Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Old Little Tokyo in Los Angeles

Little Tokyo is hidden East of downtown off the 10 freeway, but with the advent of lofts that have become live-in art galleries and the infusion of the in-every-mall chain stores, Little Tokyo is transforming into an eclectic mix of old character Japanese and new homogenized anywhere USA. No one needs a guide to the name brands we already know, so today it's about the old characters which are still around and are the reasons this area is called Little Tokyo.

There is the Japanese bread bakery that people drive miles to come to from the west side of town, (even with traffic that can make the 10 mile drive an hour long commute). Yamakazi has its' roots in Japan, but the breads are baked here, and the quality of their simply sliced white bread screams, "Eat me!" If you want to try one of their typically Japanese sweet breads, try their cream pan or melon pan. They are famous for something they call Sugar Toast; it's a dessert, but it wants to be called something else (shhh!).

There is the landmark Japanese supermarket Mitsuwa, in the huge nearly empty shopping center, but go just for the market to peruse the produce, fish, and sauces which come directly from Japan. Yes, some of their fruit and fish are flown in from Japan. Some of the packages and cans are marked only in Japanese, but most have pictures, and store staff will translate if you need them to tell you whether you are looking at a sauce made from fish or sauce for fish. If you are very adventurous, just buy it and try it! Shopping here gives you an idea of how immigrants feel coming here to the U.S. where everything is in English and they must figure out if the tuna is for people or cats. There are many stores within the market, making it a mini shopping center within itself, such as: the Apple Bakery, with whipped cream strawberry cakes; Little Tokyo Cosmetics for all things Shisedo; Daikichi Sushi for lunch boxes of fresh sushi; and Fugetsu-Do for fresh mochi and bean paste sweets.

The art of handcrafted pottery is becoming extinct, but there are still a few places like Utsuwa, which sell old-fashioned plates, bowls, cups, and pots that are hand made, glazed and painted. Of course most of the pieces are from Japan, where craftsmanship is still regarded with respect, and where people prefer the quality of a well thrown bowl to one which is mass produced. The hand made ones are heavier, all unique (since each is hand glazed, no two are exactly alike), and have a feel that is as different from the Made in China pottery as stainless steel is to tin cutlery. After buying a few pieces I decided to buy a set of dinnerware, including a matching sake set at Utsuwa. Everyone admires the quality of this set and they always ask where I bought it. The pieces are not more expensive than fine china (and much more durable), but they do cost quite a bit more than the sets made in China that every college student starts out owning. These pieces are the grown-up upgrade. Utsuwa offers a loyalty program where they stamp a card with your repeat purchase amount and offer store coupons when the card is filled; a good way to build your dish collection with a discount.

Some good old restaurants remain, like East, which has a little bit of everything from sushi to tempura, teriyaki, and salmon specials on Monday nights. If you can't decide what you want, just to go to East restaurant and order a combination.

Finally if you are tired and don't want to drive home after your day in Old Little Tokyo, get a room! The Kyoto Grand Hotel got a recent $8 million dollar renovation to send you off to dream about your adventures in lush surroundings. Oyasuminasai (Good Night).

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