GARDENA, Calif. — One of the best Japanese-Hawaiian fusion restaurants in the continental U.S. is nestled in the corner of a 75-year-old bowling alley in Gardena. Named one of Eater’s Best Diners in America, Gardena Bowl Coffee Shop is a humble, no-frills restaurant that serves traditional Japanese-Hawaiian cuisine.
Bacon fried rice sizzled on the grill as customers sipped hot broth from steaming bowls of oxtail soup at the bar. Hideki Obayashi and Frank Nakano, co-owners of the coffee shop, ran back and forth behind the counter, refilling to-go boxes, checking tabs and warmly greeting regulars as they walked through the clear glass doors of their buzzing establishment. The brothers-in-law are both of Japanese descent and have a soft spot for Japanese American food.
“It’s one of the few Japanese American style cafes (left) where you can get steamed rice with your breakfast, which is so nice,” Nakano said as he waved to a few regular customers walking by.
Obayashi and Nakano first bought the cafe in 2001, despite having little experience in running a restaurant. They kept the original menu the same, but slowly added options as the years went by. They offer classic Japanese dishes like sukiyaki, tempura, chicken teriyaki, donburi and karaage. They also boast authentic Hawaiian fare like lau lau, a traditional dish made of pork and butterfish wrapped in luau and ti leaves, loco moco, kalua pork and poké. And of course, they are known for their mouthwatering breakfast options, which include homemade Portuguese sausage and eggs, Hawaiian french toast, which is made with thick slices of Hawaiian bread, and banana pecan pancakes.
“I would say my favorite (dishes) would be the oxtail soup and the lau lau,” Nakano said. “But I also love the (Portuguese) sausage, eggs and rice. I mean, that’s what I originally came here for.”
“I like the garlic chicken and I like the salads,” Obayashi added.
Customers filled every table in the restaurant, with many of those seats occupied by young people. Teenagers and young adults conversed about their days as they dug into piles of succulent fried rice, while elderly regulars and families with young children slurped noodles from their saimin and finished off the last bites of their chunky mac salad. The crowd was diverse and jovial. As the coffee shop began to garner the attention of new, younger patrons, Obayashi and Nakano felt the need to expand their offerings.
“When the young people started coming in with their cameras and Yelp (reviews), we had to step it up along with everyone else. And the people just seemed to like our food. We take suggestions,” Obayashi said.
Gardena Bowl Coffee shop has served the likes of celebrity chef David Chang, and actress and producer Lena Waithe. They have also been featured in the Los Angeles Times, as well as in multiple food review series on YouTube, including the popular show “Bill & Lisa’s Food and Travel.”
Their renown in Southern California may have helped pull them through the COVID-19 pandemic. As many local establishments shut down, Garden Bowl Coffee Shop was able to weather the strain of tight finances and continue to serve the community they love. They switched to takeout dining and posted their specials on their Facebook page before they were eventually able to open in-house again.
Even as Gardena Bowl Coffee Shop continues to thrive, many of the oldest Japanese-owned cafes in California have closed down, leaving many to wonder why.
“I’ve noticed there’s a few favorite spots of mine that no longer exist, one of them being the Holiday Bowl,” Obayashi said.
Holiday Bowl, established in 1958, was a beloved business in Crenshaw, Calif. It served both the Japanese American and African American populations and had an array of options including yakisoba, salmon patties and grits. Though many such restaurants have closed, Obayashi and Nakano believe Gardena Bowl Coffee Shop has stuck around for so long thanks to their unmatched hospitality and delicious food. According to the duo, it also doesn’t hurt that many of their regulars also stop by to bowl and commune with their neighbors.
“It’s a great place to come and bring your family because there’s so many things to do besides the food. You can bowl. (We) have an arcade; they have a bar if that’s what you like as well. So there’s a little bit for everybody,” Nakano said. “It’s definitely a place where families come.”
Gardena Bowl Coffee Shop is located at 15707 Vermont Ave. in Gardena, Calif. For more information, visit https://gardenabowlcoffeeshop.com or call (310) 324-1244.