Everyone has been to Little Tokyo, and the South Bay is known as a hot bed for Japanese food in Los Angeles. But what most folks don't realize is that there's a strong Japanese food scene in the San Gabriel Valley and it's growing in quantity and quality with time.
There are two factors that go into this: a growing Chinese population in the San Gabriel Valley and a declining Japanese population in the South Bay. Ever since automakers Honda, Nissan, and Toyota left all, or some, of their South Bay offices and headquarters, the Japanese community has been slowly dispersing.
The other week I met Yae Dobashi, the founder of J-Goods magazine, a bi-monthly publication focused on Japanese cuisine in Los Angeles. The interesting part? It's completely written in Chinese. According to Dobashi, the San Gabriel Valley is where the market is going and where the demand is at the moment. Japanese restaurateurs are looking to cater to a growing Chinese population that adores seafood and will pay a premium for it.
Here's a guide to the scene:
Yoshoku: Midoh Kitchen
Yoshoku is a word for a particular cooking style that describes the Japanese take on Western food. It's a style that originated from the Meiji Restoration and has since become an integral part of the local food culture. Think deep-fried breaded pork and curry and hamburger steak doused with a lovely and creamy layer of cheese. These are all things Midoh Kitchen does. They specialize in tonkatsu -- breaded pork cutlets served with a lovely assortment of sides. I also love the hamburger steak, which is a hamburger patty sans the bread, smothered with a sauce of choice. Don't forget dessert; all their sweets are made in-house. 1380 S Fullerton Rd, Ste 106., Rowland Heights, CA 91748; (626) 810-0590.
Bento: Sushi Aru
If you order the combination plate at Aru, you'll be served with a massive grid of nine compartments in a large box. In each is a bowl of food -- each completely different from the other. There's miso-glazed salmon, California rolls, slices of sashimi, marinated soft tofu, and crisp vegetable tempura. How it works: you pick two proteins and a frenzy of sides will come included. After all, the concept of a bento is all about balance and that's what Aru does best. 18359 Colima Rd, Rowland Heights, CA 91748, (626) 964-8686.
Sweet Shrimp: Sushi Koshu
Koshu is a generalist located in Diamond Bar. They have bento boxes, sashimi specials, udon, teriyaki, and hot pot. I love the gorgeous sushi boats which come with up to 24 items per order. But what sets this place apart from the dozens of other sushi establishments in town is the sweet jumbo shrimp sashimi. The shrimp is sliced and served raw, except the head, which is cooked in an earthy miso soup. 20627 Golden Springs Dr, Diamond Bar, CA 91789; (909) 869-7881.
Build-Your-Own: MYO Sushi
MYO stands for "make your own" and those three words sum up the restaurant concept perfectly. This place is essentially the Chipotle of sushi bowls. How it works: you select one protein, three other ingredients, and a sauce. If you're overwhelmed, just go with their pre-set selections. I recommend the sashimi bowl with cucumber, shredded cabbage, avocado, and poke dressing. It comes on a platter with sweet potato tempura, a small handful of salad with seaweed, and a miso soup. 3648 Nogales St, West Covina, CA 91792; (626) 810-5788.
Shabu Shabu: Mokkoji
Shabu shabu is Japanese-style hot pot and can be traced back to 20th century Japan. The name is an onomatopoeia for the sound ingredients make when they're swished around in a boiling pot. The difference between Japanese hot pot and Chinese hot pot? Japanese shabu shabu prioritizes meat quality. And that's what Mokkoji is all about. It's served as individual hot pots with a set vegetable platter and whatever protein you choose. I recommend the wagyu end rib, a buttery cut sourced from a farm in Oregon where cows receive a specific 18-month feeding regimen from a Japanese dietitian. 815 W Naomi Ave., Ste F, Arcadia, CA 91007; (626) 254-0018.
Izakaya: Hinotori Kitchen
Hinotori, which means "phoenix" in Japanese, is a tiny izakaya restaurant in Arcadia, tucked in a very small strip mall but with a very big menu of yakitori skewers. There's a lot of grilled chicken on sticks here, but if you have a hankering for something a little bit more unique, they do a wonderful cheese yakitori, made with brie on a grilled baguette drizzled with honey. Izakaya restaurants can get overwhelming because multiple dishes are required to make a full meal. Hinotori minimizes that stress and has a set-menu option with about ten items on the list. 713 W Duarte Rd., Ste H, Arcadia, CA 91007; (626) 348-8425.
Chirashi: Akasaka Restaurant
The lines out of Akasaka Resturant are monstrous, and it's all for their crazy chirashi bowl -- a massive $35 heap of raw fish over rice. Yes the price tag is intense, but the portion sizes are large enough to share comfortably with two people. If you want to beat the lines, the best tip is to arrive ten to twenty minutes before the restaurant opens and know exactly what you want before you sit down. It's a battle getting in here, but the food is well worth the trouble. 14926 Clark Avenue, Hacienda Heights, CA 91745; (626) 336-0871.
Omakase: Restaurant Hayakawa
Hayakawa was opened up by one of the former chefs at Nobu and has been a San Gabriel Valley fixture for more than two decades. Wearing the toque is chef Kazuhiko Hayakawa, who trained at a renowned Tokyo restaurant that served the Emperor of Japan's imperial court, and was also classically trained in French cuisine. Traditionally Japanese and French ingredients and technique show up in the food: the monkfish is drizzled in butter, there's lobster with butter, and they have crepes for dessert. Omakase is priced at $75: six courses, prepared by Hayakawa himself. 750 Terrado Plz #33, Covina, CA 91723; (626) 332-8288.
Take-Out Only: Yama Seafood
Yama Seafood is a take-out-only grocery store that offers fresh cuts of sashimi by the pound. You can pick up pre-made rolls or bento boxes in their refrigerated section, but the main attraction is at the counter. Pick your fish and Mr. Yama will slice it up for you in minutes and hand it over, beautifully arranged. The main takeaway here? Things are dirt cheap. A tray of salmon sashimi will probably cost less than $15. Just come early. 911 W Las Tunas Dr, San Gabriel, CA 91775; (626) 281-8045.
Ramen: Yukino Ya
There's definitely not a shortage of ramen in the San Gabriel Valley. Ramen powerhouses Shin Sen Gumi and Daikokuya both have locations in these parts. But for something a little bit different, give Yukino Ya a whirl. The ramen joint is a local favorite -- the daily hour-long lines out the doors are testament to that. Customers have the option of customizing their soup base (shoyu, shio, miso, tonkotsu) and from there, additional toppings can be added and spice levels can be adjusted. I also dig the hot tan tan men, which is the Japanese answer to Chinese dandan noodles. The noodles are served in a heavy and creamy soup base with egg, minced beef, and bean sprouts. 8230 E Gale Ave, City of Industry, CA 91748; (626) 581-8420.
Toro: OOtoro Sushi
OOtoro is most definitely on the pricier side of things. Owned by a Taiwanese restaurateur, it's omakase-focused and caters to a more luxury-oriented crowd. After all, their specialty item is the toro -- the fattiest and most expensive part of tuna. They have toro in hand rolls, in salads, and of course, by itself, served raw and with minimalist seasonings. They have over five different types of the cut. Try the snowy toro; you won't even have to chew. 1569 Fairway Dr, Walnut, CA 91789, (909) 598-8299.