“Do I feel like sushi, ramen, yakitori, yakiniku, or curry today?” Trying to decide on a Japanese restaurant can be hard here #thestruggleisreal. The abundance of some of the top Japanese restaurants in the country can partially attribute to the Toyopet Crown sedan which was one of the first cars Toyota Motor Company sold in the U.S. in the late 50’s. When Toyota moved their U.S. headquarters to Torrance, several other Japanese companies followed suit which contributed to LA having the 2nd largest population of hungry, sushi loving, Kirin beer drinking, noodle slurping Japanese/Japanese Americans in the U.S., right behind those Spam musubi lov’n Hawaiians. On another note, Toyota recently had their grand opening on July 6th, 2017 of their new headquarters in Plano, TX… ‘k den brah.
1. Curry (Japanese Curry)
Curry was introduced to Japan in the 1800’s by them wig wearing, tea drinking Brit’s, so it has had some time to steep which is why Japanese curry has a distinctively Japanese take on it, and it isn’t a direct clone of Indian or Thai curry. Nowadays, it is such a popular dish in Japan, many of the Japanese curry chains could not leave their fellow countrymen hanging without curry in SoCal. So, not only does LA have House Foods (manufacturer) / Curry House (curry chain) here, but Coco Ichibanya which has 1,400 locations worldwide has already opened four locations in CA.
If you’re out hunting for some traditional Japanese desserts, you’ll find dango (the “J” is silent, ok I joke, it’s not spelled “Django”) and imagawayaki at Mitsuru Cafe in Little Tokyo. Also nearby is Mikawaya, the originator of mochi ice cream which was invented right here in the city of Angels by Japanese American Frances Hashimoto. Although that is not the only thing to come out of LA, and South of LA, in Tustin, the popular Japanese bakery Cream Pan is notorious for their strawberry croissants which may not be a traditional dessert, but they are tasty AF. Another blend between new and old is the matcha soft serve at Tea Master Matcha Cafe in Little Tokyo. In Costa Mesa, Matcha Love not only has matcha (green tea), but they also have hojicha (my go to is the roasted green tea), and kurogoma (black sesame), they got a lot to love.
The Japanese version of a pub (public house) is the spot to have a drink or three after work. If that sounds like your kind of place, you will also like the fact that you can eat a variety of food “tapas style.” The types of dishes at an izakaya like Izakaya Hachi in Torrance and Costa Mesa range from yakiniku/yakitori (various grilled cuts of chicken and beef), sashimi (slices of raw seafood), to tempura (battered and deep fried veggies to seafood). Noodles, stews, salads, or other deep fried dishes round out the offerings for everybody who likes to get sloppy drunk with you. The best part is that you and your homies will be in good company here because at an authentic izakaya, drinking (beer, shochu, sake, and wine) and eating go hand’n’hand here, so it is a fun place to be.
4. Kaiten sushi
Conveyor belt or rotating sushi has become a spectacle throughout the U.S. for quite some time now for good reason because it is fun while also being somewhat affordable for sushi. Many of the dishes at a kaiten sushi restaurant like the Japan based chain, Kula Sushi has plates as low as a couple of bucks to upwards of five dollars per plate. If that is not enticing enough, being able to watch your food as it parades around the restaurant on a belt can be quite mesmerizing. Although if you are the impatient type, Genki Sushi offers a bullet train to run your order right out to you. Now, if only LA’s mass transit system was this good, but instead, we have the 405.
This listing is not a specific restaurant or a dish, but a style of restaurant that serves up several kinds of dishes. Unlike an izakaya, a Kappo style restaurant is traditional Japanese cuisine that originated out of Osaka. The meals consist of steamed, fried, simmered, grilled, and raw dishes which are all served up like in an American diner with the kitchen on one side, the counter, and you on the opposite side. You can cozy up to the bar at Shibumi in DTLA or Kappo Sui in Costa Mesa who’s been around for decades.
One pot cooking includes sukiyaki (yes, they named a song after a Japanese food), motsunabe (intestines), to chankonabe (a protein-rich vegetable stew). Nabe is one of the types of food where you will have a hard time finding a dedicated restaurant in LA because most families or individuals usually prepare it at home. There are specialized restaurants like Torizo in Fountain Valley or the popular yakitori and nabe restaurant Shin Sen Gumi in Gardena. Both are well worth the visit, but you can also find some izakayas that also serve nabe.
