common dishes like sweet and sour pork, chop suey, teriyaki chicken, and egg foo young.

Authentic ethnic cuisines eventually moved further away to neighborhoods like Gardena or San Gabriel, where communities established menus catering to the tastes of their distinct populations. As Americans of every color started to develop a more adventurous palate, “fusion” food emerged, relying upon a pastiche of flavors taking inspiration from a variety of ethnicities. Consequently – and somewhat ironically – the Japanese food available in Little Tokyo today is…um, just okay. The new wave of modern restaurants opening all across Downtown serve my favorite foods.

So, let’s move onto my recommendations. Across each point of the compass, good food can be had for every meal. I’ve picked my favorite in every direction:

North, Breakfast
Two blocks north of my apartment is Jist Cafe near 1st and Judge John Aiso Street. The family has owned a cafe in Little Tokyo for generations and this is their latest. The owner is like your Japanese Ba-chan (Grandmother), one that insists on serving the food and clearing the tables herself so she can chat with her guests. My sister-in-law actually found this place on Yelp when Cafe Aloha down the street was inexplicably closed.

Their speciality is the Cha-Hsu Hash, shown here with two poached eggs and side of rice. Cha-Hsu is a marinated pork popular with both the Chinese and Japanese American communities. I can imagine my doctor cringing, but if I got a heart attack leaving the restaurant after eating this dish, I would die a happy man. Yes, it’s that good. I know the rice and potatoes is kind of an unusual combination, but it doesn’t matter, because you’ll want to soak up every drop of the gravy. My wife’s blueberry pancakes in the background weren’t too shabby either.

South, Lunch
In the AVA apartment building just south of my apartment on Los Angeles Street is Seoul Sausage. The original “restaurant” was a very successful food truck, but the owners are trying their fortunes with a brick and mortar establishment. Come for the food, stay for the beer. It should be a busier place than it currently is, so hurry before people catch on.

I ordered the Bahn Mi Sausage Sandwich with a side of Tots; my wife ordered a fried chicken bowl. The sandwich isn’t a traditional bahn mi, but an approximation consisting of chicken-apple sausage, mortadella, jalapeños, and about twelve other ingredients I can’t remember. The sandwich was good and went especially well washed down with a beer.

West, Dinner
Just a block and a half up 2nd street is Badmaash – Indian Fusion.  I lived in Berkeley, CA, which has some of the best Indian restaurants in the state so I’m really spoiled. To date, Indian food in Southern California has been decidedly “meh” for me, so I stopped trying. If it wasn’t for the smell emitting from this restaurant as I walked past on my way home from work, I probably wouldn’t have tried Badmaash either. Silly me. Badmaash is equal to, and in some ways superior, to any Indian restaurant in Berkeley.

During out first visit to Badmaash we went with the tried and true menu items for comparison: Chicken Tiki Marsala and good ole Saag Paneer. Both dishes were so good we began eating before I was able to take a photo. Next time we will try some of the fusion dishes; if they are as good as the Cheese and Chili Naan pictured above, we should be happy diners.

East, Dessert
Two long blocks east, down 2nd, through Little Tokyo, and crossing Alameda into the Arts District at Traction and Hewitt is Pie Hole. With several other locations around SoCal, there are options, but I recommend this specific location if pie remotely interests you. Heck, this place is so good, it might convert you to pie despite its somewhat expensive prices. It’s worth it.

The Mexican Chocolate Pie is as close to a sure thing as anything in this world. If you only go here once, order this pie. If you return, order this pie again before trying something else during a third visit.

So there you have it, my favorite restaurants across Downtown Los Angeles. In case you’re wondering, we’ve tried all of these restaurants in just three months since moving to DTLA. And, yes, my doctor is pissed. I’ll let you know how it goes next month.

Looking at City Hall with Weller Court in the foreground. All photos by Gary Lai.

Fifty-one years ago my parents chose to move their infant son and 9 year old daughter to a brand new neighborhood away from the urban core of San Francisco.

While not exactly a suburb, Diamond Heights was a neighborhood almost completely devoid of typical San Francisco-style amenities: an absence of corner markets below flats, no rows of restaurants lining major transportation corridors, and no Muni streetcars or electric buses rumbling along streets on their way to Downtown. Diamond Heights was a suburban-style neighborhood with large swaths of detached single family homes with two car garages. The planners had every intention for Diamond Heights residents to get into their cars and drive the few miles into Downtown for work.

My parents were not alone. In fact, for the next 40 years, most middle class Americans moved away from the centers of cities and into suburbs. Today, a lot of us are moving back.

