A Guide To The Best Restaurants In The Newly-Christened Sawtelle Japantown
Just last week the Los Angeles City Council voted unanimously to name that stretch of Sawtelle Boulevard between Santa Monica Boulevard and Olympic Boulevard as "Sawtelle Japantown," formally recognizing a place that most people already knew was an oasis Asian of food in that part of L.A. Historically a Japanese community, Sawtelle Japantown sometimes went by "Little Osaka," but it didn't have those spiffy blue neighborhood signs that you see in other parts of the city.
Beginning in the 1890s, racist laws forced Japanese-American immigrants into what was, at the time, the city of Sawtelle. The city was annexed into the rest of Los Angeles in 1922, but race-based ordinances remained on the books until the 1950s, further concentrating the Japanese-American community into the area. "Our request for the sign is in recognition of the people that live there, the people that got educated there, the people that had jobs there, and who have had large families, and they've all moved out to various parts of this country and in this city," historian Randy Sakamoto told Rafu Shimpo.
Today, the Sawtelle strip retains a lot of its Japanese heritage and flavor, but many other cultural cuisines have found their way into the neighborhood, including Korean, Vietnamese, Chinese, and even a few pizza places. Here's a guide to the best of those places.
TSUJITA L.A. / TSUJITA ANNEX
A latecomer to Los Angeles' already-robust ramen scene, Tsujita quickly became the closest we could get to a consensus pick as the best of the ramen options available throughout the county (including a few on the same street). You can get the standard tonkotsu ramen that's the staple at nearly every ramen shop (and yes, it is excellent here as well), but the real reason why you're waiting in line is for that hearty tsukemen: the dip ramen served with the noodles on the side. This is beyond a mere deconstruction of tonkotsu. The noodles are girthier and chewier, and the dipping broth is so thick you swear you can stand your chopsticks in it. If the lines at the original Tsuijita restaurant are too daunting, you try your luck with a crowd that probably won't be that much smaller at its Annex across the street. Supposedly the Annex's tsukemen is slightly different, but they're both so equally delicious we can't tell and, frankly, don't care.
Plan Check Burger (Photo via Instagram)
It's been a while since anyone has really made a hubbub about the burger "innovations" that Los Angeles couldn't shut up about years ago, but really it's because Ernesto Uchimura's Plan Check put all of that to rest. His standard burger called a "PCB" stands up there with, and some would argue above, the best in Los Angeles. Don't let the dashi-enhanced cheese or the Soylent Green-sounding ketchup "leather" scare you away—this is through and through a badass, savory bomb of umami that'll grow a few hairs on your chest. Pair it with a draft on tap and their fries made with rendered beef fat. Oh, and you know what might be even more amazing about this place? Secretly, their Southern Fry chicken sandwich might be even better than the burger. Shhh.
Plan Check Kitchen + Bar is located at 1800 Sawtelle Boulevard. (310) 444-1411. There are additional locations located on Fairfax and in Westlake.
A selection of the offerings at Seoul Sausage Company (Photo via Facebook)
SEOUL SAUSAGE COMPANY
While we've seen a good deal of fusion food make it's way through Los Angeles, Seoul Sausage Company's Korean-fusion dishes give us something to write home about. Prior to opening a brick-and-mortar, they had some humble beginnings: the owners started off with a food truck, and would later become the champions of season 3 of Food Network's The Great Food Truck Race. Everything on their menu screams comfort food, including their creative take on sausage rolls—housemade galbi sausage topped with kimchi relish and their spicy Korean BBQ pork sausage complemented by an apple cabbage cole slaw. Sometimes, you just want Korean BBQ in a handheld bun, you know? And while you're there, don't forget about their Flaming Ball, a cheesy kimchi fried rice with spicy pork, and Galbi Poutine. Everything is packed with flavor, and while it's definitely not diet food, it'll keep you sated and happy. —Jean Trinh
Seoul Sausage Company is located at 11313 Mississippi Avenue. (310) 477-7739
ROC Kitchen's beef noodle soup, with oxtail and brisket. (Photo via Facebook)
We know, Westsiders. The San Gabriel Valley is such a trek. At least Sawtelle Japantown has ROC Kitchen, which offers a primarily Taiwanese menu complete with beef rolls, beef noodle soup, three cup chicken, and, yes, xiao long bao. It's obviously not Din Tai Fung, but their soup dumplings are good enough that you might just go here and save yourself that drive out to Arcadia (or at least Glendale). Chef and owner Perry Cheung is a veteran of San Francisco's acclaimed Slanted Door, and brings a taste of their menu to L.A. with ROC's own glass noodles with Dungeness crab.
