Growing up in L.A., that’s what his white friends thought Japanese food was. Then, thanks to pioneering restaurateurs, everything changed.
Marquez Elementary School in Pacific Palisades in 1976 had two Asian American pupils, a Chinese American boy, Peter, and myself. Despite sharing no particular fondness for each other, it was probably because of this common racial heritage that I was invited to Peter’s birthday party. I recall it being a typical affair. I more vividly recall his family’s ranch-style home that had, among other wonders, a Hammond Organ, then a novel instrument that at the push of various buttons emitted an infinite array of horn and string sounds and percussive rhythms. In the backyard there was a kidney-shaped swimming pool surrounded by lava rocks. His mother, a slender woman, spoke such flawless English that, had you reached her on the phone instead of in person, you would never have known she was Asian at all.
Peter’s family, it seemed to me, had made a cultural commitment to being un-Asian. This was most likely due to their being second-or-third-generation Chinese American instead of first-generation immigrants, as I technically was, having been born in Japan, though to a Caucasian father and Japanese mother. His family had thoroughly assimilated into American culture in a way mine had not. They wore shoes in the house, which was unthinkable at mine. At the party, food was served of a type my mother would never have conceived of as being appropriate fare for anyone, let alone a child: hot dogs, soda, a preposterously oversized frosted cake.
Oddly, it took visiting another Asian family for me to realize how utterly alien my own must have seemed. And perhaps the most alien aspect of my family’s domestic life would then have been the food my mother cooked and served. The 70s were a sexist era when it came to the division of labor, especially in the kitchen, so despite my mother’s burgeoning career as an author, she was responsible for our daily meals, which meant we largely ate Japanese food. Any friends of mine who dined at our house or slept over (another American custom my mother never understood) might be fed kanto-daki, shabu-shabu, sukiyaki, tempura, konyaku (noodles made from sweet potatoes), and kabocha (battered and deep fried pumpkin). We also, invariably, had short-grained, Japanese rice with every meal. My friends would wait in vain for a bowl of mashed potatoes or a plate of bread to show up. Eventually, resigned to having to eat rice, they might ask for soy sauce to add some flavor, which would bring on an explanation from my mother that you don’t pour soy sauce on rice. These scenes, my new friend suspiciously appraising the pot of shabu-shabu brimming with a half-dozen ingredients he would never have seen before, served with sauces made from grated daikon, ground sesame seeds, and red pepper, confirmed that my family was so utterly alien that even our food didn’t resemble what other families ate. I will never forget one visitor to our house, who I knew as Mac, which I now realize must have been because his last name began with that common antecedent syllable shared by America’s most famous fast food franchise, who upon being served a plate of raw fish accused us of feeding him cat food.
We forget how conformist children are. Even young children want to wear, eat, and watch as their peers do, all of this peaking sometime during adolescence, when the need to fit in becomes so urgent as to be almost paralyzing. I knew from having dinner at friends’ houses what “normal” families ate. And in Pacific Palisades, in the 70s, “normal” meant Caucasian. I can recall one African American classmate and one Mexican American classmate. The dinners served by white mothers, beef stews with peas, spaghetti with sauce from a jar, various cuts of broiled meat, and all of it paired, invariably, with either bread or potatoes, became, in my mind’s eye, or stomach, the embodiment of America, or at least white America, which was the culture that so fully dominated our society that the only Asian I recall seeing on television was Pat Morita as Arnold, managing the diner in Happy Days. And I don’t recall Arnold serving much raw fish.
It is hard to fathom, in the culinary landscape of present-day Los Angeles, but dining options in the city were back then similarly limited. There was one narrow commercial strip of Japanese businesses on the West Side: Sawtelle Boulevard. During the 1970s, this was a twolane road of craftsman style houses, Japanese nurseries, and a pair of Japanese markets. On Sundays, my parents would often go shopping at Granada, one of the markets, where I would get to buy a box of caramels that came with a small plastic toy. This, and Safe & Save, down the block, were the only markets in West Los Angeles at which my mother could buy konyaku, soba, miso paste, gobo, tuskenmono, and other Japanese staples. We bought our raw fish from a middle-aged man who drove a white panel van around, visiting Japanese families and selling cuts of sushi grade hamachi, toro, shiira, and tai from fish carcasses laid out on beds of ice. He also sold uni, baby shrimp, and other delicacies, all of it procured that morning from the San Pedro docks. During those shopping trips to Sawtelle, we would often dine at Osho, one of the very few Japanese restaurants outside of Little Tokyo at that time and considered, by my parents at least, to be the most authentic. The proprietor and sushi chef at Osho didn’t pander to American tastes, as other Japanese restaurateurs were forced to do. Eric Nakamura, whose mother, Marjie Nakamura, opened Hakata, another pioneering Japanese restaurant, in Santa Monica in 1970, recalls his mother trying to sell sushi to Americans and watching as they used chopsticks to push the raw fish out of the rolls. She wouldn’t reintroduce sushi to her restaurant until the 1980s. “Americans were terrified of wasabi,” Eric says.
