Frugal Find of the Week: Issen Joki

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It may not come as a surprise for those familiar with Little Tokyo, but there aren’t very many Japanese in the neighborhood these days. The last few years have seen a growing influx of Korean residents, who now easily outnumber Japanese population.
 
It’s a trend especially apparent in the food: Korean restaurants have become more and more common, while the remaining Japanese restaurants have adapted their food to Korean tastes.  Even at classic Japanese Izakayas such as Hara Ulala and Honda-Ya, Korean waiters (though fluent in Japanese) pour soju more often than sake.
 
A resilient exception, though, may be Issen Joki, a stubbornly traditional Japanese diner located in the upper level of the Little Tokyo Shopping Center. Its well-worn mahogany-colored walls seems worlds away from the slick, futuristic mall courtyard just outside.
 
Steaming bowls of chewy, thick-cut udon noodles topped with fish cake and tempura are the specialty of the house, and for good reason. Another favorite is the thick, molasses-y miso sauce ladled over squares of tempura-fried tofu or roasted Japanese eggplant, both which provide a buttery sweetness against the savory miso punch. Pan-fried gyoza arrive crispy and plump, along with a small dish of chili oil and pungent vinegar that cuts through the unctuous bits of pork tucked inside.
 
Most patrons seem content with the tonkatsu, a jagged hunk of panko-crusted fried pork served with a tangy cabbage slaw and unlimited bowls of sticky rice. It’s filling but somewhat bland; be sure to use the bottle of tangy otafuku, a thick, sweetened Worcestershire-like sauce, like a five year-old uses ketchup.
 
If you really want to light up the eyes of the tiny Japanese grandmother who keeps shop here, order the soba. She will answer your request with an enthusiastic “Hai!” and dart off to the kitchen, where her elderly husband dips the delicate noodles quickly in boiling water, producing the optimum level of al dente. The dish is deceptively plain: a pile of thin buckwheat noodles served cold, with a bowl of salty broth and a mound of grated white radish on the side. Mix the radish with the broth, dip the noodles, slurp loudly, and the deliberate simplicity suddenly makes sense. 
 
Issen Joki is certainly worth noting for those seeking an authentic Japanese meal in Little Tokyo, not that there’s anything wrong with a bowl of bibimbap either.
333 S Alameda St
Ste 301

Los Angeles, CA 90013
(213) 626-5780