Lunch in Little Tokyo

When I was a lad, one of my favorite parts of L.A. to visit was Little Tokyo. I loved traveling downtown with my mom, walking around Japanese Village Plaza, grabbing an imagawayaki at the Mitsura Café, strolling through Japanese gardens at the New Otani Hotel or the Japanese/American Cultural Center, maybe popping into the warehouse-y MOCA Temporary Contemporary Museum.

Totoros of every size at the New Tokyo Lifestyle gift shop in Japanese Village Plaza

Totoros of every size at the New Tokyo Lifestyle gift shop in Japanese Village Plaza

It’s a love I’ve passed along to my own children. So when, on a Mother’s Day, we’re trying to decide where to go on an adventure and for lunch, it is not a surprise to hear Flynn suggest: “Let’s go to Little Tokyo!”

In recent years, Little Tokyo has become quite hip — and as a consequence fairly crowded. You can drive around circling the couple square blocks that constitute the neighborhood looking for a parking spot. This particular Mother’s Day, the Parking Gods smiled upon us (or perhaps it was my Lucky Parking Kitty I keep on the dash of my car, recognizing his home turf), and we got a spot just in front of a Buddhist temple under a shower of purple jacaranda flowers falling from the branches above.

Lucky Parking Kitty and GPS

Lucky Parking Kitty and GPS

“What do we do in Pinocchio, again?” asked Flynn’s little sister Willa, somewhat confused about our destination.

Besides a couple new izakaya and a new fountain, not much has changed in the Japanese Village Plaza since I was a kid — which looks remarkably similar to a scaled-down version of parts of the real Tokyo. Much to Flynn’s disappointment, the Mitsura Café was closed so there would be no imagawayaki that day. Instead, to beat the 90-degree heat, we chose from some 20+ flavors of mochi ice cream balls — the usual green tea, red bean, strawberry, etc., but also pistachio, creme brûlée, hazelnut and several other unique offerings.

A late lunch. We parked ourselves at an outside table at Sushi Teri, the same little restaurant we usually go to, and ate mediocre sushi rolls and tempura.

“Why do we eat here?” my wife wondered. “It’s always the same.”

I guess it was the al fresco dining in the middle of all the activity that always brought me back. Plus, even the worst Japanese food is typically better than your average Greek or Italian food. And they pour a good cup of genmaicha. (My downward-dogging yoga friends will recognize that term!)

In addition to the Parking Gods, the Mother’s Day Gods must’ve also been smiling upon us, for as a special treat on this particular holiday, we were serenaded by a familiar voice. Before I could even see him, I knew at once who it was — the tinny cymbal, out-of-tune guitar strumming, electro-keyboard wash and twangy Tokyo-cowboy yodel… A true Los Angeles oddity and institution, Arthur Nakane, One-Man Band! Arthur was a regular street performer on Venice Beach and Santa Monica’s trendy Third Street Promenade, but I’d never seen him in Little Tokyo before — where he actually seemed to make the most sense, at least in that weird-neon-anime-Tokyo-cool sense.

On our way out, I stopped into the Nijiya Market to consider options for dinner. But the day was warm, I didn’t want to drag raw fish across a sprawling city toward the sea. And anyway, we were tired and full. The kids would eat cereal for dinner, a light salad for my wife and I. But soon enough, Japanese food would be back on the table — properly prepared by my gaijin hands — with just enough mojo from the Little Tokyo Gods we always bring back with us.

20 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Mom
    May 21, 2013 @ 02:59:47

    Oh I’m jealous… I just had dinner with a friend at a Japanese restaurant which I always try to do when Bruce is out of town. I kept thinking of sitting in ignorant bliss while you ordered one delight after another. I should have been taking notes although at this restaurant I should have stopped at miso soup.


  2. Michelle
    May 21, 2013 @ 03:01:33

    I need a Lucky Parking Kitty. Think I can find one in Little Tokyo?


  3. Greggie
    May 21, 2013 @ 05:24:10

    Your Parking KItty reminded me of an old story I read in a now-defunct magazine that was entitled “Doris Day Parking.” It seemed whatever movie or TV show Doris was in her character would always find a primo parking spot right in front of where was going be it midtown Manhattan, Beverly Hills or the beach so the author said he always prayed to Doris Day to find him a spot as he circled the block and many times it worked.

    Your kids may still be too young for it, but the Japanese American National Museum near MOCA in Little Tokyo is great and there is now a Gold Line stop across the street.


  4. pal-O
    May 21, 2013 @ 10:07:49

    Fond memories of sushi & Sapporo in Little Tokyo in LA, although Brothers is certainly my fondest memory of sushi and my intro to Uni. Thanks!


  5. rachelocal
    May 21, 2013 @ 14:46:02

    There’s a sushi place near me that DELIVERS, so you can imagine how mediocre it is. But I still order, get out my bamboo chopsticks and my pretty square Japanese plates and enjoy it.


    • scolgin
      May 21, 2013 @ 15:33:22

      I wonder if there aren’t any places around you where you could buy sushi grade fish? Certainly there must be some Japanese markets in Philly. You should try making sushi, it’s really fun and relatively easy. (You could learn to make it right here on this blog! 🙂


  6. glennis
    May 21, 2013 @ 15:01:01

    My favorite place in Little Tokyo is the Suehiro Cafe – it’s like a Japanese Dennys! Very old timey.


    • scolgin
      May 21, 2013 @ 15:33:47

      Oh good, Leslie will be happy to have a new/different place to try next time! Thanks Glennis!


      • glennis
        May 23, 2013 @ 03:30:15

        Don’t place high expectations on it, though. It’s like a mom-and-pop diner, lunch specials and stuff like that – only it’s stuff that Japanese moms and pops would serve. I remember Chris and I ordered something with mountain yam and the waitress was very concerned, like a Mom, making sure we knew what we were ordering.

      • scolgin
        May 23, 2013 @ 13:07:47

        Nothing like Japanese comfort food! 🙂

  7. Jessamine in PDX
    May 22, 2013 @ 05:55:05

    Oh my god — love the Lucky Parking Kitty. That is amazing!


  8. Debra Demontreux
    May 23, 2013 @ 01:39:53

    That is super funny! we were going to a restaurant [Po a place from Mario Batalie] and we couldn’t find a space but luckily we had my “lucky rental car” and we found a spot across the road from the place.


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