Sawtelle Boulevard would also be the location of one of my great adolescent sufferings. My mother, worried that I was falling behind my Japanese peers in mathematics, sent me to a Japanese-style juku (cram school) where, for three hours a day, three afternoons a week I was to be drilled in algebra. There was no instruction, just a chubby Japanese man with a bowl haircut who sat at the front of the room and marked my equations as correct or incorrect. It was the absolute nadir of my Japanese Americanness, to be working on algebra while my Caucasian friends were out skateboarding and smoking marijuana and eating their delicious non-Japanese meals. That this boulevard is now well-regarded as the geographical center of a certain kind of culinary cool, and the base of the Tsujita Ramen empire, represents a transformation in the perception of Japanese food and culture that was, in my early adolescence, inconceivable.
But Los Angeles was already changing. Little Tokyo had always had restaurants serving Westernized Japanese fare while Yamashiro, up in the Hollywood Hills, served egg rolls and beef teriyaki to accompany its stunning view. The apex of Americanized-Japanese cooking was of course Benihana, serving its thoroughly bland version of teppanyaki, complete with its “Volcano Onion.” But in several restaurants around West Los Angeles, authentic Japanese fare was beginning to be cooked, sold, and, more surprisingly, consumed by Caucasian Americans. Hiro on Wilshire Boulevard in Santa Monica was among the first Japanese restaurants on the West Side where the sushi bar, manned by Hiro himself, was the attraction. Down the block from Hiro was Noma, whose proprietor was the first to serve sesame vinaigrette salad dressing. Aki, on Santa Monica Boulevard, actually predated them all and is still in business today. Hiro would eventually leave his namesake restaurant and open a higher end restaurant in Marina Del Rey called Genji. By then, the early 80s, delicately carved raw fish served over palmfuls of short grain rice had begun a culinary takeover of the mainstream.
You can trace the evolution of Japanese food in Los Angeles to the expansions and renovations of Aki’s dining room.
You can trace the reeducation of the American palate to a piece of gateway sushi known as the California roll. There are numerous claimants to being the inventor of this hand roll of crab, avocado, and rice, often with cucumber, wrapped in seaweed or served “inside out” with sesame-coated rice on the outside. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, chef Ichiro Mashita was the visionary who replaced raw tuna in a tekka-maki roll with crab and avocado. I was first eating them regularly at Hiro’s, in Santa Monica, in the late 70s, and I believed until writing this piece and researching the subject that he had invented them. Regardless, this simple sushi roll with familiar ingredients, crab, avocado, rice, but nothing too fishy or exotic, was an item any American could order at a sushi bar and not worry he was being served “cat food.”
In part because of this new, popular item, Japanese food and sushi bars in particular went from being suspiciously alien to deliciously trendy. By the time I was in high school, to be able to take a date to a sushi bar, as I did to Hiro’s in Santa Monica, and order in Japanese, was indisputably cool. (It helped that Hiro served alcohol to then obviously under-aged me.) I’ll never forget when particular arbiter of power in my immediate high school clique had dinner at my house and pronounced himself impressed by the fare he was served. I know it sounds ridiculous to say that one’s self esteem could be elevated by the acceptance of one’s cuisine of origin, but in America, hasn’t it always been thus? Hasn’t acceptance of any recent immigrant group always been attended by a concurrent appreciation of the arriviste’s cuisine? And Japanese food had done something even more amazing, leap-frogging Chinese and Mexican food, both condemned to decades of take-out purgatory, to become the late-80s go-to protein for Arnold, Sly, and Bruce bulking up for action pictures. As Japanese corporations were buying movie studios and golf courses, and American policy wonks were publicly hand-wringing about Japan usurping America as a superpower, Japanese cuisine had become linked with power. In Wall Street, when Charlie Sheen and Daryll Hannah are preparing a meal celebrating their success, of course sushi is on the menu.
