For all its variegated culinary charms, there's one thing downtown Los Angeles, with its ramen and sushi and burgers and coffee and cupcakes and cocktails, doesn't have much of: ice cream. Sure, you can find a couple ho-hum ice cream stands in the Grand Central Market. Syrup Desserts at 6th and Spring makes a nice frozen hot chocolate. Spitz, until its display freezer broke a week ago, dished out gelato good enough to make you wish you hadn't eaten so much doner kebab.
The grandaddy of them all is Mikawaya, with a plain Little Tokyo storefront that masks a century-old, family-run marketing juggernaut. Ever notice those mochi-wrapped ice cream balls lining the freezer section of Trader Joe's? Mikawaya doesn't simply manufacture them; Mikawaya invented them.
Founded in 1910 by the Hashimoto family, Mikawaya took mochi, a traditional Japanese treat of glutinous rice arduously pounded by hand for Japanese New Year's celebrations, married it to ice cream and came up with a thoroughly modern snack. The shop in the Japanese Village Plaza still sells all manner of standard mochi, from pink and white-striped suama to sponge cake-wrapped chofu, but they're best known for their mochi ice cream balls.
In 1994, Mikawaya began selling the mochi ice cream balls as a novelty. It turns out, they have mass appeal. You can find them nowadays in chocolate, green tea and maybe a couple other flavors. But at Mikawaya's flagship store, they come in four more flavors: vanilla, strawberry, mango, coffee and red bean. ($1/each)
Broadening the flavor profile, the Mikawaya store also sells added eight varieties of mochilato ($1.50/each). It's the same concept, a layer of chewy rice paste, only it's wrapped around a golf ball of gelato instead of ice cream. The gelato is simultaneously more dense and more fluffy than the ice cream, and the flavors are more modern: toasted almond, cookies & cream, chocolate hazelnut and plum.
Nothing about Mikawaya's ice cream or gelato is revolutionary. The quality is solid; the flavors, tame. Everything tastes how it should except, perhaps, for the plum mochilato, which tastes sort of like how we imagine Hello Kitty would taste. (We mean that in a good way.)
That you can hold and eat a mochi ice cream ball in your hand without getting messy is part of its charm. The biggest part lies in the textural contrast between the sticky outer layer of mochi and the cold, sweet ball in the center. Sure, you can buy a scoop of ice cream or gelato on its own — we're partial to the white peach sorbet, delicate yet sweet like candy — but at Mikawaya, their most famous item is also their best.
*NOTE: Cash only.
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