Little Tokyo restaurants and bars
This buzzy Little Tokyo spot—which has five locations in L.A., all with a devoted following—is a ramen mecca. A wraparound counter faces the open kitchen, providing a social atmosphere while you dig into piping-hot bowls of flavorful pork broth and chewy noodles; we love the specialty Daikoku Ramen, where Chijire-style noodles sit in a rich tonkotsu soup and get topped with slices of kurobuta pork belly (pork fans can amp it up with the richer, back-fat–laden kotteri-style), plus boiled egg, bamboo shoots, bean sprouts and green onions. Add an order of house-made pan-fried pork gyoza or crispy pork tonkatsu to make the line worthwhile.
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. Just be prepared to wait: As quite probably the best udon shop in Los Angeles, peak dinnertime can cause gaggles of groups to queue all the way down the block.
Nestled in Downtown’s Little Tokyo neighborhood since 1980, Sushi Gen has turned into a cult favorite for L.A.’s sushi aficionados. The main draw? A $19.50 sashimi lunch special, complete with a rainbow of sashimi, soup, salad and rice. You can reward your taste buds with fresh halibut, fatty tuna, sea urchin, monkfish liver, scallops and oysters throughout the day, of course—just mind the rules: no cell phone or laptop usage while dining, your whole party must be present to be seated, and don’t even try to skirt around the host stand (or that giant line out front). At this top-notch spot, be prepared to wait; the lines are massive, and reservations are scarce.
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, bottles of Kirin crowding the table. This Japanese pub has a massive, borderline-daunting menu of 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—your newly rotund body will be doing just that as you leave, and that ain’t a bad thing.
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 of tonkatsu filled with tender bits of pork, a soft egg boiled to perfection, black garlic oil 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.
It might seem strange to stumble upon a modern-Indonesian restaurant in the heart of Little Tokyo, but Kasih fits right in: The dining room is open, spotlights natural materials like warm woods, and is fairly minimalist—save for the dangling lights and lanterns casting soft light over the tables. From there, we depart. The menu changes frequently, and is just as inspired by L.A.’s produce as Indonesia’s classic curries, skewers of grilled meats and herb-sprinkled, fish-sauce–dressed salads. Want to try a little of everything? Order the sambal tasting, a spread of five dips and curries served with crackers.
Once you’ve waited forever for a bowl of ramen at some of the Little Tokyo’s cult-classic spots, duck into Wolf & Crane, a casual, no frills kind of place with communal tables, comic-print wallpaper and classic oldies bellowing from the sound system. A neighborhood bar where the Japanese whiskey is plentiful and the cocktails are creative (and often affordably priced), Wolf & Crane makes for a perfect gathering spot or solo drinking. Especially when you’ve already had ramen from Shin-Sen-Gumi around the corner, and are looking for a nightcap.
That same friend that always tells you to buy investment pieces instead of an armful of Forever 21 will love KaGaYa, perhaps the best shabu-shabu in town. You can only order by the set here: The basic beef will set you back $58, and wagyu and seafood upgrades are also available, but you’ll be rewarded with eight to ten slices of quality meat to be lightly cooked in the bubbling broth, then dipped into a smooth but complex sesame sauce. The luxe, DIY meal commences with a small serving of the day’s two seasonal 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 brûlée.
A quiet, daytime-only little jewel of a place that peddles Japanese sweets and L.A. history. Since 1903, this tiny bakery has been making mochi, chewy rice cakes and other baked delights neatly lined against the walls and in glass display cabinets (talk about edible art). The house-made mochi here is the best in the city—no arguing that—and comes striped, shaped like fruit, occasionally filled with red bean paste, and chewy to the point of rice-flour perfection. But the imported candies and snacks are fun as well, as are the petit gaufres: thin, crispy cookies filled with rich cream.