Only in the last decade has the Mexican taco truck become synonymous with a kind of gourmet gastronomy and Chinese regional cuisine finally taken its rightful epicurean place. Japanese food got here 40 years ago. “I was really proud of it,” says Nakamura. “It was upscale and it was ours, something we not only knew about but created.”
On a recent Tuesday afternoon, I drove from the Sony Studios lot in Culver City, where I was one of the writers brought in on a troubled reboot of American Gigolo, to Aki, perhaps the first Japanese restaurant on the Westside outside of Sawtelle. Owner and founder Noboru “Stan” Hada, 72, still runs the place he opened in 1974. Stan himself descended from a line of restaurateurs. His grandfather had run a diner in Toledo, Ohio that sold steaks, oysters, and chop suey for 30 cents a plate. His father had run Chinese restaurants in Sun Valley, California during the 1960s. “Back then, if you had an Asian face, you served Chinese food. Nobody knew what Japanese food was,” says Stan. And Stan had assumed if he were to go into the restaurant business, he would also have to do so as a fake Chinaman. But during a stint in the Navy in 1972, when he was serving as cook aboard the U.S.S. Jerome, a Landing Ship Tank or LST, he discovered his crewmates actually enjoyed his Japanese-style cooking more than the Navy recipes. In particular, when he was forced to improvise and make teriyaki spareribs instead of the Navy recipe barbecue spareribs because they were out of the many gallons of pineapple juice the Navy recipe required, his commanding officer raved about the dish. “From then on I thought Westerners like this taste,” Stan recalls.
A couple of years out of the service, Stan was looking to start his own business when he heard through another congregant at the West Los Angeles Buddhist Temple about a building on Santa Monica Boulevard that was for sale. He borrowed the down payment and paid $50,000 for the building and opened Aki in 1974 between a flower vendor and an auto-repair shop.
It sounds ridiculous to say that one’s self esteem could be elevated by the acceptance of one’s cuisine of origin, but in America, hasn’t it always been thus?
You can trace the evolution of Japanese food in Los Angeles to the expansions and renovations of Aki’s dining room. The main room still has the same green booths, tables with clear linoleum covers, and crane and carp prints on the wall as it had when it opened. As Japanese food became more popular through the late 70s, the restaurant expanded, taking over both the flower shop and auto-repair place, eventually sprawling over the entire first floor of the building. Then, in 1977, observing the very beginnings of the sushi boom, Stan installed a sushi bar at the back of the main room, a kind of miniature Japanese house with cedar eaves that descended into the original dining room, establishing the sushi bar as a discrete space in the restaurant. “Westerners were beginning to accept sushi and all that,” says Stan. “There was Sushi King, which was kind of a fast food version. So I thought we could also do a version. But back then, there were still so few items we could get. We could get maybe tuna, white fish, but pretty soon, younger customers, they were asking for more varieties. Better quality.”
Sitting there in his brown baseball and golf shirt, Stan now felt like a relic of another time. Aki badly needs a renovation and Stan, like proprietors of family-owned restaurants the world over, worries his own sons aren’t interested in taking over the place. “It’s still a good business,” he insists, “especially now because younger diners like to order good Japanese sake with their meal, something sophisticated, so that’s a $70 bottle. Our cost is $30. Good profit margin. Because Westerners are more sophisticated about Japanese food, they know the quality now. It’s completely changed from when I opened. But that also means there’s more competition. So, we have four generations, my grandfather, my father, myself, and I don’t know if my sons want to continue after I go enjoy the rest of my life.”
Who would take over the place if his sons balk? This generational shift, of the older Japanese restaurateurs leaving the business, has created the dynamic of Chinese operators taking over Japanese restaurants. “They think Japanese food is more high class,” Stan observes. “So they think they have an Asian face, they can sell Japanese food.”
Most Westerners, he still believes, can’t tell the difference.
A couple of blocks away, on Sawtelle Boulevard, the lines outside the better ramen places were already filling the sidewalks by late afternoon. Westerners prefer the most oleaginous style of ramen, the tonkotsu broth that is practically milky with emulsified pork fat. My mother would never order ramen, wary since her own mother told her the oil was unhealthy as the dish became popular in Japan in the 1950s, an import from Northern China to the Japanese palate. The ultra-fatty ramen served by institutions like Tsujita is in many ways an Americanized version of a Japanese version of a Chinese dish. Eric Nakamura, whose shop Giant Robot is just a few feet away from one of Tsujita’s outposts, laughs as he explains, “The worst one for your health is the one that appeals to the American palate.”
