Maybe it’s the deep suburbia or cheap gas prices, but a trip to the South Bay feels like you’ve been transported to a better, simpler time. Which makes sense - many of the businesses here have been around for well over half a century, like Sakae Sushi in Gardena or Sakuraya, a Japanese confectionary off of Western Avenue that makes mochi so soft and sweet, you’d think it were the daydream we just had about an apartment with an in-unit washer/dryer.
But what some people may not know, is that this area is home to a thriving Japanese community that’s been around since the 1930s, specifically in Gardena, Torrance, and Redondo Beach. So, we made a guide about it. From smoky izakayas to tonkatsu that looks touched by Midas, here are the best Japanese restaurants in the South Bay.
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On the rare occasion we wake up at an “acceptable time” for breakfast, there’s only one choice for us: Fukugawa. It’s one of the only places in the city where you’ll find the glorious, perfect meal known as the Japanese breakfast (and no, we’re not talking about Michelle Zauner’s indie rock band). Tucked away in a hidden corner of Gardena’s sprawling Pacific Square Garden shopping center, you’ll find this peaceful, 30-year-old restaurant filled with families, friends getting lunch, and twenty-somethings pondering whether or not they should get back on Accutane. There are four versions of the breakfast tray, but go with set D. The hunk of broiled fish is hefty, and surprisingly smoky (watch out for the bones), the miso soup is properly creamy, there’s a side of rice, and even natto - sticky, fermented soybeans that you’ll either love or never want to see again.
Many know tonkatsu, or Japanese fried pork cutlet, from its stint accompanying curry or served at those broadly Asian restaurants whose names often sound like they were ripped from a generator. But at Kagura, tonkatsu isn’t just some dish on the menu - it’s the dish on the menu. The chill, quiet Torrance izakaya specializes in the deep-fried pork cutlet, from premium filets to leaner loin cuts smothered in cheese (all of which pair very well with beer), and serve them alongside an elegant tray of rice, miso soup, and salad. But the star of the show here is their signature millefeuille. Made in the style of the French pastry, fatty slices of black pork are folded and layered on top of one another, then battered and deep-fried, resulting in a dish that’s soft and juicy on the inside, and fantastically crispy on the outside. The color reminds us of what we imagine the contents of Meryl Streep’s trophy case to look like - brilliantly golden.
Even during the pandemic, Izakaya Hachi maintained its title as a premiere party spot. They’ve got a decently sized tent out front where you’ll find the full spectrum of the human experience, from 21-year-olds celebrating birthdays to groups of Japanese men who will ultimately outdrink everyone around them. And yet, it’s hard to nail down what exactly makes Izakaya Hachi so special. The food’s a huge part of it - all of the grilled meats are excellent and worth your attention, like medium-rare beef tongue that tastes buttery and tender, or salty, chopped pork cheek accompanied by a biting yuzu sauce. But it’s also the celebratory atmosphere, and the fact that most dishes are made to share, like the pork shabu shabu, or family-style omakase that requires four people seated at the table (house rules) and involves a parade of over 13 different dishes. Either way, if you’re looking to party like it’s 1999, or whatever year, this is the place to do it.
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Come any day of the week, and you’ll find a sizable group of parents, Gen Z-ers, and grandmas running their daily errands in line at this family sushi shop. Since its opening in the early 60′s, not much has changed at Sakae Sushi—it’s still tucked in the back of an office building in Gardena, and each box comes wrapped in a bright-white parchment paper then tied with a green string. The menu is only six items long—a refreshing reprieve from all the restaurants with over 300+ things to order, where we often feel like we’re being watched by some omnipresent judge of “good taste,” and paralyzed with fear that we’ll make the wrong the choice. But luckily, there is no “wrong choice” at Sakae—just get the mixed box of 12. That way, you can order two of everything on the menu, including the fried tofu-wrapped inari sushi, tamago-maki draped in a bright-yellow sweet egg blanket, and the sabazushi—a bite-sized piece of pickled mackerel placed on a mound of heavily vinegared rice. It’s a little sour, a little sweet, and exactly what we want to be eating while watching dog agility videos for the eightieth time today. Sakae Sushi is cash only, and you’ll need to call in your order before picking up. The phone number is (310) 532-4550.
