In a city where cars are king, Little Tokyo is a miniature oasis where walking is actually rewarded. Roughly three-square miles in size, it's bordered, more or less, by Temple Street to the north, Third or Fourth Street to the south, Los Angeles Street to the west, and Alameda Street to the east.
While only about 1,000 Japanese people live within the borders of the neighborhood, it is still thriving, thanks in part to its quirky collection of historic and modern shops and restaurants.
Now, there are many ways to approach a food crawl, but we've compiled a sensible itinerary that won't break the bank but will give you a holistic look at this miniature cultural mecca (For a historical look, check out Departures: Little Tokyo). Go with a couple of friends, order to share, and follow the directions below. As the Japanese would say before each meal, itadakimasu!
1. Tsurumaru Udon Honpo
Start your crawl off with a cold bowl of udon -- rolled and cut in front of you. Tsurumaru is located on the third floor of the Little Tokyo Shopping Center. The "ume bukkake" (yes, that's really the dish's name) udon is only $5 and is served with a cold broth topped grated radish, plum, and ginger. Freshly chopped raw scallions add a sharp, fresh taste and the bonito flakes, added on last, dance on top of the noodles.
2. Sushi Go 55
Move on over to Sushi Go 55, just across the mall, for fresh fish. The sashimi platter is $13.75 for lunch. It's a sensible assortment of raw fish that will leave you feeling just right, but if you're feeling the desire for more, go for the two-layered chirashi (more fish and a thick bed of rice topped with orange shrimp roe) priced at a reasonable $17.
3. Frances Bakery
Yes, that's a "cronut," but here it's called a Frances donut. You might want to plan ahead for this one and call in before you go. When we arrived here on a Wednesday at 2 p.m., there was only one left. Frances has them in three flavors: original, blueberry, and chocolate (stuffed with custard). It's rather pricey at $3.85 each, but the customers in front of us who had the foresight to pre-order were walking out with them in the dozens.
4. Hakata Ramen Shin-Sen-Gumi
Skip the freakishly long queue at Daikokuya and head on over a couple streets down to Shin-Sen-Gumi, where the queue is just regular-long. You won't feel uncomfortably cramped, and the ramen is a little different, but just as good (that's a statement that could start a fight). You can customize your noodle bowl, but Hakata ramen is generally heavy on the pork, with thin slices of Berkshire pig sitting over a tonkotsu (pork bone) broth that's cooked for 15 hours before it even touches a bowl. Oh, and the chandelier made out of pasta colanders is a nifty touch.
5. The Sandwich Smith / Fickle
This restaurant is The Sandwich Smith by day, and becomes Fickle at night. It's the perfect destination for a food crawl because you can either a) take a digestive break and treat yourself to some Intelligentsia coffee or b) keep on eating. If you happen to make it here for dinner, we suggest picking from their sweet assortment of animal parts. Suggestions: bone marrow ($15), veal sweet bread ($12), or the molasses pork belly ($18). Oh and there's oyster happy hour from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. They're $1.75 a pop but resist the urge to overindulge -- there are more stops on this food crawl.
6. Mitsuru Cafe
Meet the imagawayaki ($1.50). The disc tastes like a waffle -- but it's spongier, not at all crisp and a perfect vessel to the sweet red bean paste enclosed inside. Mitsuru also boasts a selection of savory street-food snacks like takoyaki (octopus balls) and skewers of assorted variety.
Mikawaya's mochi ice cream has been around since 1994, and at $1.25 a pop, it's still an affordable treat. It's also called "mochi-lato" and has a soft, velvety exterior of mochi wrapped around a dollop of ice cream. There are ten flavors, and while purists will be pleased to see "traditional" flavors like green tea, the majority of the flavors are a bit more eclectic and Americanized. Think cookies and cream, toasted almond, hazelnut, and my personal favorites -- plum wine and creme brulee.
8. Cafe Dulce
Try the bacon donut over at Cafe Dulce to get a little more salt with your sugar. They're $2.50 a pop and a dollar if you just want the donut hole. The bacon bits are marvelous -- layered on top of a sweet, icing-crusted donut. It's sweet, savory and salty all rolled up in one glorious bite.
9. Chado Tea Room
"Detox" with a tea session and some snacks (though the perfectly cut sandwiches and scones make for a pretty filling meal by themselves). However much you eat, Chado Tea Room is the perfect place to relax. Attached to the Japanese American National Museum, they have over 300 different types of specialty teas, a back garden to lounge around in, and attentive service.
Unless you have a stomach of steel, we recommend this stop as take-out only. Fugetsu-Do is a mochi confectionary that has been in Little Tokyo since 1903. While the flavors are all in Japanese, the staff is always more than willing to explain each individual mochi, its texture, and filling. You can get them in boxes -- neatly packaged and wrapped up to enjoy throughout the week.
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