Finish off a plate of hamachi sashimi or negitoro-maki at any sushi bar and you'll most likely have the option to bite into the colorful, chilled dessert that has come to be known as Mochi Ice Cream. With flavors ranging from Green Tea, Strawberry to Mango – these plump balls of ice cream can be found on the plates of diners at Sasabune to the freezers of Mitsuwa Market and most recently, stacked beside a tub of French Vanilla ice cream at your local Trader Joes. What is slowly becoming accepted as a charmingly sized, crossbred dessert was first introduced to Americans through Little Tokyo's veteran Japanese confectionary store, Mikawaya. This year is the store's 100th anniversary.
The Japanese dessert store, nestled in the belly of Little Tokyo's revived Japanese Village Plaza, maintains a steady stream of daily admirers stopping by for an after dinner snack. Mikawaya specializes in wagashi or traditional Japanese confectionary, which often include the usual suspects: mochi, azuki and a cup of hot green tea. Besides the azuki stuffed manjus and kinako-drenched mochi, since 1994, the wagashi-ya has taken Japanese rice cake and fused it with an American favorite: ice cream.
Although not the first to think of fusing rice cake and ice cream — that honor goes to Lotte, creators of the slightly more marshmellowy and powder-laced Yukimi Daifuku — Americans can thank Mikawaya for gradually introducing the increasingly popular mochi ice cream and traditional wagashi to Americans.
In the early 1900s, two Japanese entrepreneurs first opened Mikawaya's doors in Little Tokyo. Ryuzaburo Hashimoto purchased the bakery in 1910 and soon Koroku and Haru Hasimoto took over their uncle's business hoping to supply Japanese immigrants and Californians alternatives to chocolate and apple pie. The couple ran the store until they were forced to close its doors in 1942 when the Hashimotos were relocated to an internment camp in Poston, Arizona during World War II under Executive Order 9066.
After the war, the Hashimotos returned to Little Tokyo and reopened Mikawaya bringing home with them their new daughter, Frances, who was born during the relocation. Frances would later take over the business and expand Mikawaya to include three additional retail stores in L.A. County and a store in one of the best cities to eat Japanese – Honolulu, Hawaii. Under the guidance of Frances and her husband, Mikawaya would begin to sell Mochi Ice Cream and their menu would eventually include inventive gelato flavors from plum wine to Kona coffee and mochilato – a ball of gelato covered in a thin mochi covering.
From humble beginnings, the Little Tokyo confectionary, now in it's 100th year of business, has successfully taken what the Japanese believe to be the most Japanese of things in their culture – wagashi – and has created a unique hybrid dessert that seems to be moving people in a good direction – all the way to the dessert menu at their favorite sushi bar and the freezer section of their local market.
Mikawaya: 118 Japanese Village Plaza Mall, Los Angeles; (213) 624-1681