Just north of the intersection of Sawtelle and Olympic, in the neighborhood known as Little Osaka, there's a quadrant of Los Angeles with so much outstanding food crammed into a relatively small space that it makes you wonder why these neighborhood planners can't have a crack at other parts of town. Little Osaka has always been a terrific food neighborhood, but with the recent popularity of ramen, both here and in Japan, ramen shops have been popping up like, well, pop-ups. And many of them feel like that -- tiny, informal, created seemingly overnight from vats of steaming pork broth and the twisted yarn of floured noodles, kanji-decorated banners suddenly fluttering above open doorways like the nautical flags of newly-arrived ships.
Yes, this is an actual Los Angeles walking neighborhood, where you can get superior sushi, oden, okonomiyaki, tsukemen and ramen without having to repark -- or do more than cross the street. Sure, it would be more fun to food crawl in Roppongi or Shinagawa, but it's good to know you don't have to shell out for a ticket. Now if only somebody would install those noodle shop payment machines.
Once upon a time, when Balconi Coffee Company was in its previous location somewhere in Santa Monica, finding the coffeehouse was kind of like stumbling upon and down Alice's rabbit hole -- if Alice were a caffeine addict lost in some Haruki Murakami novel. Since Ray Sato reopened in a new location on Olympic, walking into the coffee shop is more like ducking into a Tokyo coffeehouse, albeit minus the Wifi. There are gorgeous siphon pots, lining the counters and shelves like some alchemist's pipe dream. No, you can't get food here -- unless you count the little shortbread cookie that sometimes comes with your cup of java -- but coffee is its own food group for some of us. 11301 W. Olympic Blvd., Ste 124 Los Angeles; 310-906-0267.
9. ROC Kitchen:
Sure, you can get better -- and significantly cheaper -- soup dumplings if you drive to the San Gabriel Valley. But for everyone who lives or works west of downtown, it's pretty great to know that you don't have to. Since its recent opening, ROC has been jammed, with lunchtime lines that rival those at Tsujita. (Somebody should maybe open a curbside sake stand.) Order the xiao long bao --and maybe the scallion pancakes and three cup chicken -- and watch the chefs as they roll the dough and form the dumplings in the open kitchen.
2049 Sawtelle Blvd. Los Angeles; 310-235-2089.
8. Miyata Menji:
Owned by an Osaka-based company, this is ramen at its most minimalist. The hole-in-the-wall space has the requisite banner over the door and only two dishes on the menu: a tonkotsu ramen with teriyaki beef, shallots and fried tomatoes; and tsukemen with steamed noodles, anchovy cabbage, grated cheese, minced pork, tomato and croutons. And if tomato and cheese in your ramen still seems weird to you, maybe you need to spend more time in ramen shops -- or in Tokyo, where Italian food is more popular than it is in many U.S. Italian neighborhoods. 2500 Sawtelle Blvd. Los Angeles; 310-312-3929.
7. Soba Sojibo:
If you're tired of ramen (really? really??), you might try a bowl of soba, a happy choice that got a lot happier with the recent opening of Soba Sojibo in the space previously occupied by Orris. Soba, traditional buckwheat noodles, are served here either hot or cold, with tsuyu, a simple dipping sauce, or loaded with lovely stuff like mochi or natto. (And yes, we used the adjective "lovely" to describe natto. Sorry.) 2006 Sawtelle Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 479-1200.
6. Asahi Ramen:
When Asahi Ramen opened, twenty-six years ago, there was only one other ramen shop in the whole area. Not now. And with the yen so high against the dollar, many of them are Japanese-owned, which keeps the feel of the neighborhood intact. At Asahi, you can expect large bowls and not-so-large prices. The decor is simple and light, with pale tan tables and chairs filling a cafe-sized space. In addition to ramen -- the kimchi ramen, on the menu for the last three or so years, is stellar -- you can get cold and hot noodle dishes, also yakisoba, gyoza and many additional small plates. Cash only. 2027 Sawtelle Blvd. Los Angeles; 310-479-2231.
Chef Takayuki Morishita opened Morinoya last spring, upstairs from Kiriko in the complex on the corner of Olympic and Sawtelle, serving yakitori, hot pots, noodles, sushi and sashimi -- and oden. Oden is a bowl of broth in which has been simmered many things, notably fish cakes and eggs, tofu and daikon, also suji niku (charmingly billed as "fibrous meat"), tofu and konjac, a traditional vegetable that's kind of like a cross between a plant and an eraser. A serious comfort food in Japan, where you can find it in steaming tubs in Tokyo 7-Elevens, oden is still somewhat hard to find in L.A. It shouldn't be, as it's the perfect light meal on a cold winter day. 11301 W. Olympic Blvd., Suite 210 Los Angeles; 310-473-3960.
4. Ramen Jinya:
When the first Ramen Jinya opened in L.A., in a strip mall in Studio City, Angelenos went a little nuts, happy to have superior tonkotsu ramen available -- without having to drive to Gardena. Jinya's bowls of ramen, loaded with fine noodles and porky broth, seemed the Platonic ideal of ramen, and their house-made tofu, made tableside, seemed like our answer to flambeeing crepes at table. Since then, the Jinyas have multiplied, including this one in Little Osaka, which opened -- after a very, very long wait -- in June. Jinya's ramen may not be the best in L.A. anymore, now that we've had our ramen renaissance, but they're outstanding -- and the tofu is still worth the show. 2208 Sawtelle Blvd. Los Angeles; 310-481-0977.
Okonomiyaki is one of the great pleasures of Japanese cuisine, a massive pancake of savory batter and bonito and mayonnaise (and, depending on your whim, shrimp, squid, bacon, potato, fried egg, etc.) that, ideally, you assemble yourself on a hot griddle in the center of your table. Sometimes servers do this for you; sometimes they do not. But however your dinner is made, it's a blissful assembly (or mess, really) of ingredients. At Gottsui, you watch the dish being made in the open kitchen, enormous cakes that then arrive on hot skillets. Finally, a reason to use a trowel in the context of the kitchen. 2119 Sawtelle Blvd. Los Angeles; 310-478-0521.
2. Tsujita L.A.:
If a bowl of ramen is your idea of the perfect food, then tsukemen might be the Platonic ideal of it -- that bowl of noodles elevated to a worshipful level. Tsukemen (pronounced "skemen") is dip ramen, in which the noodles are presented in one bowl and the sauce, gloriously condensed, comes alongside it. Imagine deconstructed ramen, taken to extremes of flavor. Because the success of the dish depends on the quality of the components, you don't really want amateurs doing this, and there are none to be found at Tsujita L.A., where the tsukemen is a revelation. You can order other things (ramen, even okonomiyaki), but the lines that trail down the block are, justly, for the tsukemen. 2057 Sawtelle Blvd. Los Angeles; 310-231-7373.
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Kiriko predated most of the hip noodle bars on Sawtelle, and it will hopefully remain, wedged nonchalantly into the lower floor of a mall, long after they've come or gone or morphed into other things. Ken Namba's sushi restaurant is one of the best in L.A., a small and cheery place where you can wander up to the sushi bar and order abalone or octopus, kohada or mackerel -- or let the chef do it for you. The sushi is insanely fresh and creative, a happy combination of traditional and modern. If omakase isn't your thing (and it should be here), you can dine blissfully on chawanmushi, fried gobo, even teriyaki chicken. Although why you'd order teriyaki when you could sample Namba's cherry wood-smoked salmon and mango is a mystery. 11301 W. Olympic Blvd. Los Angeles; 310-478-7769.