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."
This abbreviated version of Japanese cooking with Western ingredients became Japanese-American comfort food. It was the food many Californians assumed was authentic and that generations of restaurants would emulate.
"It’s not quite that simple," explains the always-illuminating Nishijima. "The flavorings were often from the Southern regions of the early immigrants. A Hawaiian influence factored in too, as the Pacific Islands sugar-cane fields were the first stop for many of them. But today you’re seeing more Tokyo flavors."
The food at O-Sho, opened in 1966 and the oldest restaurant on Sawtelle, distills these many influences the way a plate of nachos distills the elements of Mexican food. "O-Sho’s food was designed for American diners," says Bob Kubo, the son of O-Sho’s founder. His father, who came to the San Joaquin Valley as a farm laborer, spent a few years working in a Little Tokyo restaurant. He patterned O-Sho’s tempura- and teriyaki-dominated menu after the restaurant’s Americanized foods, garnishing his plates with iceberg-lettuce salads and orange slices.
"This was not how we ate in Japan," O-Sho’s present owner, 69-year-old Toshiko Kubo tells me over tea and cookies at the restaurant. "We ate only smaller fish, no tuna or yellowtail. It was mostly vegetables and rice, rarely chicken or meat." And what does she cook for her family now? "She does a delicious spaghetti and meat sauce," says her granddaughter, Kristin Kubo, who’s translating.
Formal restaurants on Sawtelle were scarce before 1955, the year Futuba opened. Few Sawtelle Japanese spent their money eating out. Most of the existing Japanese-owned restaurants were coffee shops and luncheonettes serving turkey dinner with pie and coffee, and bacon with eggs. Many Sawtelle Nisei developed a taste for American food in school cafeterias. Despite the Depression and overt discrimination in the job market, Sawtelle thrived, although, according to Sakai, it was considered "Baja Bel Air — the other side of the tracks."
That world came to a standstill on December 7, 1941. That the day would "live in infamy" was doubly true for West Coast people of Japanese heritage, two-thirds of whom were American-born citizens. Ota, Sakai, Morikawa and the Yamaguchis remember in salient detail the weeks that followed Pearl Harbor. Their lives came to a grinding halt with the signing of Executive Order 9066, which ordered them to internment camps. With little time to settle affairs, and only two small suitcases allowed for the journey, many families were victimized by non-Japanese. "My father sold his new tractor and our refrigerator at a huge loss," Morikawa recounts.
And what became of Japanese food while the internees were lining up for their meals in the camps’ Army-style mess halls? "A guy in Manzanar made tofu," Sakai remembers. The Yamaguchi brothers from the variety store on the corner of Mississippi and Sawtelle, who were 8 and 10 years old at the time, describe how their mother took the mess-hall food to the family’s tiny tar-paper-covered barracks and warmed it on a potbelly stove. "She would do things to it," Jack Yamaguchi says. Some enterprising internees made tsukemono pickles from watermelon rind. A few coaxed vegetables from the harsh badlands. Some made bootleg sake.
It would be at least a decade before returning Sawtelle families, who’d lost everything, could participate in America’s rapid postwar growth. Housing was scarce. At first, some stayed in the main hall of the Japanese Lutheran Church and the Sawtelle Institute. Bed sheets or blankets, used as dividers, afforded privacy. "Even those with college degrees were persona non grata in the business world," says Don Sakai. Many worked as day laborers or gardeners.
Slowly, the community re-established itself. Bob Iwamoto opened Safe & Save market, and Betsy Takeuchi ran Granada Market. Mutual Trading, which had stored inventory in a Catholic church in Little Tokyo, was among the markets’ suppliers. "Of course, there were no imports during and immediately after the war," Kanai explains. But as soon as stores opened, they had some supplies.
Restaurants too began to open, and at first, it was non-Japanese who patronized them. This was the era of ’50s places such as Tokyo Dragon, famous for its "Ecstasy Boat Dinner," and teppanyaki steak houses called Shogun. The Kubo family opened another restaurant nearby on Pico in 1969. It had a sushi bar, one of the first ever in the neighborhood.
By the mid-’70s, with the elimination of restrictive immigration laws, many young Japanese nationals were once again lured by a future in the U.S. Among these Shin Issei (new-generation immigrants) was Takuo Kitano, proprietor of Hide Sushi. A sushi chef by trade, Kitano quickly grasped American food sensibilities working his first job, at Holiday Bowl, a sushi bar in Gardena. Hide, the 12-stool place he opened in 1979, developed a reputation for giant sushi at modest prices, appealing to the American idea that more is more.
