Japanese food in L.A. is changing. Restaurants are leaving the former stronghold in the South Bay and the region's Chinese immigrants are quickly creating one of the most promising markets for Japanese cuisine.
This is all according to Yae Dobashi, founder of J-goods, a Japanese food magazine catering to the Chinese audience. She started the bi-monthly magazine 12 years ago after a radio gig for a Japanese-language station in Los Angeles.
An expert in the local Japanese food scene, Dobashi runs a magazine that's filled with insights into the best Japanese food in greater Los Angeles. Its latest editions include a spread on where to get the best toro in Los Angeles, an entire feature on Ramen Manichi (one of Dobashi's favorite ramen spots) and a infographic on how to buy sake.
Despite being entirely about Japanese food, the magazine is written in Chinese. Dobashi's reasoning? The Chinese-language market is stronger than the Japanese one.
“There are 60,000 Japanese immigrants in Los Angeles,” Doboashi says. “Compare that to the 800,000 in the Chinese market.”
And according to her latest observations, the South Bay Japanese food scene is slowly dissipating.
“All the major car companies that helped anchor the Japanese community there have moved away,” Dobashi says. “Toyota recently announced its plans to move its headquarters away from Torrance.” The South Bay was once the home to the U.S. headquarters of the top three Japanese automakers, Toyota, Nissan and Honda. Nissan left in 2006, Honda left in 2013 and Toyota announced its plans to move last year to Texas.
“The Japanese immigrants are moving back to Japan and the community just isn't that strong anymore,” she says. “At the same time, the Chinese market is getting bigger. So many people are watching it and that's where all the chefs want to target.”
Dobashi doesn't speak Chinese. She hires a translator to transcribe her articles from Japanese. The magazine is a small operation; there are three staff members. Each issue has a distribution of 30,000 copies.
We caught up with Dobashi and picked her brain on her magazine and the Japanese food scene in Los Angeles:
SQUID INK: What motivated you to create a Chinese magazine about Japanese food in Los Angeles?
YAE DOBASHI: I really wanted to bring Japanese culture to other markets. That’s why I made this magazine. Everyone has a stomach. Everybody needs to eat. I really like introducing what Japanese food and culture is like to people of different cultures. The Japanese language magazine market is too saturated already anyways. Also, Chinese people really like to eat. They really like seafood.
Tell us about the state of Japanese dining in Los Angeles.
Los Angeles has the best Japanese food in the world outside of Japan. The Japanese food scene used to be in Torrance and in the South Bay region. The chefs were making food for the Japanese people. But now that the automakers have moved out, there's not that many Japanese people. The restaurants are looking at new markets and most customers these days are mostly non-Japanese, particularly people of Chinese and Korean descent. The Japanese restaurants that have mostly Japanese customers sadly close within a year. People are trying to shift to cater to a more diverse scene. As for the Japanese immigrant population, everyone seems to be moving back to Japan.
There are three types of Japanese restaurants: corporate restaurants that come straight from Japan, restaurants opened by non-Japanese people, and restaurants that open independently by Japanese chefs. The corporate restaurants don't last long, but it's interesting to note that a lot of these companies are looking to expand outside of Japan because the Japanese economy isn't doing too well. Also, there are 17,000 Japanese restaurants in the United States and only 20 percent of them are opened by the Japanese.
The food scene is changing rapidly. Chefs have to take note of what their customers want. And most of these customers now are non-Japanese people.
Let's talk food recommendations. What's your recommendation for a sushi restaurant?
Mori Sushi on Sawtelle. They're pricey though. I quite like Kula in LIttle Tokyo for conveyer belt sushi. And in Fountain Valley, there's a reasonable omakase restaurant called Kasen. They do their rice very well.
What about noodles? Soba, udon, and ramen?
Otafuku Noodle House in Gardena does 100% buckwheat soba. It's different though. They take the shell off the buckwheat so it has a unique flavor. Udon, I like Tsurumaru Udon Honpo in Little Tokyo. It's much more stable than Marugame Monzo. And for ramen? Definitely Umemura Restaurant in Gardena. It's the definition of what Japanese ramen should be: large portions and lots of soup. Most ramen these days have a little bit of noodle and a little bit of soup. It wasn't originally like that. Ramen is supposed to be cheap with large portions. The portions at Umemura are really big. There are many toppings and many vegetables. They make their noodles themselves.
Fukagawa in Gardena. They do natto over white rice and grilled fish and miso soup.
What about a good izakaya?
A lot of people like Torihei. That place is good, but my all-time favorite is Torimatsu in Gardena. It's my favorite Japanese restaurant. There are big portions, the taste is good, and the owner grills everything by himself. That's how you know it's a good Japanese restaurant — when the owner is the chef. They brought the grill from Japan.
Where's the best place to get good Wagyu?
Shiki in Beverly Hills is really good. They import their beef from Japanese agricultural organizations. Real Japanese Wagyu is very different from American Wagyu. Japanese Wagyu have a nose print that's documented.
What about solid Japanese restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley? You mentioned that a lot of folks are looking to relocate there.
There are quite a bit of Japanese restaurants opening up in Arcadia, Rowland Heights, Diamond Bar, and San Gabriel. There's Hayakawa in Covina, which was opened by a former chef of Nobu. Hinotori in Arcadia does yakitori skewers. Sushi bar Yoshida in San Marino is good. The best is probably Sushi Koshu in Diamond Bar.They really think about the customers and they have good quality shrimp.
Where can people get your magazine?
The magazine is free and can be found at Daiso locations in Los Angeles. It's also online at J-Goods.us.