The annual World Gyoza Eating Championship descends upon Little Tokyo this Saturday, August 20th, an event in which tiny 100-pound Sonya Thomas, a.k.a. the Black Widow, and others will attempt to eat as many gyoza as inhumanely possible in 10 minutes. As the eaters are no doubt too intimately aware, gyoza are Japanese-style dumplings, usually stuffed with a mixture of pork and vegetables. The competition record is 231 of these delicate purses eaten within a sixth of an hour; tellingly, the competition gyoza are boiled, not pan-fried, for reasons we imagine have to do with slipperiness and ease of eating. For our non-eating competition situations - that is to say, for all of our eating situations - we're partial to the pan-fried gyoza, even if, or maybe because, the crispiness of the skin forces you to pause for a moment to appreciate such a simple food for which most every Japanese household has its own unique recipe.
The original Daikokuya in Little Tokyo is perpetually crowded (for the introverted and crowd-adverse, the locations outside of Los Angeles proper are far less crowded). It's crushingly busy in part because it is quite small (think homey post-war Japanese diner bathed in Post-It yellow lights) and, as you probably already know, in larger part because everyone in the city, plus the tourists, is here for the ramen. Based on a glance at the dishes on the tables, however, there are a good number of people who also are here for the gyoza.
There are five gyoza to an order, and they come out quickly, alongside a sweet dipping sauce. The most striking thing is the shape of the dumpling: where most look like overstuffed hobo bags, Daikokuya's version channels the clutch bag. These are rectangular, flat packets, neatly stuffed with a slightly salty, very meaty, very delicious mix of pork and vegetables. The skin is thick, crispy, chewy; a generous shower of green onions provide excellent added texture. If we didn't have our entrees coming, we would have asked for another five. And maybe five more after that. Two hundred thirty-one suddenly didn't look so hard.
Right around the corner from Daikokuya is Tokyo Cafe. Like Daikokuya, this mom-and-pop shop is small. Unlike Daikokuya, however, it is almost never perpetually crowded, and it feels less retro diner and more your grandmother's sparse living room. Open only for lunch, the little restaurant is a family-run operation with a history that goes back to just around the war. An older, disarmingly charming Japanese women seated us, and, in sentences full of Japanese words and phrases but still somehow completely understandable to our English-only ears, explained that the restaurant has existed in some incarnation or another, in various locations throughout Little Tokyo, for the last few decades. The gyoza recipe is a family one that has survived each move.
The gyoza, ordered as an entree, comes with a bowl of miso and salad topped with a few stalks of broccoli, both of which come out first. They are quickly followed by a small bowl of rice and large dinner plate with six gyoza. These look remarkably like Daikokuya's: if fashion follows the shadow of their gyoza, the clutch bag will never go out of style. The primary difference here is the skin. Tokyo Cafe's gyoza have a thinner wrapper than Daikokuya's, so they pull apart easily. The gyoza here are naked on the plate, unadorned with any toppings like Daikokuya's blanket of sliced green onions. The filling has a slight crunch, however, giving it the bite it needs. Overall, Tokyo Cafe hits a perfect ratio between the skin and the meat. These, too, are absolutely delicious.
The fight here is incredibly close. Both gyoza represented are remarkably similar, in shape, taste, and crispiness. At the end of the bout, though, we give the edge to Tokyo Cafe for achieving just the right balance between the wrapper and its stuffing. The zero wait time and grandmotherly presence don't hurt either: While standing outside Daikokuya with a crush of people paying mind to neighboring stores' handwritten requests to Please Do Not Lean on the Window, Arigato!, sometimes we just want to sit down with family and feel well cared for.
Case in point: when we finished our gyoza at Tokyo Cafe, we were asked if we needed more rice. When we said we were full, our newly adopted grandmother nodded approvingly. "Good! Good!" Wonderful.