On the brink of the ’80s raw-fish-roll craze, Hide introduced many boomers to sushi: It was on the Westside, the food was affordable, and it didn’t seem too foreign. Eight years ago, Kitano bought the property beside Safe and Save market, where the new and much larger restaurant he built stands today.
The escalating land values on the Westside in the ’80s had developers circling like vultures. The first chink in the armor was the disappearance of Hankawa’s S&M Nursery, a landmark since 1947. The new multistory Sawtelle Place mall, built on the lot, left no trace of the nursery, and many felt the days were numbered for Sawtelle’s older mom-and-pop businesses.The mall attracted a different clientele, the Chuzai-in. These Gucci-obsessed, platinum-card-carrying, temporarily visa’d employees of Japanese multinationals were a breed apart from the unpretentious, practical Issei and Nisei who had first settled here.
Several generations younger, more urbane and worldly, the Chuzai-in took their Calvin Klein–clothed kids to the Tokyo-based Kumon Math learning center and Hello Kitty/Sanrio toy store in the mall. They loved Mousse Fantasy, a pricey Franco-Japonaise lunchroom and pastry shop. Its feather-light pastries, California esque salads and spaghetti omelets are a typical distillation of Eastern and Western sensibilities. By then such foods were conventional in Japan, but appeared the epitome of avant-garde in L.A.
The mall’s new Nijiya Japanese "deli" and market also figured nicely into the Chuzai-in lifestyle. Standing in front of its bento-box takeout area or the coolers holding ready-cut sashimi, yogurts and coffee Jell-O in plastic cups, you can easily imagine you’re in a supermarket back in Japan. The epitome of Western-inflected food trends of the postwar era, the food at Nijiya and Mousse Fantasy must have mystified the older Issei who’d lost contact with their homeland decades before. The Chuzai-in’s presence wasn’t altogether welcomed by those who distrusted flashier ways.
But this was a new era, and the Chuzai-in’s tastes would shortly transform the face of Japanese food and restaurants in L.A. Westerners would discover how to eat izaka-ya style, in restaurants like Place Foods Bar, an elegant, much-favored Chuzai-in watering hole that used to be Yuu, on Santa Monica Boulevard. It’s in spots like this that VIP’s kampai over business deals. Expensive cognacs, fine wines and several dozen rare sakes (along with inexpensive ones) line its walls, and the chefs turn out a succession of small, exotic plates, tapas-style, to go with them. Place does make a few concessions. (This isn’t, after all, Tokyo.) It serves ice cream sundaes topped with mounds of whipped cream and, hedging its bets, several teriyaki dinner combos.
More casual izaka-ya, such as Furaibo, attract young Shin Issei families, and boisterous groups of college kids who down rounds of shochu (a working-class drink of distilled barley, rice or sweet potato). Furaibo’s little dishes may be yakitori or whole deep-fried baby halibut, but everyone orders the house specialty — deep-fried tebasaki chicken.
, a yakitori bar that opened in 1978 around the corner from Sawtelle, introduced West L.A. to Japan’s preoccupation with specialty restaurants. Whether with the definitive noodles or the ultimate whale-meat dinner, attaining perfection is the goal of such restaurants. At first, non-Japanese didn’t get the idea of a whole meal of skewered and grilled mini-kebabs ordered à la carte while sitting in front of a coal-fueled barbecue. But the observant realized that the chef had limited his menu to focus on his timing at the grill. The sushi movement helped transition the uninitiated to this eating style, so when Yakitori-Yaopened on Sawtelle in 1997, one could expect a wait for dinner. Yakitori-Ya catered less to the shirt-and-tie business crowd than it did to the trend-obsessed Roppongi youth jet set.
The Sawtelle neighborhood became more Tokyoized, inevitably bringing more specialty restaurants, including clones of the noodle shops so dear to the Japanese. About a dozen years after Nanbankan opened, Yasuhiro and Noriko Fukada introduced the Westside to udon and soba. Almost the moment Mishima opened its doors in 1992, it was standing-room-only on the patio, where noodle lovers lined up for a seat. Stashed away upstairs in the corner of a gaudy, multilevel mini-mall, designed and decorated with exquisite panache, Mishima had the perfect persona for teaching Westside diners how to slurp their tanuki or wakame udon.
Mishima remains with new mana-gers, as it is a Japanese franchise. But the Fukadas have opened Taiko in Brentwood Gardens. Another Sawtelle noodle parlor, Asahi Ramen, is run by the former wine steward of the famed Okura Hotel in Tokyo, Masao Asahina. Why a ramen shop? I asked him. After 30 years in the restaurant business, in management (Horikawa, and Matsu in Huntington Beach), he’d simply tired of commuting. And Sawtelle was a ramen-deprived area — unthinkable for a Japanese neighborhood. He got a friend and Chinese-restaurant owner to teach him the basics of turning out Asahi’s huge, steaming bowls of angel-hair-fine noodles in a soup heaped with shredded chicken or tempura, and the various other traditional Ramen toppings.