You may or may not heard of okonomiyaki, but if you have not, it is a Japanese pancake of sorts that you can compare to a frittata (….yea, like a frittata). There are regional styles like the one from Hiroshima which you can try at Chinchikurin (trying saying that after some drinks) in Sawtelle Japantown although most okonomiyaki is comprised primarily of a mixture of flour, eggs, cabbage, and meat and seafood topped off with a sweet sauce, Japanese mayo, to seaweed flakes. If seaweed flakes are not your jam, you will be happy to know that “okonomi” means “how you like it,” so just like Burger King’s old-school slogan, you get to have it your way.
Musubi, onigiri or straight out “rice ball” shops have been popping up throughout LA like Kawaba Rice Ball on Melrose. The increased popularity is because musubi can make for a cheap “on the go” tasty meal. Although this being LA, you might attribute it to the vegan and pescatarian menu items that aren’t an after thought. Since Japan has a large population of Buddhists, Japan has a long history of vegetable centric dishes that are great when paired with either white or brown rice. The veggies are usually fillings or as a topping from ume (pickled plum), takana (pickled mustard leaf), kinpira (sauteed gobo root), hijiki (seaweed), to salmon to name a few.
If you think ramen is the cheap “instant” stuff that college students or jailhouse inmates eat, welcome to LA where you will expand that thought because the former two, do love it. Outside of Japan, and in North America, and more importantly in LA is one of the only places where you’ll find an ever growing number of authentic ramen restaurants from Kotoya, Kai, Daikokuya, Santouka, Tsujita, to Ikkousha to name a few. Ramen with stocks that require several hours of preparation with a variety of ingredients from seafood, vegetables, pork, to chicken that is paired off with an endless number of noodle styles. To top the bowl off, a common grouping of toppings include the usual suspects. The star players include an hanjuku tamago (ooey gooey molten lava egg), negi (green onions), nori (seaweed), naruto (fish cake), menma (bamboo shoots), to chashu (a juicy slab of pork belly), ton toro (pork cheek), or… tofu (hey, it is what vegetarians and vegans crave).
10. Shabu Shabu
If you are the type that loves the natural taste of meat, seafood, and vegetables without the heavy use of butter or having it drowned in sauces, authentic shabu shabu just might be your thing. In LA, there has been a growth of Americanized and quasi “shabu shabu” places to appeal to American diners who want flavored broths which are more on par with Chinese hot pot although you can still find legit shabu shabu at Kagaya in LA’s Japantown. At Kagaya you can have an experience like you would have in Japan, but you will need reservations otherwise you will end up across the street in the Arts District on a liquid diet playing Street Fighter at EightyTwo (“barcade”) to get your aggressions (hadouken) out for not calling in advance.
Dining out in LA has an abundance of sushi restaurants that range from places that are about exclusivity to your casual neighborhood sushi bar. Whether you are looking for a place to be seen, or to do some celebrity spotting, or you want the perfect back drop to take a selfie, LA has a vast amount of sushi bars to cater to all types of diners. Although if you are visiting, you just might want to consider trying traditional Edomae sushi which focuses on quality ingredients not buried under a ton of mayo or spicy sauces. Outside of Japan, you will get a similar experience at Tsujita Sushi, Shunji, Mori, Zo, Q, and Urasawa to name a few.
Health conscious Californians are always on the lookout for healthy super foods which is why soba noodles have become more prominent in supermarkets, restaurants, to recipes amongst the health food conscious. The reasoning as to why soba is popular might be that soba noodles can be made strictly from buckwheat flour which would make them gluten free although many places use a blend of wheat flour and buckwheat. Fukada in Irvine serves hand made soba, and Aburiya Raku in W. LA does a matcha soba. Typically soba is served either hot or cold for all the yoga pants clad clientele who are looking for a lower calorie, more protein, and a higher fiber alternative to pasta #carbocide.
In Japan, you will find takoyaki stands (yatai) or small shops where you can watch them cook up takoyaki in their half-domed cooking pans as they skillfully rotate the battered mixture with a piece of octopus at the center (typically their arms. Not their balls/testicles if you are wondering that). If the preparation is not amusing enough, the number of toppings you can dump on a tasty little octopus ball is endless. The toppings can be traditional like Japanese mayo, seaweed, bonito flakes, to a sweet sauce, but spicy cod roe and jalapenos are also on the menu at Takoyaki Tanota. Unfortunately, out of all the types of food on this list, takoyaki vendors are usually only found at outdoor festivals, or occasionally in front of some Japanese markets (or private events).
