Illustration by Patricia Lanquedoc
For years I thought the only place to get authentic Japanese food in L.A. was in Gardena, or maybe on the third floor of Little Tokyo’s Yaohan Plaza. The food snob in me lived to drive at least 50 miles to find obscure places with hand-cut green-tea-flavored soba noodles, or 20 varieties of fresh seaweed salad. When I complained to Yasuko, my Japanese friend, about having to schlep downtown to get matsutake mushrooms, she sent me straight to Sawtelle Boulevard, also known as Little Tokyo West.
Of course she was right. I found those matsutakes and then walked up Sawtelle to take a look at the new multistory mini-mall going up on the corner of Olympic. The three-block area I had once identified with old-fashioned sukiyaki and tempura combos had evolved into a high-density Tokyo-style restaurant row, a sort of concentrated version of Gardena moved north. I noticed a Japanese pub serving rare artisinal sakes and barbecued eel liver sitting near a smoky, jam-packed yakitori bar across the street from a sleek wood-and-glass Art Moderne–looking shabu shabu place. And Futaba, the old sukiyaki restaurant, was now Asahi Ramen.
Yet evidence of an old Japanese neighborhood, established circa 1910, still exists in the faded storefronts of remaining small family businesses such as Yamaguchi’s Japanese variety store and O-Sho restaurant. Bonsai nurseries are still doing business, including Hashimoto’s, which opened in 1925.
"My uncle built this building in 1939," says Don Sakai, owner of Satsuma Imports. "My mom worked in the beauty shop next door, and the room we’re standing in now was a fish market," Sakai tells me as he pads around his shop in a puffy down vest to ward off the morning chill. Sakai is the antithesis of a stereotypical blue-suited Japanese businessman. Mainlining something in a paper cup from Starbucks, he talks about prewar days, when boarding houses and a few coffee shops with nominal Japanese dishes catered to unmarried male laborers. An inevitable Chinese greasy spoon was the most exotic thing on the street.
Sakai tells me the older Issei (first-generation immigrants) — and their children, like him, the Nisei — have seen this patch of West L.A. through all the pivotal periods of Japanese-American life: from the era when Issei were legally denied the right to own property in the ’20s, to the ’80s surge of new Japanese immigrants and multinational corporate employees who would radically alter the style of Japanese food in the city. Sawtelle, it seems, is the embodiment of L.A.’s Japanese-American food evolution.
To delve deeper into the street’s past, I take Sakai’s suggestion and drop by the seniors’ lunch at the 73-year-old Japanese Institute of Sawtelle just as a lively bingo game is winding down. I’m intrigued by the old photos of Boy Scout troops, neighborhood baseball teams, men in judo clothes and children lined up for their Japanese-language class in prim, ’30s-era school uniforms. Institute regulars seem hesitant to talk to me until I ask whether they still eat Japanese food today.
Among the group is Marjorie Nakagiri-Morikawa, a minute, cheery woman of 77 whose Issei father farmed land in the Venice-Palms area, having arrived in 1924. "There were many vegetable and flower farms all around West L.A. in those early days," Morikawa explains. "At first, my father used horses for the plowing. And we still had only cold running water, outhouses and an ice box for refrigeration." Morikawa’s family grew lima beans and assorted vegetables, most of which went to Central Market in the L.A. produce district, where Japanese controlled about 75 percent of the city’s produce.
Stories throughout the afternoon describe how these Nisei acquired a sense of their Americanized Japanese culture via the food served at their family tables. Sachiko Ota, 69, a former bookkeeper with Yamato restaurant in Century City, remembers the groceries at Lucky Market on Sawtelle (unrelated to today’s Lucky’s chain). It carried American foods, and a selection of imported items that attempted to bring the taste of home to older Issei.
"Everything came by cargo ship, so it was either canned or dried," says Noritoshi Kanai, president of Mutual Trading Co., a food importer open in L.A. since 1926. Some products were not particularly successful. "I remember the canned fish cake. It was awful," complains Yoko Nishijima, a Japanese food-marketing expert in her late 60s.
Nisei children got a simplified version of Japanese cuisine. "We just had the basics — nappa, daikon, tofu, miso and shoyu, all grown or made here," says Ota. "We grew up eating miso soup and rice with tsukemono [pickles] for breakfast, but also iceberg lettuce, peanut-butter-and-jam sandwiches and Jell-O," Morikawa adds. Ota, who grew up in the ’30s a block away from Sawtelle, developed a typical Nisei palate. "I’m not keen on strict Japanese food," she admits. "You know, stuff like the kazunoko that’s served for New Year."