This women-owned and -operated cocktail bar is a breath of fresh air—of the salt-air variety. The nautical-themed cocktails come fruity, herbaceous and fun, and once all those punch bowls and rum concoctions have you feeling hungry, tropical-leaning snacks such as pineapple pork tacos, shrimp ceviche, and nori guacamole with chips should do the trick. And if you’re looking for a side of excitement with those cocktails and bites, you’ve come to the right place: Drop by for weekly programming such as Sunday night “siren” karaoke and Monday all-request heavy metal DJ sets, plus occasional fundraisers and guest bartenders.
Among the many standout ramen shops in Little Tokyo is Men Oh, tucked away in the bustling 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, is an unctuous, deeply flavorful bowl thanks to its 16-hour–simmered pork broth. With toppings that include not only lovely slices of tender chashu, but also strips of stir-fried butabara pork, green onion, bean sprouts, seasoned egg and bamboo shoots, it’s a complex, filling and completely fulfilling bowl of ramen to hunt down.
Pizza’s big in Japan, and it’s also big in L.A.’s Little Tokyo. A neighborhood staple, this New York-inspired slice shop does it all: House-made dough ferments for 24 hours, the sausage is made there, too, and you can bet there’s not just the thin, New York-style option—they also do thick-cut Sicilian-style pizza. Find round or the thicker square pies whole or by the slice, and don’t skip the garlic knots. There’s not a ton of seating here, but you can usually land a patio seat—and if you snag an indoor table topped by red-and-white checkered tablecloth, you’re in business (and it’s almost like you’re transported all the way to NYC).
It may take you a couple tries to find Far Bar. Look for the giant Far East CHOP SUEY 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 brews on draft, plus ample bar snacks like teriyaki sliders and garlic-butter edamame. While there are burgers on the menu—try the house version with smoked gouda, onions and miso aioli—the theme is Pan-Asian, with a mix of sushi, Korean short ribs and wasabi fries. Don’t miss the daily happy hour, from 3 to 7pm, and late-night on weekends.
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 (because, oh yes, 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.
While lines snake out the door for lunch specials at Sushi Gen, those looking for hearty, all-day breakfasts with old-school charm and a budget bargain head next door to Aloha Café. This no-frills mom-and-pop café and diner has been serving Hawaiian plates for over a decade. Fill up on loco moco, teriyaki combos and kalua pork or, for something sweet, heavenly French toast made with thick slices of sweet Hawaiian bread topped with fresh whipped cream and strawberries.
This charming Japanese diner’s been a Little Tokyo staple since 1972—and it looks the part. As if frozen in time, daily specials get added to a white pegboard near the front of the restaurant, while the unpretentious menu covers comforting territory with decades-plus dishes like curry udon, shrimp tempura, straightforward donburi and okonomi combo plates. Tuck away into one of the wooden booths for more privacy, or sidle up to the bar and watch day and night street views of Tokyo play out on a large flat-screen TV, no matter the time of day. Speaking of time of day, much like Kouraku, this spot is open until 3am (Thursday to 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, shrimp-and-pork wontons, deep-fried cheesy 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.
Jist Café is entrenched in family tradition. From the location to the chow, chef Glen Ishii pays homage to the space’s previous iteration—Tokyo Café—and his Japanese grandmother. The chashu hash skillet boasts plump pork belly coated in a 70-year-old marinade recipe, served alongside breakfast potatoes and two six-minute eggs. Other breakfast and lunch items maintain Japanese comfort food throwbacks. For lighter fare, try the Grandma’s H Chopped Salad, full of romaine, chickpeas, cucumber and tomato, or go full-bore and indulge in the Fancy French: French toast soaked in crème brûlée base for 24 hours and topped with freshly whipped cream.
Japan’s beloved karaage chain finally opened up shop in the U.S., and planted its flag in Little Tokyo in the process. This spot is all about fast-casual setup, not to mention customization: You can find Karayama’s trademark crunchy, thinly-breaded fried chicken à la carte or as part of a “set” meal with sides—or in one of Karayama’s crispy chicken sandwiches. There’s also curry, fried shrimp, stir-frys and tea, plus a small patio to enjoy it all.