ROC Kitchen is located at 2049 Sawtelle Boulevard. Phone number (310) 235-2089
Blockheads Shavery (Photo via Facebook)
Blockheads Shavery takes shaved ice to the next level. Instead of just regular Hawaiian shaved ice, their "snow cream" version, which is popular in Taiwan, is ice cream shaved down into ribbons of creamy goodness. It's equal parts rich, light and fluffy. In the same vein as Pinkberry, you can customize your order with different snow cream flavors and choose from a long list of toppings—from fresh mangoes to honey boba and mochi—and sweet drizzle sauces—from strawberry puree to chocolate. And yes, you could really go overboard with the toppings like we have on many occasions. —Jean Trinh
Blockheads Shavery is located at 11311 Mississippi Avenue. (310) 445-8725
FuRaiBo is an izakaya, a type of Japanese restaurant specializing in small plates of bar food to go along with your sake or beer. This means you can load up on literally dozens of dishes if you bring enough people for a meal. Hopefully, someone will be brave enough to share the chicken yakitori skewer set that wastes no part of the chicken. The liver and hearts might be a little daunting, but you'll be surprised to learn that the gizzard is quite tasty even if a little tough. The wings are still pretty good if you're not the adventurous type. Don't forget to get the hanpen cheese, deep fried fish cakes filled with molten American cheese like it's some sort of stealth weapon designed to burn the roof of your mouth; or the chawanmushi, a savory, egg custard with a soft flavor and texture.
FuRaiBo (website in Japanese) is located at 2068 Sawtelle Boulevard. (310) 444-1432.
Gottsui's spicy Kobe beef okonomiyaki (photo via Facebook)
The okonomiyaki is a thing of wonder. A savory pancake whose name translates, roughly, to "what you want, fried" which already sounds pretty amazing. At Gottsui, you can truly get whatever ingredients you want to pile onto your okonomiyaki, but if you've never had okonomiyaki before, their menu offers many pre-set combinations that'll serve as a good initiation. Gottsui also offers both the Osaka and the Hiroshima styles, with the latter including noodles and beansprouts in the batter mix. It's hard to go wrong with either style—it's all a matter of preference—just make sure you ask them to go generous when drizzling that tangy Kewpie mayo on top. The only downside to Gottsui: you can't make the okonomiyaki yourself at the table, as is customary at many places.
Gottsui is located at 2119 Sawtelle Boulevard. Phone number (310) 478-0521
Truly marvelous sushi is not cheap, but at Kiriko you're guaranteed to never leave disappointed at least. Chef Ken Namba's humble, unassuming sushi bar, tucked next to a shaved ice bar, has stood there for fifteen years and is annually named one of the top five places to get sushi in a city that has no shortage of excellent sushi chefs. Foodies keep coming back for that house-smoked salmon wrapped in mango and topped with caviar, which sounds so wonderful just typing that out. If you want to treat yourself one day, don't be afraid to spend up to $120 one night for Kiriko's omakase, leaving your hands entirely in the hands of the chef. Or as their menu puts it: "Let the chef create the best menu of the day." You won't regret it.
Kiriko is located at 11301 Olympic Boulevard #102 (the storefront is on Sawtelle Boulevard). (310) 478-7769
One of Coffee Tomo's enormous cheese pretzels paired with a hand-poured coffee (Photo via Coffee Tomo)
After you enjoy a meal at any of the above places, we highly encourage you to drop by Coffee Tomo. Their single-origin, hand-poured coffees are very good, yes, and there's a different crop for each particular connoisseur (I'm more partial to Ethiopian coffees, myself), but you'll find yourself craving some dessert even after you already ate yourself silly at Tsujita just around the corner. "Tomo" means "friend" in Japanese, but their pastries show no mercy. Simply labeled all under a column labeled "Pretzel" on a rather plain, no-frills menu board, the lineup is a Murderers' Row of gigantic pretzels, caramel brick toast topped with whipped cream, and fried cheese bread. Get the sweet potato cheese pretzel, the best combination of sweet potato, mozzarella cheese, and baked dough west of Koreatown's Mr. Pizza.
Coffee Tomo is located at 11309 Mississippi Avenue. (310) 444-9390