14. Temaki (handrolls)
It feels like there’s a race going on to see who best can serve up raw fish to the masses. Leading the way are the million and one quasi “poke” places opening up on every block, but staying true to tradition, KazuNori is opening a number of “temaki” or handroll restaurants throughout LA. Currently, they have locations in DTLA, WestWood, and Santa Monica, and they’re meant to be fast casual or “on the go” type of places for a quick beer and a couple of rolls (3 starts at $11 to $23 for 6).
Almost every Japanese restaurant here seems to offer tempura, but in Japan, the Japanese take it to a new level. Fortunately for Angeleno’s, we have the Kyoto based, Tempura Endo which opened up recently in Beverly Hills. The very Japanese 8-seat tempura bar allows you to watch the chef prepare your food directly in front of you which is an experience although if you want private, they offer a couple tables/rooms. This sort of experience, unfortunately, doesn’t come cheap because it will set you back at least a couple hundred for the omakase and they only do a late night ala carte menu after 9 pm.
“Pork cutlet” is typically pork loins that are deep fried with a “panko” (bread crumbs) coating that gives this dish a nice crunchy texture. It’s often served with pickled vegetables, miso soup, a side of rice and a good ole bed of shredded cabbage which isn’t like a slaw with a ton of mayo (leave that to the Colonel). The only spot you will find in LA that can do tonkatsu any justice is Kimukatsu in Sawtelle Japantown or Kagura in Torrance. Kagura specializes in a mille-feuille which is multi-layers of thinly sliced pork that you can opt to have cheese added to it *yes please* (unless you are lactose intolerant).
In the world of Japanese noodle dishes, you have varying thicknesses of noodles from skinny to fat that also comes in various types (wheat, buckwheat, konjac, potato to matcha) which vary in colors from yellow, white, green, and brown much like the diversity of Angeleno’s. The variety of noodles is growing in LA, but big ole whitey aka udon (thick wheat flour noodles) is starting to come up because it had not gotten as much attention as its soba and ramen bros. The increased popularity for udon is in large part because of places like Marugame Monzo in LA Little Tokyo which typically has a line out front for people waiting to try out the creamy uni udon, the seafood laden udon pasta, to the traditional dashi broth based udon dishes with a multitude of toppings.
Next, to yakitori, this is a carnivores paradise and where unwavering vegans will not be found here although they do not just do meat or large 32 oz slabs of beef here. Instead, you will find small “tapas” style plates of a variety of cuts of meats here from pork cheek, pork belly, beef skirt steak, filet mignon, beef tongue, rib roast, chicken breast, intestines, to even seafood and vegetables, not just the parsley. The highlight of it all for those who are not afraid of highly marbled cuts is the Wagyu beef that melts in your mouth like buttah. The recommended places are Manpuku (multiple locations), Yazawa (bougie life), Tamaen (Snake River Farms wagyu), Seikoen (old school and respected), Anjin (basic and casual), and Tsuruhashi (named after one of the infamous areas of Japan for yakiniku).
Skewers of various cuts of chicken, beef, seafood, pork to vegetables are grilled up and served “tapa’s” style which is often only seasoned with either a “tare” (a soy based sauce) or “shio” (salt). The best part of a yakitori-ya is that beer and drinks go hand-in-hand here, and if that sounds like what you are looking for, there are several of them in the LA area. The recommended ones would be Shin Sen Gumi Yakitori (they also do ramen, so make sure you go to the right location), Torihei in Torrance (call ahead to check on wait times), Nanbankan on Sawtelle, or Kaminariya in Tustin.
If you live in Los Angeles, you can start to take it for granted that we have all these choices for Japanese food. In fact, you may even start to demand why don’t we have more, but in other regions of the U.S., they haven’t gotten beyond hibachi.
Yes, there’s more because I overlooked “shojin ryori” (thanks David Takeda, my suggestion is Shojin with two locations in LA), tebasaki (Furaibo), and Chuka ryori (Kouraku and Eboshi in Lomita). For those, I’d like to thank Wandos7@Reddit and NutellaFreaky@Reddit for (‘). Adding again to this list, this is a major one in which I wish I did not miss, but it would be teishoku (Fukagawa represents it best with honorable mention Echizen in Fountain Valley and Otomisan in LA), thank you ReezyRice@Reddit.
I passed on highlighting several types that didn’t make the cut: gyudon (come on Yoshinoya USA, you’re nothing like your Japan self), gyutan (only one significant or legit spot, so I should’ve included it), kaiseki (yea, it’s usually a sushi/kaiseki sort of thing, so it will fall under “sushi” even though I have temaki separate), kushiage/kushikatsu (nope, not big in LA), and then there’s teppanyaki (only old school Americanized joints).
You agree or disagree? Drop me a comment if you got any others, and I’ll be sure to cite you.