Little Tokyo food tour highlights the area’s cuisine and culture

Green tea donut hole from Cafe Dulce. photo by Akira Olivia Kumamoto

LOS ANGELES — On May 4, the Little Tokyo Community Council held a food history walking tour of the neighborhood. This was one of many events in an annual series called “Delicious Little Tokyo,” which highlights the area’s cuisine and culture. The tour split into two groups, one led by former Little Tokyo Service Center Executive Director Bill Watanabe, and one led by Little Tokyo Historical Society Executive Committee President Michael Okamura.

Hamanosuke Shigeta ran the first Japanese-owned restaurant in Los Angeles. It was called Kame Restaurant and was located where the gift shop, Bunkado, stands.

“(Shigeta) was a Japanese cook on a Western American ship that had docked in San Diego. He jumped ship, and in 1884 came to L.A. and he started a restaurant. In 1884, he was about the only Japanese person here,” Watanabe said.

Shigeta’s success in Los Angeles inspired many other Japanese immigrants to live and work in the area, eventually leading to the creation of Little Tokyo. The food tour was meant to follow the roadmap of culinary businesses that paved the way for the neighborhood as it is today.

Nichi Bei joined Watanabe’s tour group. The excursion featured three food tastings, nine historical stops and a plethora of information about the neighborhood.

First stop: Far East Cafe, 347 First. St.
Far East Cafe, known for its classic neon Chop Suey sign, opened in 1935 by the Jeong family who were Chinese immigrants. According to AsAm News, the Jeongs’ served Cantonese cuisine called chop suey to hungry temple-goers, and often allowed locals to pay at their leisure if they didn’t have money in the moment. Their chop suey was a staple to the community until 1994, when it closed.

Chop suey is a mix of different ingredients cooked together with Cantonese sauces and flavors. It was believed to be created for miners in California.

“The story goes to the late 1800s. There was a mining town in California, and there were some (Chinese) folks who were running a restaurant there and it closed off for the night. But then a group of miners came in and they demanded to be fed,” Watanabe said. The Chinese chefs threw together whatever they had and called it chop suey. As the story goes, the miners loved it.

The Far East Cafe building now holds a community center and houses the Far Bar.

Second stop: Tokyo Kaikan/Suehiro Cafe (now closed), 337 E First St.
Tokyo Kaikan, opened in the 1960s, was known for its sushi and served celebrities like Rock Hudson and Audrey Hepburn. The restaurant was also known for its claim to a famous food invention.

“If you’ve ever had a California roll, (it was) invented by the chef here, I’m guessing, around 1961,” Watanabe said. Though other restaurants have tried to claim the roll as their own, Watanabe said he’s convinced Tokyo Kaikan holds the honor.

In 1972, Tokyo Kaikan closed and made way for Suehiro Cafe, which served Japanese comfort food until its eviction and closure this year due to rising rent prices, although Suehiro Cafe was reopened in Downtown Los Angeles.

Third stop: Fugetsu-Do Confectionery, 315 East First St.
Known for its traditional Japanese confectioneries like mochi and manju, Fugetsu-Do opened in 1903. Japanese immigrant Seiichi Kito opened the business when only about 3,000 Japanese lived in the Little Tokyo area. Despite the Kito family being imprisoned at Heart Mountain concentration camp in Wyoming during World War II, the business continues to thrive today.

Kito is credited as the creator of the fortune cookie, which was made at Fugetsu-Do, although there have been competing claims, including the popular account that Japanese Tea Garden creator Makoto Hagiwara had Benkyodo, a Japanese confectionary in San Francisco’s Japantown, create the treat.

“The fortune cookie is a Japanese rice cracker that is folded over,” Watanabe said. “He put inside (the rice cracker) a piece of paper with a Japanese haiku.”

Participants in the tour were offered samples of green tea manju, which has a sweet, soft green tea filling and is wrapped in green steamed cake flour. The filling was sugary and pasty, and it paired nicely with the chewy, doughy exterior. Though this and many of the other goodies there are traditional Japanese flavors, the shop also sells non-traditional samplings, like chocolate and peanut butter.

Fourth stop: Little Tokyo Timeline, corner of First Street and Judge John Aiso Street
Watanabe stopped in front of a building that marked the original center of Little Tokyo when it was first founded. Almost all Japanese people who lived in the U.S. resided within a three mile radius of that corner.

