Food tours provide opportunities to understand our city’s rich ethnic heritage by enjoying distinctive cuisines.
The heart, or perhaps the belly, of Los Angeles is best experienced through the kitchens of the city’s many diverse neighborhoods. Navigating these ethnic areas can be daunting to the uninitiated, but help has arrived in the form of food tours that guide participants through ethnic cuisine adventures.
Several companies offer taste-sampler tours that include not only intriguing tastes, but also a huge helping of history on the side. Six Taste, barely a year old, is already selling-out their excursions, including their Little Tokyo tour, offered every Saturday and Sunday, morning and afternoon.
My tour began in front of the Japanese American National Museum and started with an introduction of the group and our guides, who thankfully, weren’t holding a tour flag or megaphone. Brian Takahashi went to elementary school in Little Tokyo, and his co-captain, Betsy Matz, has lived in the area for almost a decade. Together they provide a relaxed but informed pal’s point of view of their Japanese flavored stomping grounds.
The tours typically max out at 12 people. My group included a mix of friends, couples and a teenage girl’s birthday party, complete with costumes and wigs, which left me feeling a little under dressed but inspired with an idea for next Halloween.
Brian and Betsy wasted no time serving up the first taste on the museum steps. Yamazaki Bakery kicked-off the tour with a slightly sweetened, doughy melon pan, and a moister, green-tea-mocha mochi bar. Both left me wanting a more robust taste, but many Japanese baked goods are less sweet than most Westerners like. With the reminder to pace our food intake, we headed off to enjoy the next taste treat.
The streets of Little Tokyo were pristine and lined with authentic Japanese cherry trees on the verge of bloom. Betsy explained that many new restaurants and shops had moved in with the downtown loft boom, so I wasn’t surprised when our next stop was a non-Japanese restaurant called Spitz, a newcomer to Little Tokyo. Spitz was included on the tour to show the diversity of the area. The restaurant draws from the community however, with local artists contributing the unique sculptures and paintings found on the walls.
The savory tasting began with lightly fried pita strips — delightful on their own, and even better dipped into chunky humus or creamy, red pepper aioli. Baskets of well-seasoned regular and sweet potato fries rounded out the salty snack, which culminated in a sampler platter of Döner Kebab lavash wraps. I think falafel is best used as a paperweight, but I’m now a believer after eating Spitz’s moist and extremely flavorful Falafalite. A trio of white, rosé and red sangria was poured to wash it all down, providing a spirited fruit finish.
Brian and Betsy had to urge the satisfied group away from Spitz and onto our next destination, while peppering us with food trivia, such as, “What’s the lifespan of a taste bud?”
Learning while we digested, we were led to the Japanese American Culture and Community Center, where the real star was tucked away on the lower level. Seiryu-yen is a picture-perfect Japanese garden complete with lush green trees, beautiful rock formations and a flowing stream down the middle. It might be one of the best-kept secrets in L.A.
After the cultural diversion, it was time for another tasting. Fugetsu-Do has been in Little Tokyo for more than 100 years and is the oldest establishment in the area. Original shelving still hangs in the small, narrow store that specializes in confections like mochi, handed to us as we perused the exotic, pastel-colored goods. The popular dessert, made from glutinous rice that is pounded until it becomes sticky, is shaped into a marshmallow-like ball. The rainbow mochi was soft and slightly sweet, but non-descript. Whereas the strawberry peanut butter mochi, the new best seller, was snatched up by many for the ride home.
Betsy gave us the inside scoop on the other stores and restaurants we should visit (without ten people in tow) and guided us on to Wakasaya. The restaurant is a chain in Japan and the owner wanted create a similar experience in Little Tokyo, complete with bold, brightly colored food pictures posted around the restaurant. The first course was a satisfying bowl of warm rice served under chopped tuna sashimi, seaweed and cooked egg. Next: ramen with thick, chewy soba noodles, seaweed and rice puffs floating in a nicely balanced broth.
After a stroll around Japanese Village Plaza, Brian appeared out of thin air, like an epicurean angel with a tray of the traditional Japanese dessert imagawayaki from Mitsuru Cafe. The freshly made dessert consists of a spongy pancake exterior with warm, azuki bean paste inside. It was another departure from an anticipated sweet bite, but was quickly forgotten when we were directed to our next destination: Mikawaya. The third and perhaps most familiar mochi iteration of the tour was tasted here. This mochi is wrapped around ice cream and is a Trader Joe’s staple. What a treat to taste the original 100-year-old family recipe at their store. A sweet, doughy exterior gives way to an ice cream center – and a white powdered smile when complete.
The final stop was at Chop Suey, formally known as the Far East Café. Locals revere the establishment because it provided food as well as shelter during the internment at the start of World War II. The interior maintains several fixtures from its former life such as old hooks drilled into original wood beams.
Far Bar, an intimate outdoor patio behind Chop Suey, is a nice secluded hideaway lined with exposed brick, and was the ideal setting for the last taste: two pieces of Ming’s Wings, a chef specialty with a spicy, fried exterior, and juicy chicken inside, and the Little Tokyo requisite spicy tuna and California sushi rolls, eaten while Brian taught us how to make a chopstick stand out of the wrapper.
The tour doesn’t sample every hot spot in Little Tokyo, but leaves you with a good overview of the neighborhood so you can successfully navigate on a return visit. It’s also not for the foodie purist looking to try a new, forbidden fish — but rather for those looking to understand a different culture’s heart and soul, through its kitchen door.