Somewhere between the rapid rise of the Arts District and the food porn proliferation of West LA’s Sawtelle Blvd., Little Tokyo was forgotten there for a second. But make no mistake, this neighborhood on the edge of downtown is alive and better than ever. From old-school ramen joints with lines wrapped around the block to new craft breweries cranking out top-notch IPAs, the time is now to roam around Little Tokyo.
And the best part? It’s condense. Meaning whatever late night bar crawl or spontaneous weekend food tour you and the crew conjure up, Little Tokyo is an easy place to do it all in. So park the car (or just take the subway), and go make a day of it. Here is everywhere you need to be eating and drinking in Little Tokyo.
Back when ramen to most Americans were those noodles you cracked in half and microwaved in your dorm room, Daikokuya was cranking out the real deal. Make no doubt about it, we can all thank this kitschy gem for our city’s current ramen obsession. And despite now being able to find a solid bowl of ramen anywhere, the lines at this Little Tokyo original are longer than ever. So get there early, prepare to wait, and hit the ATM beforehand - it’s cash only.
Have you heard? LA has good sushi. And a whole lot of it But through all the noise, one name continues to pop through - Sushi Gen. Located in a strip mall on the edge of the neighborhood, Sushi Gen is an LA classic and home to perhaps the most famous plate of sushi in town - the $23 sashimi lunch special. It’s so popular that you even have to sit in a designated section of the restaurant to eat it. But they could seat us on the sidewalk, and we’d be there.
Somewhere in America’s all-out ramen frenzy, udon was seemingly left for dead. But if you ever see the line wrapped outside Marugame on any given day, you’ll understand it’s resurgence is upon us. Yes, the wait can certainly seem daunting, but it’s worth it. Come sit at the bar, order that outrageously delicious Miso Carbonara udon, and watch in awe as they cut and roll every massive noodle by hand behind the glass. Ramen who?
The Escondite is one of those rare downtown bars that you either know about or you don’t. And if you do know about it, you don’t want anybody else to. And that’s because this somewhat hidden spot seemingly has it all. Live music, no cover, excellent drinks, solid bar food, and a cool vibe with great patio views of the downtown skyline. Just don’t tell anybody.
One of Little Tokyo’s many allures is its relative affordability considering the area. Kagaya does not fall under that category. This is high-end Shabu Shabu and perhaps the best in the city. What’s Shabu Shabu? Think DIY-style cooking with raw sets of premier meats and seafood and a big hot pot of broth and sauces to dip it all in. Kagaya is small and refined, but if you’re looking for that go-big experience in Little Tokyo, Kagaya is where it’s at.
Just a few doors down from The Escondite sits DTLA’s best new brewery. Mumford hasn’t been open all that long, but since day one, their craft lineup has been excellent. You can’t go wrong with any of their IPA’s, and they have a Black Coffee Mamba (made with Stumptown beans) you’re going to want to involved in. Their Little Tokyo/Arts District border location is an ideal spot for a night out on the town, and if you get hungry, you can order outside food right to the tap room.
Jist Cafe is one of those places you walk into and wonder why it took you so long to get here. It might be hard to tell from its current modern digs, but this bright little cafe has been actually been around for over 70 years. Only open for breakfast and lunch, their chashu hash skillet is worth driving across the city for. But if you happen to be in the area, it’s also just a nice to stop in, grab a cup of Stumptown, and enjoy that excellent side patio in peace.
Back when Shin-Sen-Gumi first opened it’s doors, this city lost it’s mind. Why? The Hakata-style ramen is certainly delicious, but for the first time, this rowdy ramen joint gave people the chance to tweak ramen to their liking. From the strength of the broth to the chewiness of the noodles to how much miso paste you wanted to fire it all up with, Gumi’s Chipotle-esque ordering system gave the power back to the people and we’re still lining up for it.
It’s well-known at this point that K-town has a monopoly on all things karaoke. That said, the single best private room karaoke in LA is actually in a mall in Little Tokyo. Max Karaoke not only has the best songbook, it’s open till 2am on the weekends, and it’s essentially BYOB. They don’t serve beer inside, but there’s a small grocery downstairs where you buy sake, and if you happen to roll in with a 40 rack of Bud Lite, the staff will kindly turn the other way. Come sail away indeed.
Generally speaking, any place that serves pretzel grilled cheese wedges and sushi on the same menu should be called into serious question. Unless, of course, you’re Far Bar. This 80 year old neighborhood drinking hole is so ingrained into Little Tokyo’s identity, they can do whatever their Asian-fusion heart desires. Plus with over 300 whiskies, an excellent craft beer list, and a back patio most people don’t know about, there’s never not a reason to stop in. And the burger is a total must.
The sun is blasting and you’ve hit that mid-Saturday lull. Time to duck inside for a breather. Little Tokyo has a solid stock of coffee joints, but it’s hard to beat Cafe Dulce. Their tea lattes are excellent, but you’re clearly here for something else - the donuts. And in particular, the green tea donut. Rolled in sugar and stuffed with custard, this beauty is what midday pick-me-ups are all about.
If the crew’s rolling deep and no one can decide what they feel like, Honda-Ya Izakaya is the answer to all your problems. This Japanese pub (on the second floor of a shopping mall) has menu with everything from yellowtail sashimi to miso udon to vegetable tempura, and it’s all pretty delicious. And with the large group tables, excellent party vibes, and the seemingly never ending bottles of Kirin, good luck getting the group to ever leave.
Most people probably aren’t aware vegan sushi is even a thing, let alone a thing you want to eat. But let us tell you - at Shojin, it is. This cult sushi place might seem a bit insane (we won’t argue that), but no trip to Little Tokyo is complete without a stop in to try their fantastic Spicy “Tuna” on Crispy Rice and their Pirates of the Crunchy roll. The place is actually fancier than you’d expect, making it a great left-of-center date spot.
Created by two DTLA residents, Wolf & Crane is one of those bars actually used by the people who live in the neighborhood. There’s little signage, so it’s easy to miss. But once you get inside, you realize it’s actually pretty big and very casual. So snag a Japanese whiskey at the bar, find a table in the corner, and groove along to whatever the DJ’s playing - it’s probably oldies.
No trip through the Japanese Village Plaza is complete without a stop at Mikawaya - your home base for all things mochi ice cream. The tiny sweets shop right off main square is easily missed, so be on the lookout. Because inside, Mikawaya is carrying the best stock of mochi in LA. From strawberry to plum wine to green tea matcha, know now you’re not leaving with just one, or two, or three.
Mitsuru Sushi and Grill
Who doesn’t want to spend $2 on a snack you can walk around with and stuff your face? Welcome to Mitsuru - home of the imagawayaki. This little cafe in the Village Plaza has plenty of other Japanese treats worth ordering, but that line outside is there for those addictive little red bean cakes and so are you.
Surprise: Little Tokyo is also home to one of LA’s most popular Hawaiian restaurants. In the same tiny strip mall as Sushi Gen, Aloha Cafe opens everyday at 9am and is cranking out traditional Hawaiian food in a casual, no frills environment. Think King’s Hawaiian Bread French toast and, of course, all the helpings of loco moco (hamburger patties smothered in gravy) you could ever want. Just schedule in a nap immediately afterwards.
Kouraku Japanese Restaurant
The closest thing Little Tokyo has to a Jersey turnpike diner, Kouraku is a downtown classic. Open till 9pm every day, Kouraku’s massive menu (with everything from gyozas to cold ramen to curry fried rice) isn’t the best food in the neighborhood, but for a late-night bite, it’s all you’ve ever wanted.
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