Little Tokyo restaurants and bars
This buzzy Little Tokyo spot—which has four locations in Los Angeles with a devoted following—is a ramen mecca. A wrap-around counter faces the open kitchen, providing a social atmosphere to dig into piping hot bowls of flavorful pork broth and chewy noodles; we love the specialty Daikoku Ramen. Chijire-style egg noodles sit in a rich tonkotsu soup and are topped with slices of kurobuta pork belly (pork fans can amp it up with fatty kotteri-style), boiled egg, bamboo shoots, bean sprouts and green onions. Add an order of pan-fried pork gyoza or crispy tonkatsu (pork cutlet) to make the line worthwhile.
If you're sick and tired of waiting 15 minutes for a craft cocktail, get yourself over to Wolf & Crane for a quick, uncomplicated drink. You won't get sneered at for ordering a Johnnie Red and soda because there are six other drinks on the menu just like it. We're talking highballs on the rocks, like the Cuba Libra made with Mexican coke, and a gin and tonic gussied up with grapefruit bitters. It's a casual, no frills kind of place with communal tables, comic print wallpaper and classic oldies bellowing from the sound system—perfect for when you've already had ramen from Shin-Sen-Gumi around the corner and are looking for a nightcap.
If the lines are too long at other old-school ramen restaurants in Little Tokyo (we're looking at you, Daikokuya), head over to Manichi Ramen, the Los Angeles installment from one of Japan's best ramen companies. The #1 Manichi Special is a rich, fragrant bowl filled with tender bits of pork, a soft egg boiled to perfection, black garlic and spicy miso. Portions are hefty enough to leave you full after one bowl, but you'll want to precede your meal with a plate of the restaurant's beloved gyoza.
Nestled in Downtown's Little Tokyo neighborhood since 1980, Sushi Gen has turned into a cult favorite for LA's sushi aficionados. The main draw: a $17 sashimi lunch special, complete with various types of sashimi, soup, salad and rice. Reward your taste buds with fresh halibut, fatty tuna, sea urchin, scallops and oysters at this top-notch spot, but be prepared to wait: the lines are massive, and reservations are scarce.
While lines snake out the door for lunch specials at Sushi Gen, those looking for heartier breakfasts with old-school charm and a budget bargain head next door to Aloha Café. This no-frills, mom-and-pop cafe and diner has been serving Hawaiian plates for over a decade. So, fill up on loco moco or pork lau lau or, for something sweet, heavenly French toast made with thick slices of sweet Hawaiian bread.
Among the multiple standout ramen shops in Little Tokyo is Men Oh, tucked away in Honda Plaza. A small shop with a handful of tables and a long bar, Men Oh hails from the Tokushima region of Japan, where the dominant industry is pig farming. Thus, the signature item, the Tokushima Ramen, is an unctuous, deeply pork-flavored bowl, with toppings that include not only lovely slices of tender chashu, but also strips of stir-fried butabara pork. Those additions, plus the pork bone and soy sauce-based broth, make this bowl one of the more complex ones in town.
There aren’t too many places in Little Tokyo to get your late-late night fix of ramen and gyoza, so don’t be surprised to see Kouraku packed past 2am most Saturday nights (it's open until 3am). The old-school, Japanese diner serves up plenty of drinking food: There’s a plate full of chicken karaage that will definitely soak up all that beer you drank, or you can warm yourself up with a bowl of ramen. For homey comfort food, order the combination of pork fried rice and gyoza. Note: the place is cash only, so check your wallets before stumbling in.
Walk into Marugame Monzo and you'll immediately be mesmerized by the open-air noodle action. Ask for seats at the counter so you can watch the udon noodles being made up close: Behind a large glass, the udon master will roll out the dough and cut strands and strands of the thick, chewy noodles for each order. The traditional bowls are great here; try the hot kitsune udon topped with fried tofu or the cold plum shiso bukkake udon. For a fun mash-up of Japanese and Italian cuisines, go for the popular miso carbonara udon.
Jist Café is entrenched in family tradition. From the location to the chow, chef Glen Ishii pays homage to the space's previous iteration (formerly Tokyo Café) and his Japanese grandmother. The chashu hash skillet boasts plump pork belly coated in a 70-year-old marinade, served alongside breakfast potatoes and two six-minute eggs. Other breakfast and lunch items maintain Japanese comfort food throwbacks. For lighter fare, try the Sunshine Salad with crisp romaine lettuce, sweet corn, Prime Smoked Meats maple bacon, ruby-red grapefruit and a creamy, fragrant coriander dressing, or go full-bore and indulge in the Jist French toast soaked in a lemony crème brûlée base for 24 hours and topped with seasonal fruit, lightly whipped cream and mint.
You know you're in for a good night when you enter a smoky room filled with platters of yakitori grilled over an open flame and bottles of Kirin crowding the table. The Japanese pub has a massive, borderline daunting menu—sushi, udon, ramen, tempura, you name it. For group dining, it's a solid place to start the night, gradually adding plates and pints of beers as the meal rolls on. Speaking of rolling—you'll be doing just that as you leave, and that ain't a bad thing.
There are plenty of places for sushi in Little Tokyo, but maybe one of the friendliest and affordable experiences can be found at Toshi Sushi. In a low-key space just steps from busy First Street, owner and sushi chef Toshihiko Seki offers solid menu of bento boxes for lunch—plus, of course, solid sushi and sashimi. On the latter, your best bet would be to trust in Toshi and allow him to choose the best cuts of the day for you.
That same friend that always tells you to buy investment pieces instead of an armful of Forever 21 will love Kagaya, the best shabu-shabu in town. You can only order by the set here: The basic beef will set you back $43, and wagyu and seafood upgrades are also available, but you will be rewarded with eight to ten slices of quality meat, to be lightly cooked in the bubbling broth and dipped into a smooth but complex sesame sauce. The luxe, DIY meal commences with a small serving of the day’s two fish specials and one soup special, followed by beef-enriched broth turned udon or rice porridge—a couture dining experience, topped off with your choice of dessert like ethereal crème brulée.
It may take you a couple tries to find Far Bar. Look for the Far East sign, then stroll down an alleyway on the right that opens up into a twinkling patio. A favorite with beer lovers, Far Bar serves a full menu of craft beers on draft and eats. While there are burgers on the menu—try the house version with smoked Gouda and grilled cheese—the theme is Asian with a mix of sushi rolls, Korean short ribs and teriyaki sliders. Don't miss weekday happy hour from 3-7pm and all-day Sunday.
Upon entering this Hakata-based chain, you’ll be met with a chorus of “Irashi”. You’ll then be handed an order sheet, where you can customize your bowl to your exact specifications—choose the intensity (i.e. saltiness) of your broth, the doneness of your noodles and toppings (egg, garlic chips, even spare rib)—and combine chicken rice balls, deep fried cheese egg rolls and gyoza additions. Half the fun is ordering too many toppings on your first visit, which will arrive one after another in a parade of bowls.