How far has the American palate evolved since my own childhood? My daughters grew up with shabu-shabu as one of our families’ special meals. The preparation requires a trip to Marukai or another of the Japanese supermarkets that now can be found on the West Side. The thinly sliced beef, the hakusai cabbage, the konnyaku, the tofu and the sauces, all of it prepared by hand and cooked in the giant hot pot, is still a family favorite. But when the girls were young, I remember our youngest daughter, Lola, invited a friend of hers over to dinner on a night we were having the dish. She thought shabu-shabu was an exciting meal to share with her friend. Instead, Samantha, Lola’s friend, sat with her arms folded as she surveyed the boiling pot with a look I instantly recalled. No matter how sophisticated American society had become since my childhood when it came to Japanese cuisine, most children, I suspect, will remain irredeemable bores.
It is not hyperbolic to say that Eric Nakamura would not exist without Sawtelle—and that Sawtelle, as it stands today, would not exist without Eric Nakamura.
His parents first met in the neighborhood, when his mother’s car broke down and his father, who was working at the T&T gas station, helped her get it started again. Nakamura was born in 1969 and grew up ensconced in the neighborhood’s Japanese organizations, from the local Buddhist temple to the Japanese Institute of Sawtelle. In 2001, with the opening of his store Giant Robot, he introduced a sensibility to the neighborhood that would push it from a sleepy little enclave into the epicenter of a certain cool.
A free-for-all of eclectic Japanese toys, comics, apparel, and artwork, Giant Robot began as an extension of the seminal magazine of the same name, a punk-inflected celebration of Asian American pop culture published from 1994 to 2011. Two years later, in 2003, Nakamura opened his gallery next door, GR2, a small space with a large reach. The renegade artist David Choe had his first show at GR2; Nakamura was also an early champion of Yoshimoto Nara and Takashi Murakami, long before they were global art world royalty.
The neighborhood’s food scene has mirrored the ethos and spirit of Giant Robot, with new merchants moving in as old vendors have left or retired, creating a vibrant, Pan-Asian amalgamation where Angelenos and tourists now flock in droves to savor Thai food, sushi, boba, noodles. An ardent food lover, here Nakamura shares some of his favorite spots—places where you can taste, literally and figuratively, Sawtelle’s compelling history and evolution.
A Classic Bento: Tempura House
This spot is kind of off the beaten path, about two or three blocks up from me. There are new owners, but it’s a legacy business, the Sawtelle of my youth. I get the Makunouchi bento, a mixed bento with vegetables and fish cakes that’s like those you find in Japan.
Fried Chicken Throwdown: Tenkatori vs. Anzu
There’s a fried chicken battle in Sawtelle with no clear winner. There’s Anzu, which is a hole in the wall, almost hidden, and Tenkatori, a chain from Japan on the second floor, above Daiso. They have a cartilage karaage that’s amazing. A lot of people think that cartilage is a throwaway, but I think it’s really good.
Rare Bobas: Yi Feng
This is a Taiwanese chain with all the usuals, plus ones I’ve never heard of. I get the Yi Feng pineapple mountain with almond jelly at 25% sweet. They also have this grass jelly tea herbal drink that’s interesting. You can find something similar in mainland China, where, after Coca-Cola, it’s the most popular drink.
Jonathan Gold-Approved: Tsujita LA Artisan Noodles
I do the Tsujita original, not the newer Annex. I get the tsukemen with ajitama egg. It’s perfect. If you’ve ever read Jonathan Gold, that’s what he says; he was a friend, and that’s true.
Random and Fun Eats: Kura Revolving Sushi Bar
This place is the most random, because you don’t know what you’re going to eat, which makes it fun. I look for the natto nigiri sushi, or the mackerel—that’s something I usually don’t eat at home because of the smell of cooking it.
The Outdoor Hang: Bar Hermanito
It’s a Mexican spot, but it nods to the neighborhood’s history. They have an Asian bao, but with al pastor pork. They have a menudo ramen, along with mezcal margaritas and old fashioneds with Japanese whisky. It’s really cute, with an outdoor area that makes for a great hang.