With Japan’s tastes globalizing as fast as its economy, ethnic cusines came into favor, spawning specialty restaurants with a quirky Japanese spin. Sawtelle’s mini-malls are filled with such places, among them Café Muse & Bar, an izakaya offering 18 microbrews, California wines and sake, and international foods on its little plates.
Going further afield, to the land of the Raj, we find the Japanese version of the English version of curry. For anyone whose vision of Japan ends with the beautiful temples of Kyoto, Hurry Curry of Tokyo will seem an anomaly. But curry verges on a national obsession in Japan, and Hurry Curry fills a definite need for the homesick Japanese university students who come to Sawtelle craving chicken-cutlet curry or the supremely un-Indian croquette curry.
Japan’s love affair with French food sparked a genre of Westernized bistros such as Ishi’s Grill, that wildly creative, low-cost Franco-Japanese dive on Beverly Boulevard. Owner Masayuki Ishikawa (who everyone called Ishi) joined forces with Kenji Minamida to open Sawtelle Kitchen. Nowadays, Minamida owns the restaurant, and the food at this charming, almost makeshift place is less Franco and a little more modern-day Japonaise. Grilled-fish dishes swabbed with ponzu, spaghetti with spicy cod roe, and a list of curry dishes — the whole world à la Japonaise. At Restaurant 2117 Sawtelle, another place with Franco-Japanese roots, most offerings are Alice Waters–style Mediterranean. Japanese ingredients do appear in some, but certainly not in every dish, which shows how far away from its beginnings Japanized Western food has come.
The oddly named Barbecue Lager Tei, on the second floor of the Sawtelle mall, is directly across the street from Manpuku Tokyo BBQ. Together, these restaurants give Little Tokyo West about half a basketball court’s worth of hardware — the little tabletop grills in Korean barbecue places. Lager Tei, a branch of a large chain of like restaurants in Japan (20 branches, I was told), does attempt to be more or less Korean. "We get our kimchi in Koreatown," my waiter told me confidentially. Although the dishes on the menu (beef with bone, beef without bone, marinated, unmarinated and so on) seem like the ones on any Korean menu, a Japanese sensibility sneaks into the food.
It is at Mizu 212, a stunning new traditional Japanese shabu shabu bar, where the story of Sawtelle comes full circle in a real L.A. way. "Who’s the owner?" I inquire, wondering whether this is another imported Japanese chain. Heejin Kim, an attractive young Korean woman, is quickly summoned. She tells me she’s in partnership with James Leff and Weston Suh, whom she met as exchange students long ago. And none of them, she acknowledges, is Japanese.
SAWTELLE RESTAURANTS AND SHOPS
Asahi Ramen, 2027 Sawtelle Blvd., (310) 479-2231; Barbecue Lager Tei, 2130 Sawtelle Blvd., (310) 478-5232; Café Muse & Bar, 1130 Olympic Blvd., (310) 268-7855; Furaibo, 2068 Sawtelle Blvd., (310) 444-1432; Granada Market, 1820 Sawtelle Blvd., (310) 479-0931; Hide Sushi, 2040 Sawtelle Blvd., (310) 477-7242; Hurry Curry of Tokyo, 2131 Sawtelle Blvd., (310) 473-1640; Manpuku Tokyo BBQ, 2125 Sawtelle Blvd., (310) 473-0580; Mishima, 11301 Olympic Blvd. (No. 210 Olympic Collection), (310) 473-5297; Mizu 212, 2000 Sawtelle Blvd., (310) 478-8979; Mousse Fantasy, 2130 Sawtelle Blvd., (310) 479-6665; Nanban Kan Yakitori, 11330 Santa Monica Blvd., (310) 478-1519; Nijiya Market, 2130 S. Sawtelle Blvd., No. 105, (310) 575-3300; Place Foods Bar, 2101 Sawtelle Blvd, (310) 478-7450; Restaurant 2117, 2117 Sawtelle Blvd., (310) 477-1617; Safe & Save, 2030 Sawtelle Blvd., (310) 479-3810; Sawtelle Kitchen, 2024 Sawtelle Blvd., (310) 445-9288; Yakitori-Ya, 11301 Olympic Blvd. (No. 101 Olympic Collection), (310) 479-5400.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Los Angeles dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.