My wife and I just moved into Little Tokyo, just down the street from Los Angeles City Hall, and a block and a half away from Police Headquarters. We don’t have any kids, but the maintenance costs of our vintage 1921 Silver Lake house finally got the best of us. We are planning to vacate the house, do some minimal repairs, and sell it. In the meantime, we decided to move to within walking distance of my work in Downtown Los Angeles to see if we like it. For children of the 1960s-1970s, the experience can be more than a little weird. For us, downtowns have always been for work and play, but not for living. As Chinese Americans, my parents purposefully moved away from San Francisco Chinatown in search of a better life for their children. When my wife’s grandparents immigrated to United States from Japan, they ended up in Little Tokyo, but moved away as soon as they could afford to do so. The irony is not lost on us, as we walked down historic 1st Street looking for a table in one of many over-crowded restaurants this holiday weekend.

New apartments in Little Tokyo.

Suffice to say, all the reasons that post-war families chose to move to suburbs is too complex and multi-faceted to cover in one post. But it is undeniable that the suburbs represented a “better” life for that generation. Owning a single-family home with land was out of reach for most Americans in the early part of the 20th century. The West Coast – specifically Southern California, with it’s seemingly endless supply of developable land – represented an unique opportunity to achieve the fabled “American Dream”. While the idea every family should own a single family home seems admirable, and even egalitarian, there are unintended consequences to trying to achieve this goal:

  • Running out of land – As our population rises, the space for single-family homes dimishes.  Vast areas of fertile farmland or natural landscapes are gobbled up to accommodate homes farther and farther away from the economic centers; many Southern Californians commute over 2 hours one way from home to job.
  • Pollution – With Southern California transportation infrastructure centered around cars and freeways, the city’s air pollution is the worst in the country. Idle engines stuck in traffic for hours on end is a primary cause. The problem is exacerbated with more people commuting farther distances in heavy traffic.
  • Social isolation – As we spend more time in our cars and live farther from the economic activity, we spend less time with the people who live around us. Real communities cannot thrive if we barely know our neighbors and our social circles are scattered throughout the region (causing us to drive even more!).

Japanese Village shops and restaurants on historic 1st Street in Little Tokyo.

The Millennial generation seems to have intuitively sensed these problems and are now seeking to be closer to their jobs. They aim to spend less time in cars and have their goods, services, and entertainment within walking distance.  All of these desires have guided developers to build sleek new dense housing, restauranteurs to open cafes and shops in the Downtown districts, and supermarkets to return to areas long abandoned. The demand for these amenities has been fueling a revival of Downtown Los Angeles for the last decade, with development only accelerating every passing day.

So, with that all in mind, my wife and I have moved Downtown last weekend.  I’ll tell you how it goes…

Angel City Brewery – a local hot spot – in the adjacent Art’s District.


Coffee Hyanggee (커피향기) a Korean coffee shop on Olympic Blvd in Koreatown, Los Angeles CA serves espresso coffee preparations such as cappuccino (카푸치노) and caffe latte (카페라떼) as well as iced coffee (아이스커피) and various flavors of the shaved ice dessert known as patbingsu / bingsoo (팥빙수). Creative Common photo by Nathan Gray.

Coffee Hyanggee (커피향기) a Korean coffee shop on Olympic Blvd in Koreatown, Los Angeles CA serves espresso coffee preparations such as cappuccino (카푸치노) and caffe latte (카페라떼) as well as iced coffee (아이스커피) and various flavors of the shaved ice dessert known as patbingsu / bingsoo (팥빙수). Creative Common photo by Nathan Gray.

“Because I’m closer to so many restaurants…”

That’s the explanation I’ve offered friends when they’ve asked me why I decided to move to the San Gabriel Valley, the biggest Chinese ethno-burb in Los Angeles County. It wasn’t just the food that influenced my decision to move, but San Gabriel’s dining and shopping landscape was a very important influence in determining where I wanted to call home. The 626 has developed into a unique combination of immigrant tastes and Los Angeles infrastructure, a neighborhood that looks like a 1950s suburb, yet smells like an enticing Sichuan hotpot.

One big plus of living in Los Angeles is this proximity and diversity of authentic cuisines available all within the sprawl of our city’s county lines. So, instead of thinking of our urban landscape in relation to infrastructure or traffic, I began thinking about Los Angeles in relation to where we eat and how we get there. The San Gabriel Valley, Little Tokyo, and Koreatown specifically.

Although I personally prefer tea to coffee, I alway enjoy going out to cafes in KoreaTown. These coffee drinking spots, both small and big, are a perfect example of what Claes Oldenburg once described as the “third place” in urban context: a lively semi-private/semi-public social space outside of the home or office. People come to these Koreatown cafes both day and night – meeting friends, studying, working, or even just to people watch. Similar to Korea, Los Angeles’ K-town cafes offer tons of menu options compared to American chains.