On that corner is the main section of a timeline that is etched into the sidewalk. The timeline symbolizes the growth of the neighborhood, and takes up much of the block.

The first section of the timeline starts in 1890, when only one Japanese person resided in the area. The timeline eventually shows that by 1930, around 35,000 Japanese lived in Little Tokyo. The next section a black line, which represents the World War II years, when the residents of the neighborhood were sent to concentration camps across the country.

Fifth stop: Sapporo Ramen (now closed), building no longer exists
Watanabe stopped the tour at a parking lot on First Street and explained that prior to the Northridge earthquake, there’d been a building in that spot since the 1960s. The establishment was a photography studio run by the well-known photographer, Toyo Miyatake. He had two storefronts in the structure, and one of them was a restaurant called Sapporo Ramen.

“Ramen noodles (were) not new,” Watanabe said. “What was new (was) to have a restaurant dedicated to mostly ramen noodles.”

Sapporo Ramen was the first restaurant of its kind in the U.S. and the frontrunner to the now plentiful choices of ramen eateries you can visit around the country.

Mitsuru Cafe’s imagawayaki. photo by Akira Olivia Kumamoto

Sixth stop: Mikawaya (now closed)/Mitsuru Cafe, 117 Japanese Village Plaza Mall
Opened in 1968, Mitsuru Cafe sells traditional Japanese goodies like takoyaki and dango. The tour group was able to taste their rendition of imagawayaki.

“(Imagawayaki) is a sweet cake with sweet (red) bean inside. When it’s made fresh and it’s still warm, it’s really quite good,” Watanabe said. The warm cake’s texture and flavor were reminiscent of a pancake, and the red bean filling was soft and delicious.

This tour stop also included historical information about Mikawaya, a mochi ice cream shop that used to sit across from Mitsuru Cafe. The 111-year-old store was founded by Koroku and Haru Hashimoto in 1910.

Frances Hashimoto, the late CEO of Mikawaya, is credited as the creator of the mochi ice cream, which can now be bought at just about any commercial store in the nation. The storefront closed its doors in 2021, but continues to sell its product nationally.

Seventh stop: Shabu-Shabu House (now closed), 127 Japanese Village Plaza Mall
Masako and Yoshinobu Maruyama opened Shabu-Shabu House in 1991. Shabu shabu is a style of dining where you are given thinly-sliced meat, and you dip it into hot broth with vegetables and other savory offerings. The name of the dish comes from the sloshing sound the meat makes when you dip it in the broth.

“Prior to (Shabu-Shabu House) opening up, I don’t recall ever seeing another (shabu shabu) restaurant,” Watanabe said. The Maruyamas claim it to be the first shabu shabu eatery in the U.S. To the sadness of many fans, the establishment closed its doors in 2023.

Eighth stop: Cafe Dulce, 134 Japanese Village Plaza Mall
Korean American owner, James Choi, opened Cafe Dulce in 2011 when he decided he wanted to make his mother’s dream of a bakery come true. The cafe is known for their Asian fusion fare. From an array of unique sweets (like cinnamon toast crunch donuts), to delicious lattes, Cafe Dulce always draws a crowd of hungry visitors. Choi is a well-known and beloved part of the Little Tokyo community.

“You just have to appreciate the history and culture of the neighborhood and be a part of it. So he provides donuts and coffee for community meetings and that kind of thing,” Watanabe said of Choi’s local contributions.

The tour group got to sample a green tea donut hole from the cafe. The pastry was fluffy, rolled in sugar and filled with a subtly sweet cream. The combination of all three textures was delightful and left everyone wanting more.

Ninth stop: Kouraku, Japanese Ramen & Grill, 314 E 2nd St.

The final stop of the tour was Kouraku, which is known as the U.S.’s oldest Japanese ramen noodle restaurant still in operation. It was founded in 1976 and was taken over by Hiroshi Yamauchi in 1986. Yamauchi passed away in 2020, and the restaurant is now run by Mamoru Tokuda. Besides ramen, Kouraku also sells an array of other Japanese comfort food including curry, katsudon and yakisoba.

“It’s about to be designated as a Los Angeles City historic cultural monument (…) as the oldest continuously operating ramen shop in the country.” Watanabe said of the restaurant.
Watanabe recommends eating at Kouraku if you’ve never tried ramen, but says that any ramen place in Little Tokyo is delicious and worthwhile.

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