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L.A.'s Changing Sawtelle Japantown

Sawtelle Japantown is the official new designation of the neighborhood that's long been known as Sawtelle, or Little Osaka, or not-Little-Tokyo. Its present reputation is as one of the best restaurant streets in L.A.; the neighborhood came into existence largely because of covenant restrictions in other cities and neighborhoods.

Sawtelle became a city in 1899 and was annexed into L.A. in 1922. Japanese immigrants began settling there in the early 1900s, when it was still an agricultural area, with barley and celery being the biggest crops. There were flower fields, too: plant nurseries are now the only sign of the neighborhood's agricultural past, and Hashimoto Nursery is the only pre-WWII nursery still there.

This westside neighborhood became largely Japanese because of restrictive covenants in nearby neighborhoods like Westwood, Bel-Air, and Brentwood that prevented Japanese-Americans from living in much of the area. Now, of course, Sawtelle is one of the more interesting westside neighborhoods. Such is the way these things go. Sawtelle Japantown's official boundaries are Santa Monica Boulevard to the north, Pico Boulevard to the south, Centinela Avenue to the west and the 405 freeway to the east. it's the city council that decides on these designations; the West L.A. Neighborhood Council follow suit and rename themselves West L.A./Sawtelle Neighborhood Council.

As it happens, restaurants in Sawtelle Japantown are now becoming more international. but here are some of the best old- and new-school Japanese options:

Tsujita LA Artisan Noodle/Tsujita Annex: These sister restaurants (cash-only and very popular) specialize in noodles. The former serves ramen, while the latter focuses on tsukemen, which has wider noodles that one dips into the broth, at one's leisure.

Furaibo: An izakaya serving all the classic beer-drinking accompaniments, like onigiri (rice balls) and karaage (fried stuff, usually chicken).

Kiriko: This is a nice, but not too nice sushi restaurant. You won't necessarily have to take out a second mortgage to eat here ... but you could. It's a good place to go when your dining partner likes a different style of sushi than you: there is plenty of traditional sashimi and nigiri, but also preparations involving mango, grapefruit, foie gras, and the like.

Hide: This option is cheaper, and better for traditionalists, though it does offer non-sushi choices. The tempura is especially popular. Cash-only!

Tempura House: This cash-only (it's a Sawtelle theme) steam table lunch joint is the definition of homey -- though you'll have to take your order to go. The menu rotates daily, and features items like chow mein, tempura, fried rice, vegetables, and one or two protein options. It won't blow your mind culinarily, but it is an institution.

#losangeles A photo posted by Katherine Spiers (@katherine_spiers) on Aug 23, 2014 at 6:37pm PDT

Hear Katherine Spiers talk about Sawtelle Japantown's history and food culture on this KCRW Press Play segment.

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