First things first: To board the tight ship that is Kinjiro, you’ll almost certainly need a reservation. This fundamental aspect of operations ensures those who dine at this small, unassuming eatery in Little Tokyo’s Honda Plaza are in it for the love of informal yet sophisticated Japanese drinking fare. They’re certainly not there for the understated ambience, which skews more casual than most L.A. restaurants that require back-and-forth email booking in advance. Instead, you’ll find minimal decor, plenty of alcohol and laidback service by owner Jun Isogai, whose passion and expertise are evident throughout multiple courses of cold starters, raw seafood and grilled meats. Most importantly, however, you’ll experience the skillful cooking by chef Yoshizaku Kondo, who mans the space’s small kitchen.
Despite a pandemic and the unrelenting passage of time, not much seems to have changed for the tiny two-man restaurant, which the late Jonathan Gold named the “most elegant izakaya in Little Tokyo” in 2015. A few of Isogai’s long-prized sake bottles might be unavailable due to supply chain snafus, but the seared dynamite-style uni and bone marrow dengaku are as excellent as ever. We make do with what we have, and what life has thrown at us. In the case of Kinjiro, that means a smaller food menu and a more limited, but nonetheless impressive, selection of sake, beer and wine.
Still, you can taste the deeply considered gourmet treatment in each savory dish from the warm, cold or “rice, noodle, soup” sections. The mound of cold tofu shines like polished porcelain, at least before being destroyed by a wooden spoon and topped with a few drops of dashi broth. The izakaya’s simpler creations, including its hot dashi ochazuke, shine just as bright as its richer, more popular entrées like the uni risotto and the curry rice made with beef tongue. Bathed in a rich brown roux, the much softer offal preparation is distinctive enough to pair with Kinjiro’s grilled thick cut beef tongue without it feeling redundant in the same meal. Whether you’re ordering with indulgence or restraint, the results are just as fantastic, though most people would be hard-pressed to leave the premises without sampling at least one of Kinjiro’s pricier high-quality grilled meats.
Depending on your taste, however, you can take or leave Kinjiro’s desserts. The black sesame mousse, brightened by the rich sweetness of Okinawan brown sugar syrup and a side of soybean powder, is delicious, albeit understatedly so, and might feel underwhelming to those with a stronger sweet tooth. Similarly, you might take or leave the hassle of pre-booking an izakaya experience, save for one crucial, undeniable fact—the traditionally casual Japanese dining genre has become a much rarer breed outside of the South Bay in the years since Gold’s glowing review of Kinjiro. Among the few true izakayas left offering beer and sake, grilled meats (yakitori or otherwise) and a wide, but cohesive array of Japanese dishes, Kinjiro is certainly the genre’s finest expression, making the planning involved in visiting the tiny Honda Plaza restaurant more than worthwhile for L.A.’s izakaya-inclined.
The vibe: Minimalist and down to earth. Kinjiro’s understated, highly intimate atmosphere is perfect for more casual dates and small groups.
The food: First-rate traditional izakaya fare, including a variety of grilled meats and assorted raw and cured seafood. Popular dishes include the bone marrow dengaku, thick cut beef tongue and the seared uni.
The drink: Owner Jun Isogai’s highly curated list of beer, sake (including plum sake), shochu, wine and champagne, with a large selection by the glass.
Time Out tip: Leave room in your order for the restaurant’s lighter dishes, including the hot dashi ochazuke with any topping, green tea soba and cold tofu with chilled dashi.
Reservations only accepted by email: email@example.com. Outdoor dining available.