Coffee isn’t the singular focus at a Korean cafe; the furniture setting, interior design, background music, backyard/loft seating, are all highly valued features that distinguish a Korean cafe from its American counterparts. Moreover, as Instagram has become a powerful grassroots marketing tool, the presentation of food and drinks at these K-town establishments are designed to garner Instagrams and followers’ “likes”.

Little Tokyo Village Plaza in Los Angeles - Creative Commons photo by Justefrain

Little Tokyo Village Plaza in Los Angeles – Creative Commons photo by Justefrain.

Little Tokyo
Speaking of appetizing looking food, the Japanese are famous for their presentation, from the traditional kaiseki dining experience to ramen houses and to enticing street snacks. In the northeast section of Downtown LA is the historical district known as Little Tokyo, a  cultural landmark neighborhood that exists like a vignette of the Los Angeles’ larger and longstanding Japanese-American community. Differing from the Koreatown “coffee-scape”, which focuses more on an interior experience, the Japanese “snack-scape” blurs the boundaries of interior and exterior with alternative outdoor seating, pedestrian-friendly avenues, big shop and restaurant windows for peering in, and comfortable pedestrian shading with pleasant landscaping…basically everything William Whyte proposed that made for a vibrant social life in urban spaces.


San Gabriel Valley
Finally, let’s talk about the Chinese “foodscape”. It should be no surprise food is deeply ingrained into Chinese culture. Every festival seems to revolve around a specific type of dish or ingredient. In China, we have something similar to the late night beverage and dining options of Korea’s “coffeescape” and the Japanese “snackscape”, the tea house. However here in Los Angeles, and even more so in the San Gabriel Valley area, I noticed something I’d refer to as the Chinese “supermarket-scape”.

Chinese supermarkets are noticeably different in both size and scope of groceries sold, offering an abundance of live fish and shellfish. The quality of produce is highly prized in Chinese cuisine, and the markets here reflect this attention to freshness. In many Asian countries, people still prefer to go to poultry markets than purchase their fowl prepackaged.

Another uniquely Chinese practice is supermarket shopping as a group activity. In the last decade China’s economic prosperity fueled middle class growth, and with it, the popularity of supermarkets. Thus, friends and family have come to congregate at the supermarket as a social activity, where purchasing goods might come secondary to just “hanging out”. This might have changed how Chinese shop, but the cuisine still remains a family-style experience, with shared dishes and large portions the norm. Because of this communal nature of dining, shopping for food is usually a serious weekly errand, requiring a plethora of different kinds of vegetables, meats, tofu, condiments, and spices to feed appetites. In many ways the supermarket plaza in the San Gabriel Valley is an extension of this cultural shift, with shopping centers becoming the communities unofficial center.

Back within Chinese households the ingredients, cooking tools, and cooking techniques have all shaped the suburban landscape in subtle ways. For example, a Chinese kitchen has to have a suitable ventilation system, since traditionally a great deal of dishes cooked require stir-frying or boiling, thus producing a plentitude of steam and smoke. As a controversial 2014 LA Times piece about the influx of Chinese into the San Gabriel suburb of Arcadia noted, “Nearly all of [the homes on sae] have a second ‘wok kitchen’ next to a larger and showier main kitchen. Some of the Asian cooking requires a lot of BTUs for the burner, and it gets oily and messy, so that’s a must-have.”

This Sunday will be the Lunar New Year. Many Chinese people start shopping for their big new year’s eve dinner. The decorations, music, and food displays in supermarkets at this time will all reflect the importance of this special festival to the Chinese community (alongside other Asian communities who recognize the date).

If you’ve never stepped foot inside a Chinese supermarket, I’d say now is the best time to visit and experience something much different from your Ralph’s, Whole Foods, or Trader Joes. These ethnic supermarkets, restaurants, and snacking/refreshment spots dotting Los Angeles are all what make Los Angeles an ever evolving landscape of flavors.

Straw wattles - aka straw worms, bio-logs, straw noodles, or straw tubes – are tubes of dried rice straw. Configurations of wattles were laid across Noguchi Plaza, creating a juxtaposition of natural material objects against a canvas of manmade constructs.

Straw wattles – aka straw worms, bio-logs, straw noodles, or straw tubes – are tubes of dried rice straw. Configurations of wattles were laid across Noguchi Plaza, creating a juxtaposition of natural material objects against a canvas of manmade constructs.

Ojama – or a momentary interruption – is an exploration of space, time, and experience of the natural world. In this case a straw wattle is used as a medium to examine how we respond to nature’s interruption of the manufactured environment. The art installation featured in this piece took place at the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center (JACCC) plaza in Little Tokyo (Los Angeles) from May to July 2011.