Like much of downtown Los Angeles, this is boom time for Little Tokyo. Everywhere you look in the century-old neighborhood just east of City Hall, another upscale residential project is going up. Of course that means many of the locals—from the elderly Japanese who shop along 1st Street to the artists who planted themselves here in the ’80s—will be pushed out by skyrocketing rents. But for now, tchotchke shops abut ramen houses and karaoke bars, and one of L.A.’s most easily taken-for-granted pockets retains a welcoming charm.
Photograph by Mindee Choi
Since 1903, this sweets shop with the old-timey display cases has been turning out delicious mochi: sweet, chewy desserts made from pounded rice and filled with sweet bean paste. We’re partial to the one known only as Pink—a pretty pink pillow filled with smooth mashed white beans. » 315 E. 1st St., 213-625-8595.
2. Pop Killer
Silk-screened T-shirts, vintage clothing, and belts and shoes that would be right at home in Harajuku star at this tiny boutique. You’ll also find groovy sunglasses, purses, and trendy costume jewelry as well as a selection of paraphernalia for the smoker, from pig-shaped lighters to pot pipes. » 343 E. 2nd St., 213-625-1372.
At lunchtime businesspeople, artists from nearby lofts, and cops fill the tables at this casual Japanese eatery. The lure? Fresh, crisp salads, hearty combination plates such as grilled salmon and veggie tempura, and nearly 20 different hefty rice bowls, few of which top ten bucks. » 345 E. 2nd St., 213-680-0344.
4. Rafu Bussan
Of the many ceramic specialists in Little Tokyo, this one stands out: It’s meticulously organized and has something in every price range. Sake sets are handsomely packaged, and there’s a terrific selection of teapots, rice cookers, and chopsticks. » 326 E. 2nd St., 213-614-1181.
If you want to add a Japanese touch to your home or garden, this fairly new store (with a second location around the corner that sells smaller items) is a mandatory stop. Paper lanterns, lacquer boxes, and bamboo fountains share space with big- ticket items such as an entire traditional sunken dining room, complete with tatami mats. » 350 E. 1st St., 213-995-4115.
6. Store at the Japanese American National Museum
In one of our favorite museum shops anywhere, you’ll find sushi shower curtains, sumo wrestler windup toys, striking ceramic gifts, seed packets for daikon sprouts, books on Japanese pop culture, and those little cellophane fish that curl in your palm to reveal whether it’s love or lust. » 369 E. 1st St., 213-625-0414.
Photograph by Mindee Choi
7. Mitsuwa Market
Nearby Marukai is newer and spiffier, but we love the bento boxes of broiled salmon, soba, and croquettes at this grocery store. As for sushi, you can’t beat $4.25 for eight pieces of spicy tuna. » 333 S. Alameda St., 213-687-6699.
Revelers at this expansive karaoke bar and restaurant can choose from more than 8,000 songs. Better yet, the beer’s cheap enough to blot out any performance anxiety. » Japanese Village Plaza Mall, 213-628-2678.
It’s been around for 16 years, but this hard-to-find treasure remains one of the coolest grownup restaurants in town. Housed in a loft building, it features soaring ceilings, weathered brick walls, cardboard chairs, and, oh yes, vast platters of pristine sushi. Looking for a newer spot? Check out Izayoi’s remarkable small plates and sake menu, or e3rd (as in East 3rd), the recently opened Asian steak house and lounge. » 923 E. 2nd St., 213-687- 7178.