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.
10. Aloha Café:
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:
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:
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.
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:
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.
Japanese cuisine may be associated in the popular imagination with fish, but your next meal is all poultry. Kokekokko (just around the corner from Hold Up and 2nd St. Jazz) sells chicken. Breast, thigh and wings. Gizzard, heart and skin. Meatballs and quail eggs. All served on skewers that have been grilled over charcoal in traditional yakitori style. The grill, rather than being tucked into the kitchen, is at the center of the restaurant, surrounded on three sides by counter seating. From time to time smoke billows up around the grill and wafts into the restaurant, as if just another element of the decor. The restaurant requires each guest order at least five skewers, but will not refuse you a doggie bag. From Kokekokko, walk to 1st St. and turn left. 203 S. Central Ave., L.A.; 213-687-0690.
4. Far Bar:
As the day wanes, the drinking hour begins. Choose Far Bar for its exhaustive menu — two dozen craft beers, roughly 40 Japanese beers, and nearly 40 on draught. Plus approximately 300 whiskies, among other spirits. And cocktails, wine, and sake. Phew! Also choose Far Bar for the chance to step back in time to 1935 when the restaurant opened as the Far East Café with a menu of Americanized Chinese food. (Note the iconic “Chop Suey” sign.) If you want a snack, consider the pizza cooked on a puff pastry “roti” crust, or the teriyaki sliders. Then head to Central Ave. 347 E. First St., L.A.; 213-617-9990.
3. The Spice Table:
The Spice Table may evince a trendy L.A. look with its brick walls, high ceilings, vintage-looking birdcage accessories and exposed light bulbs. But the food brings you on a journey far from home, to the streets of Singapore and Vietnam. Like potatoes fried with house-made sambal, a hot chile sauce. Or satay, skewers of chicken, beef, and lamb belly. And grilled pig's tail accented with fish sauce. Little wonder chef Bryant Ng was recently named a “Best New Chef” by Food & Wine. Eat here while you can — Spice Table must relocate in several months due to construction on a new Metro station. When you leave, stroll to the Doubletree Hotel (formerly the Kyoto Grand) on Los Angeles St. between 2nd and 3rd streets. Take the lobby elevator up to the picturesque rooftop gardens, where graceful trees frame the downtown skyline. 114 S. Central Ave. L.A.; 213-620-1840.
2. Lazy Ox Canteen:
Take the day's last few bites at the Lazy Ox Canteen. For three years, this small-plates restaurant on one of Little Tokyo's calmest streets has served up an imaginative New American menu with global influences. If Spice Table's grilled pig tail intrigued you, try the Lazy Ox's much-admired fried pig ears. Craving veggies? Consider the roasted yams, caramelized cauliflower, and blistered shishito peppers. Oysters, clams, and octopus are on the menu too, plus a hearty oxtail ragu. Or go straight to the rice pudding. After bidding the Ox adieu, continue on San Pedro St. to 3rd St. for your final stop. 241 S. San Pedro St. Los Angeles; 213-626-5299.
1. The Escondite:
“Escondite” means “hideout,” but this place is easy to find — just look for the cobalt blue neon arrow. Or listen for the strains of indie and country-infused rock — Escondite keeps a tight live music schedule. Then grab a beer or cocktail, kick back at a booth, and enjoy the kitschy western décor. Contemplate trying your luck on the Addams Family pinball machine, or one of the game boards stacked behind the register. Before you leave, meander onto the patio to gaze at the twinkly downtown skyscrapers and recall the day's adventures, beginning with Hawaiian French toast. 410 Boyd St. L.A.; 213-626-1800.
Want more Squid Ink? Follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook. Reach the author at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter at @dainabethcita. She lives in Little Tokyo.