A New Restaurant from the N/Naka Team Traces the Immigrant Journey from Japan to America

At n/soto, Niki Nakayama and Carol Iida-Nakayama are feeding the heart and soul

When most of us think of a Japanese bento box, we think of a simple, carefully prepared takeout meal with rice, protein, and veggies.

But chef Niki Nakayama and her wife and sous chef, Carol Iida-Nakayama, see the potential for a lot more.

“It can serve as a vehicle for more than just takeout,” says Iida-Nakayama. “It can tell a story. It can bring us together with other collaborators.”

The two have long been known for their modern kaiseki restaurant in Culver City,
n/naka. When COVID-19 forced them to close for dine-in service, they began offering a limited number of bento boxes several nights a week that sold out nearly as soon as they were available online. The couple didn’t plan to open a second restaurant during the pandemic, but making all those bento boxes necessitated a new setup.

“It was starting to feel very overwhelming in terms of space,” says Nakayama.

So, in March, they debuted n/soto, a West Adams restaurant that, at press time, was operating only as a takeout window for upward of 100 bento boxes nightly. As the city reopens more, the couple plan for n/soto to be a casual yakitori restaurant with indoor and outdoor seating for 75.

Ovens weren’t common in midcentury Japanese homes, so baked treats—like this coconut cake—were a novelty.

For now, the opening offering is a bento box called A Taste of Home ($65). Created with the help of the Japanese American National Museum and the Little Tokyo Community Council, it tells the story—over nearly two dozen dishes—of Japanese food coming to America. A printout that comes with the elaborate meal puts the bites in historical context. Beef sukiyaki, it notes, was one of the first Japanese dishes to gain wide acceptance in America. A mold-pressed mackerel dish alludes to the fact that mackerel, caught in San Pedro Harbor, was a welcome taste of Japan for immigrants. “It was the closest thing to sushi that they could prepare,” says Nakayama. “I thought that was a wonderful story between the two countries. Food is such a universal language.”

n/soto, 4566 W. Washington Blvd., West Adams.

RELATED: What’s in a Name? Niki Nakayama on the Origins of n/naka

Stay on top of the latest in L.A. food and culture. Sign up for our newsletters today.