Life is full of little surprises. Despite their expiration dates, Bed Bath & Beyond coupons never go bad. Al Pacino’s real first name is “Alfredo.” And some of the best Hawaiian food in Los Angeles is being served in a bowling alley in Gardena. Almost everything at this tiny diner is great, from the kimchi bacon fried rice to the smokey kalua pig and cabbage, but what’s on every table (and what should be on yours), is the Hawaiian Royal. This massive plate of eggs, rice, chashu, and Portuguese sausage is an all-out flavor brawl. Which, now that we’ve written it out, sounds kind of unpleasant. But trust us, eating it is nothing but pure, Aloha State-levels of paradise.
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Otafuku is a family-run Japanese restaurant that treats soba noodles like science. The three kinds of rare soba here vary in texture, size, and taste, but all are made in-house daily with special flour imported from Japan. The all-white seiro is our favorite, but whatever you choose will be served cold on a bamboo plate with a tiny dish of garlic soy sauce for dipping on the side, with your choice of crispy vegetable, shrimp, or wild sea eel tempura. It’s simple, fresh, and exactly what we want during a heat wave.
This strip mall spot is a very good place for affordable sushi. They’re open for takeout only, so marvel at the Dodger bobblehead-decorated bar going in, and order the No. 8 Special. It involves nine pieces of sushi and two rolls, and at $13.50, it’s the most expensive thing on the menu. Add on an order of the fantastic, salty mirugai (giant geoduck clam) if they have it.
Build-your-own ramen is a concept that might sound gimmicky, but at Shin-Sen-Gumi, it really works. The ramen here is among some of the best around. By build-your-own, we don’t just mean you get to throw a few green onions on top. From the thickness of the noodles to the richness of the broth, you can customize your bowl to any degree you want, and that’s the kind of power that keeps people lining up. There are a few locations scattered around the city from Gardena to Downtown LA, but if you’re in the car and in a rush, head to their Western Ave. location where you’ll find a drive-through ramen set-up filled with rich Satsuma ramen, beef curry udon, and pork cutlets over rice.
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Sushi I-Naba is like the Rainbow Road of seafood restaurants - simply put, it’s not for beginners. This tiny spot in Manhattan Beach feels less like a sushi bar and more a meeting of the Secret Society of Seafood. For now, they’re only available for to-go orders, serving elaborate chirashi bowls in shiny, lacquered boxes that invoke the spirit an ancient initiation rite. For $70, you can get their special nama omakase, filled with symmetrical cuts of ultra-fatty bluefin toro, impeccable golden eye snapper, and 10-day-aged amberjack. It’s all prepared with an expert hand, combining a mix of hard-to-find cuts of fish with some of the freshest crustacean and seafood you’ll find on dry land.
Torihei is a strip mall izakaya with long lines and fantastic robata. You’re going to want to make a reservation, although they do hold some tables for the line of walk-ins. They’ve got a sizable tent set-up in their parking lot, so when you do eventually sit down, pick something from their long, affordable sake and soju list. Then order some small plates like crispy karaage and xiao long bao oden, or Chinese-style shrimp dumplings served in a Japanese hot pot, to start. From there, you’re probably going to want to go with the titular yakitori, hot meat skewers made with teriyaki chicken, butter scallops, and a wasabi beef tongue that’s slightly spicy, extra juicy, and a bite, that, like this video of a dog playing with a butterfly we haven’t been able to get out of our minds.
Located off a busy street in Gardena, this Japanese confectionary has been around since the 1960s. There’s a charming, hand-painted sign out front with bright-red lettering, and inside, you’ll find a counter stocked with hand-made mochi and manju. There’s also a shelf behind the cash register displaying lucky cat and daruma dolls, and, quite frankly, we can’t tell if they’re for sale or not. The prices here are pretty reasonable - a box of 12 is about $26 - and a helpful salesperson will fill it up with soft-textured white mochi, flaky Maruyaki manju studded with chocolate chips and peanut, and our favorite - a silky smooth kinako mochi that’s dusted with a subtle, nutty, roasted soy powder. All wrapped up, it’s the kind of box you’d want to bring someone you want to impress, like your boss during the holidays, or your sort-of-boyfriend’s parents when meeting them for the first time. Cash only.
Sushi Chitose has a fantastic, affordable omakase served in a blink-and-you-miss-it building on the PCH. For $45, you’ll get somewhere around 15 pieces of fish, and the $60 premium option adds on an appetizer, some belly cuts, and a dessert. All the sushi here is great, but you’ll probably end up asking for another piece of the fantastic, shiso-topped snapper.